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@Work: The Frenchtown Drug Center


Sept. 9, 2005 –– If you are wandering around Frenchtown and you are in the market for a quart of motor oil for your car or some rosemary oil for your nerves, or box of Band-Aids, or a Braun coffee grinder on sale for $10.50, or a Sealey Posturepedic mattress or a bag of peanuts, walk no farther.
The Frenchtown Drug Center Inc, OTC and Winnie's Household Furnishing and Appliances on Altona have the bases covered.
Mom and pop businesses have almost become a thing of the fondly remembered past, But, not so here. Between them, John David who runs the drugstore, and his wife, Winnie, of the household store, must have a combined history of about 80 years of local merchandising. It didn't start as a mom and pop operation, but since Winnie opened her shop in 1995, that's how it's turned out.
How long has John David been in the drugstore business? "I really couldn't say," he says, reaching for a piece of paper, where he starts scrawl some numbers. He pauses, reminiscing, "Let's see, I started at the drugstore in the late fifties…."
David arrived on St. Thomas from Nevis as a young cricket player in 1958. "I stayed with a friend who worked for Zeathea Armstrong in the VI Apothecary branch on top of the old Bar Normandie. I would help him in the store, and one day Zeathea asked how would I like to come to work for her."
It must have been a good idea, as 47 years later David is just down the road from where he started, with his own business, his own following, his own wife right next door, and no end of his own customers who come by sometimes just to pass the time of day.
And how about the cricket? David brushes that off. "I wasn't a star player, just small time. I played opening bat." Is that like a lead-off batter in baseball? "Yes, that's about right."
David has warm brown eyes and a startlingly white goatee which lights up his face. He can be seen most any day leaning on his front railing, chatting with neighbors, or hurrying inside to fetch something for a customer. Almost anything. He carries it all –– a can of Chef Boyardee ravioli or a box of Alka Seltzer.
David has a gentle manner –– he is easy to talk to, and he listens to his customers. That, in turn, accounts for his eclectic inventory. "Anything anybody asks for, I try to get," he says.
He worked for Armstrong for years. Armstrong had three branches on St. Thomas –– Frenchtown, Main Street and Goat Street –– and one on St. John. "I lived on St. John and worked there for years," he says. Then his younger brother, now Sen. Roosevelt David, moved to St. John and eventually took over the drugstore, before his banking and senatorial career.
How about politics? Does it run in the family? "Oh no," David says with a laugh. "Not at all. My brother has a knack for that."
David started his own drugstore in 1987, with Armstrong's help. "I didn't have any money to speak of, and she helped me to get credit. We got merchandise from four different merchants. Zeathea asked them if they would extend credit, and they said, 'Sure, they knew me."
David has one employee, Flora Brooks, almost as well-known in the neighborhood as David, and for the same reasons, her ready smile and welcoming manner. "How long has Brooksie worked for me? "Oh, I don't know. Quite a while," he says, "years."
As David talks his respect for Armstrong is evident in his conversation. Armstrong is well-known in the community. She was one of the first pharmacists on the island."She taught me all about the drug business."
The shelves in back of the cash register are filled with small bottles with typewritten labels, like an old-fashioned apothecary. "They are essential oils," David says, reaching for a bottle of nutmeg oil. "This is good for stroke and pain," he says. Then he runs through the back doorway that connects with Winnie's shop, and comes back with a book on essential oils, and with Winnie.
The two complement each other. They seem to blend together naturally. "When I need to go out for a while, Winnie takes over if Brooksie isn't here."
"And he does the same," Winnie says. She runs the store on her own, but takes off when she feels like it. "I love to go on shopping sprees," she says. "I go to the states, Miami, or to Puerto Rico. I'm going there this weekend. John doesn't mind, he doesn't like to travel that much."
Winnie David moved to St. Thomas from St. Kitts in 1964. "We met in 1966," she says, "and we were always friends." The two got married 14 years ago, after a previous marriage for each. Winnie has a lot of merchandising experience under her belt.
"I have worked in the furnishing and appliance business for years," Winnie says. "I started at Island Furniture House for Sue Murphy, then Inter-Decor, and then had nine years working for Continental in their customs department."
She says her customers are usually people who have known her over the years. "The big stores are here now, but I have my old customers. They know me. And I have hotels who use me for restaurant equipment, like Secret Harbor." She points to a huge pressure cooker. "I carry these especially for the food trucks."
The tiny shop uses every available surface. There is a stack of mattresses against one wall, a display of irons, mixers and coffee makers on another shelf. Interspersed with the modern appliances, is an old-fashioned Coleman lamp and a kerosene stove – good in hurricane seasons.
John David waits on customers while reflecting on the past 47 years. He finishes up with a young girl who purchases four ice creams cups and a can of Off mosquito spray.
There is a querulous fellow on the far side of the store. He is making David work for his money.
"It'll kill me to pay this," he says. He is buying some medical supplies. "Can you borrow me fifty cents?'' he asks. "I need some money. I need something for lunch."
David reaches into the register and counts out five singles. "Here," he says, "now, have lunch."
The fellow leaves with a "thank you."
David turns back from his customer. "You do it for God's sake," he says. "God is good all of the time."

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