Richard Miller was 12 years old when he started working at Miller’s Rexall in downtown Atlanta.
His uncle opened the store in 1965 on a stretch of Broad Street that was once home to two dozen thriving small businesses. After going off to college, Miller returned and partnered with his uncle. They worked side-by-side for 25 years, he said, and never once did they have an argument.
This year, Miller’s Rexall turns 50 and the shop is celebrating with a month-long BOGO free sale (excluding dollar items, books, sprays, sale priced items or Watkins products.) Visit Miller’s Rexall at 87 Broad Street SW, Atlanta during regular store hours M, T, Th and F from 9:30 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. and Sat. 9:30 a.m. – 2:00 p.m. They are closed on Wed. and Sun. In addition, on Sept. 25, Creative Loafing will hold its Best of Atlanta Block Party, on South Broad Street between MLK and Mitchell Streets. Miller’s Rexall will keep extended hours that day from 9:30 a.m. – 11 p.m.
A lot has changed in the past half-century, both on the street and in the drugstore business, but Miller’s Rexall has managed to hold on to a clientele that comes in looking for remedies that many have long forgotten.
“Most of our customers are third, fourth or fifth generation customers who remember coming in with their grandmothers,” Miller said. “We are a destination shop and people are amazed that they still make some of the items.”
When Miller’s Rexall opened, they were just a regular drugstore and there was a drugstore on every corner, Miller said. But because the Rexall name was so well-recognized, they drew customers from all parts of Georgia and many of them were looking for home remedies they used in healing from snake oil liniments to voodoo roots. If a customer came in with a request, Miller and his uncle would track it down for them.
Old remedies like Father John’s cough suppressant, 666 cough syrup, SSS tonic (an iron and B-vitamin tonic) are still in high demand among the 10,000 or so items available at Miller’s Rexall. They also carry items like Dr. Tichenor’s mouthwash and Tonsiline Throat Gargle, which Miller says is popular with the church choir crowd. Cod liver oil, another customer favorite, is less expensive than the new wave of Omega 3,6,9 oils, said Miller, but has the same benefits (as well as higher concentrations of Vitamin A and D according to health experts.) “There is nothing new under the sun,” Miller said.
Miller was just a young boy when he first witnessed the power of herbal remedies. When the butcher next door at F&F Grocery store cut his hand between his thumb and index finder down to the bone, he came running to see Miller’s uncle, a pharmacist.
“He asked if he should go to Grady,” Miller said. “At the time there was a root worker in the store and she was buying root herbs and said, ‘You don’t need to go to the doctor.'” The woman gathered a bunch of cobwebs and placed them over the cut then took the butcher’s dirty rag, wrapped it around his hand and told him to wait 12 hours. The young Miller told the butcher he should go get a tetanus shot, but the butcher returned the next day showing them that his hand was healing.
While many of the old products have stayed true to the original formulations, some have had to change their ingredients due to government regulations, Miller said. Products aren’t the only thing that have changed in the drugstore business.
Miller recalled the days when there were 10 bus stops outside the door of Miller’s Rexall. By the early 1980s, with the launch of Marta rail service, all those bus stops were gone, he said. Foot traffic in the store declined dramatically and sales dropped about 30 percent, Miller said.
In 1993, Miller’s son told him the store needed a website. Miller wasn’t sure what that meant, but he made a deal with his son that he could take half of the online sales if he built the website. The first year they did $10,000 worth of business on the website. Miller was surprised, but jokes that he still owes his son a few thousand dollars.
Though the online business helps sustain the company, Miller loves working at the retail store. He believes in personal service, he said, and can still be found at age 62 climbing up to the top of a ladder to retrieve an item for a customer.
He had thought about retiring in three years, but just a few weeks ago, the sudden death of a longtime employee left the immediate future unclear. For now, they are coping by closing two days a week on Wednesdays and Sundays.
Miller likes to think he will be there to see the revitalization of downtown, something he says is already happening. There are a few new art galleries and artists on the street, he said. He even rented another building he owns to a band of young artists. “The street is becoming active again with new life,” Miller said. “It is a great thing to see.”