Gate City Icons
Where Everyone Knows Your Name
For Generations, Irving Park’s beloved Brown-Gardener Drugs has anchored
a community and served up more than a great grilled cheese sandwich
Story & Photographs by Sam Froelich
I hear my name three times before I can find a stool at the question mark — shaped counter. It makes me feel like Norm from Cheers, minus the potbelly and hollow leg. Sara knows my order already but is polite enough to ask anyway. “Three eggs with cheese, bacon and a grilled biscuit?” That reminds me, I need to refill my cholesterol medicine. Luckily, my pharmacist is only 60 feet away.
Knowing the patrons by name, and often by what they’ll order, is more the rule than the exception at Brown-Gardiner, Irving Park’s almost 50-year-old neighborhood restaurant/drugstore that Bill Brown and Paul Gardiner started after moving down Elm Street from a smaller pharmacy across from Cone Hospital.
It’s the kind of place where 10 or 12 of Gavin Ray’s extended family happily crowd around a table for eight every single Saturday at noon. Where Wanda once served your toddler son grilled cheese and now her daughter Sam makes him an orange-ade when he’s home from college. Where there’s a poster board in the corner displaying a smattering of customer’s old Christmas cards under the headline “Where Are They Now?”
At the counter, you can often find Kay Chesnutt sitting beside her son Xan Tisdale and his two young children, Finn and Reece. Three generations on four stools is a wonderfully common sight here. It’s also a place where you can go in alone for lunch when you’re feeling down and leave with your spirits buoyed after impromptu conversations with Ellen Worth about the city swim meets, and with Howard Arbuckle about little-known Davidson baseball history.
Brown-Gardiner is woven into the fabric of Irving Park and each supports the other. Indeed, a crisp white paper bag sitting on your doorstep containing your prescriptions can make you smile much more than any 24-hour drive-thru ever could. When an Eckerd’s drugstore opened directly across the street a decade or so ago, many outside observers predicted Brown-Gardiner’s demise. However, the neighborhood responded and sales went up. Within six years it was the Eckerd’s that closed its doors.
The beauty and importance of a Brown-Gardiner, or say a Smith Street Diner, a Bernie’s BBQ, or any of the many cherished gathering places in neighborhoods across Greensboro comes from a mixture of time and place that isn’t evident with a quick glance. These are the places that for decades have endured the encroachment of cookie-cutter chain stores with their hollow, corporate-mandated “Welcome To . . .”s and their walls covered in “nostalgic” signs that are pre-distressed in a Chinese factory. The kind of places that value serving a sturdy, well-made meal over chasing every artisanal, free-range, gluten-free trend, and where conversation often precedes ordering and can sometimes be just as important as the food. By virtue of their permanence in one location for long periods of time, they foster the connections between friends and families, and through and across generations, which strengthen neighborhoods and ultimately lead to a better city.
Such places as Brown-Gardiner aren’t ones that rely on the amount of stars in a Yelp review or golden skillets in some newspaper column for their longevity. A word-of-mouth recommendation holds more sway here. Like that given 20 years ago to a young father new to Greensboro and in need of a Saturday breakfast spot to take his son and grant his exhausted wife just one morning of uninterrupted sleep.
Two decades and two more children later and I’ve always been welcomed back with a smile. Whether it’s by Nancy or Holt or Hilaire, who rings your order up at the same counter where she was once weighed on a vegetable scale as an infant. Nowhere else were countless lunches only eaten completely due to promises of trips to the candy aisle. Whether those lunches were prepared then by Imogene “Nanny” Sells and now by her granddaughter Kendra. And, of course, where else would I, Andy and Mary, and so many others have gotten a small glacier’s worth of the “good” ice over the years?
While the ice may be resplendent, it is the people, past and present; in the kitchen or at the counter; serving food or dispensing prescriptions; that are truly special and they make Brown-Gardiner one of Greensboro’s neighborhood icons. OH
Sam Froelich is from High Point, lives in Greensboro, and occasionally drinks in Winston. He should have bought his own ice machine years ago.