Opening the Drugstore Window

Drugstores are turning their back on the communities that at one time were their greatest patrons.

Once the heart of Main Street and the core of the community, the pharmacy, with its soda fountain and lunch counter, used to anchor our neighborhoods–and, indeed, even much of our social lives.  The news that was heard, the friendships made, and the connections forged inside a People’s Drugstore were just as powerful as those that came together around the workplace, in school, on the sports field, or at the club.  At night, the windows glowed like a carnival midway.  The plate glass out front not only showcased the wonders inside, but invited us to come in to browse or chat.

Peoples Drug Store in Washington, DC circa 1920

Peoples Drug Store in Washington, DC circa 1920

It’s time to turn back the clock.  Time to bring back the welcoming face of the drugstore.

Contrary to the way in which most typical retail is designed, where merchants demand as much street frontage as possible, street level windows in drug store establishments have been largely blanked out.  In local neighborhoods and the business district, the conversation between those inside and outside has been lost. Cash registers frequently have their backs to the street.  Windows too often are blacked out or sealed off by a nationwide big box trend toward corporate-dictated merchandise layouts and a quest for as much high shelf space as possible.

Rite Aid in downtown Denver

Rite Aid in downtown Denver

It’s not just an issue with drugstores–although certainly they stand out as among the poorest examples of retail’s retreat behind the wall.  And not every drugstore has abandoned the welcoming streetfront.  From downtown Denver to State Street in Chicago, some chains are getting it right and bringing back the bright and airy storefront.  Closer to home, walk down to the Walgreens in Chinatown, where the theatrical atmosphere features a juice bar and barista-style coffee corner that are as much or more of an attraction as the cosmetics aisles. In places like this, it’s easy to gauge the success and popularity of retailers that haven’t turned their backs—literally—on the customer.

How can we transform the remaining fortresses back into community centerpieces?  We could ask government and civic leaders to impose new zoning or building code refinements on storefront construction and transparency.  Much better, however, for us to resort to one of the things architects do best–that is, work with our clients (and their clients) to help them find designs that connect to the street and neighborhood around it.  The design community should reach out to developers and users to remind them of the importance of pedestrian-friendly streetscapes.  We need to consistently promote that windows are superior to walls as an interface with the sidewalk.   And we need to extend these conversations to retailers and their patrons and the community at large.

Walgreens in the Chinatown neighborhood of Washington, DC

Walgreens in the Chinatown neighborhood of Washington, DC

Let’s reclaim the community go-to hot spot, whether with a juice bar or a soda fountain, or just a more welcoming place to pick up some groceries.  Most importantly, let’s reunite some of our most popular commercial establishments with their customers, so that once again they see the light—the one that’s burning behind the blacked-out windows.

Drugstores may have built themselves into a literal box; we can help them design their way out of it.

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