James Pharmacy Then and Now
Miss Anna Louise James, born in 1886 as the eighth child of eleven children, was a small woman with a soft soul and a no-nonsense attitude. She grew up with her ten siblings and her father, an escaped slave named Willis Samuel James, who was twice remarried due to the loss of his wives (both of whom were named Anna, coincidentally). His first wife had passed away in 1874, and the other, who was Anna Louise’s birth mother, passed away when Anna Louise was just eight years old in 1894. Her father remarried for the final time in 1900, to again a woman named Anna! Though most of Anna Louise’s siblings were away at college, some of them took a disliking to her due to the eerie similarities between her and their first mother. This lead to a rocky relationship between her siblings and Anna Louise, so in 1902, when Anna was sixteen years old, she ran away from her home in Hartford to live with one of her sisters in Old Saybrook. This sister, Bertha Lane, wife of Peter Lane, happened to belong to the family owning Lane’s Drug Store at the time. This is where Anna was inspired to become a pharmacist herself.
From there, Anna Louise attends and graduates from the Brooklyn College of Pharmacy in 1908, as the only African American and only female in her entire class. Prior to joining the Lane Pharmacy business in 1912, she first takes a job running a pharmacy in Hartford. During this brief period, she returns to living in her old home with her father in Hartford. Then in 1912, Anna Louise returns to Old Saybrook to work with Peter Lane at the Lane’s Pharmacy, and lived above and behind the building with the rest of the Lane family.
Peter Lane’s daughter, and Anna Louise’s niece, actually grew up to be the famous writer Ann Lane Petry. This was of course after spending all of her time as a teenager, since the age of fourteen, working in the shop under Anna Louise’s wing. She was even a licensed pharmacist at one point, before pursuing her dream of writing. Ann Lane Petry went on to publish six books, some of which have won her both local and international fame, including The Drug Store Cat, based on her memories of the pharmacy when she was growing up, and Country Place, a novel based on her experiences living in Old Saybrook. She is most well known for her best selling 1946 novel, The Street, a Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship book about life in Harlem that sold over one million copies, making her the first African American female author to achieve this distinction. All of Ann’s publications are on display in the memorabilia area of the pharmacy.
In 1922, Anna Louise James, took over Peter Lane’s Drug Store and changed the name to “James Pharmacy” and soon become known as “Miss James” to all of the younger children who came to the soda fountain portion of the shop, which Peter Lane added into the pharmacy in 1896. In 1922, Miss James added a two-story wing and the pharmaceutical motif on the front of the building. In 1925 she installed the display cases and glass-door cabinets, manufactured by the L.F. Dettenborn Woodworking Company of Hartford. In the early 1930s, architect Francis Nelson re-designed the building, adding the ice cream parlor with the arcaded front extension. The soda fountain still holds the charm and wonder of Peter Lane and Miss James, boasting the original Vermont marble counter, soda fountain, original cabinetry, tables and chairs with heart shaped backs.
From 1922 until 1967, when Miss James retired, the pharmacy and the local legend that was Miss James boomed throughout Old Saybrook. Even through the Great Depression, her pharmacy stood strong and she was always able to pay for the land and business she owned. The pharmacy became a great success under her name, and became the town hot spot for a relaxing Sunday ice cream or for the local town gossip. The pharmacy even caught the attention of the famous Katharine Hepburn, who was regularly seen entering the pharmacy for her favorite Mocha Chip ice cream or in the earlier days, to use the old oak phone booth there. Miss James once paid for Katharine Hepburn’s train ride to New York city for an ? (fill in name of play) audition that landed her an important part and helped launch her acting career. Miss James continued to live in the building until she died in 1977, just shy of her ninety second birthday. Though she was never married, Miss James fulfilled her life with her pharmacy, and continues to live on through its legacy.
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Many may find themselves wondering, what happened to the pharmacy after Miss James, because seeing the beautiful building today, it’s obvious the famous pharmacy has remained intact. Well, to satisfy curiosity, much did happen to the building once Miss James left it. In fact, at some points in history it wasn’t even a pharmacy. Where the business stands today, tall and proud among the streets of Old Saybrook, it has seen many faces, businesses, and makeovers.
Let’s jump back in history to the building’s roots prior to the Lane Drug Store and James Pharmacy. A portion of the building was originally built in 1790 by Humphrey Pratt and was the general store for the Humphrey Pratt Tavern a little further north on Main Street. As a plaque on the building attests to, this general store is famous for a visit by the famous Revolutionary War hero, the Marquis de Lafayette who made a purchase there in 1824! This general store, which later became the Lane Drug Store and James Pharmacy was moved to Pennywise Lane by a team of oxen in 1877. At this time the building was owned by James M. and Lucy Treadway, whom later rented out the building to Peter Lane. Meanwhile, Humphrey Pratt’s brother, Deacon Timothy Pratt, built the building standing right next door, currently, the Deacon Timothy Pratt Bed & Breakfast.
Bringing the timeline forward many years, in 1977 when Miss James passed away, the pharmacy remained vacant and unused for approximately seventeen years. This was of course, until its old charm caught the eye of a new Old Saybrook resident, a woman named Linda Friedman. She took on the task of renovating the building, and eventually brought it back to its former glory and beauty. This was in the year 1982, and it took her only a few years to complete her work in renovating the building. Her next step, was to sell it to someone who intended to use it and maintain it. This brings us to 1984, when a young couple, Kim and Garth Meadows, bought the building.
The Meadows had a passion for history themselves, and remained intent on keeping the pharmacy as close as they could to how it was during the Miss James era. This included keeping the original name of James Pharmacy, running the ice cream parlor and keeping the history of Miss James prevalent in their store. For many years the young couple scooped ice cream and ran the shop, bringing back the historic building into Old Saybrook’s community life once again. The pharmacy under their control was even featured in an older AT&T commercial, in 1990. It featured the inside of the shop, specifically for its 1800s pharmacy look and feel.
The Meadows ran and owned the pharmacy for a long decade, ten solid years, until deciding to move on from it in 1994. At that point, they temporarily closed the pharmacy (save the ice cream parlor), in hopes of finding the next owner who they could be sure would take good care of the pharmacy. After a long search for someone who they believed shared their ideas and viewpoints for the pharmacy’s future, they met and finally sold the building to a very talented local artist, Yves Parent. Yves envisioned the pharmacy as a French cuisine restaurant, however was not able to obtain town approval for this plan, so instead he founded James Gallery & Soda Fountain, featuring local artists and of course ice cream.
Just one year later, in 1995, only about fourty feet away, the Deacon Timothy Pratt house was getting a makeover of its own. A young and ambitious woman named Shelley Nobile purchased the Deacon Timothy Pratt house and converted it into a lovely Bed & Breakast. Shelley Nobile is an electrical engineer as well, but has a strong passion and devotion for preserving history.
About five years later, in the year 2000, Shelley Nobile enters into the story of the evolution of James Pharmacy. She purchases the James Gallery & Soda Fountain building from Yves Parent, renovates it and expands her bed & breakfast next store, adding three more rooms and continuing the art gallery with Yves and running the soda fountain business.
The year is 2016. Once again the still beautiful James Pharmacy building is taking on a new life at the hands of Shelley Nobile, and Janet Verney. They both have a new vision for the pharmacy, to continue Miss James’ legacy of not only keeping the soda fountain intact, but providing Old Saybrook with its first organic café, including organic ice cream of course! James Farmacy Organic Café and Juice Bar opened May 5, 2016, in the same place Peter Lane, Anna Petry, Miss James, Katherine Hepburn and even the Marquis de Lafayette walked many years past!
History provided by one of our Awesome Associates, Sami Stewart.