Throwback Thursday – Main Street Staple

White’s Pharmacy, the Montauk Post Office (a theater before the Depression), and White’s Liquor Store used to coinhabit a building on Montauk’s Main Street. | McLaughlin Family Collection, Montauk Library Archives

On the corner of Main Street and Carl Fisher Plaza, White’s Pharmacy was a magnet for Montauk kids in the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s. For starters, it had a soda fountain and a great view of any action that was going down in town.

“What the liquor store is now was Dick White’s drug store,” Frances McDonald Ecker recalled in an oral history interview in 2002.  “And he had an ice cream counter there and everything … and we’d sit there, eating ice cream, waiting for the mail to come in … And if a strange car came through town — ‘Did you see that car? Did you see?’ — You would know that was the topic of conversation: ‘A Buick came through town today. Who could that be?’”

In a separate interview Barbara Gilmartin Sullivan and her brother, Tim Gilmartin, talked about working at White’s with their sister Jane, cousin Robert, and Richard Farrell, the principal’s son. “I still remember that very fondly,” Barbara said. “Dick White was very strict, but it was fun.”

Tim put together the sections of what in those days were numerous Sunday newspapers on Saturdays. Jane sold them in front of the store on Sunday mornings, when some kids had to start work as early as 5. “And there would be people pounding on the door: ‘Open up, sell me the paper,’” said Tim, who worked three additional years as a soda jerk at the store.

Barbara recalled one employee getting his mouth “bloodied” with cherry syrup while another fired a cap gun, fooling younger kids sitting at the fountain counter. “He always waited until Dick White was out of the store and Ruth was probably in the back and go, ‘Bam!’ and start to fall.”

The store carried just about everything. Barbara sold a bathing suit to Tallulah Bankhead and tennis balls to Montgomery Clift. “And he was so handsome and I was so thrilled and I dropped his change on the floor, I dropped his tennis balls on the floor.”

In the late 19th century, W.F.E. White, the grandfather of Dick White Jr., had followed the wealthy patrons of his other stores out to East Hampton, where he operated what today is called White’s Apothecary. He went on to open the drug store in Montauk in 1928, and when he died his two sons took over the two stores that remained and became pharmacists, with Richard White Sr. and his wife, Ruth, selling prescriptions, cosmetics, and everything else out in Montauk.

Born in 1941, Dick White Jr. grew up above the drug store, where he had a bird’s-eye view of the happenings on Main Street. “So at some point in my life I became aware of my surroundings and I would stand in my crib and look out the window.”

“And of course, across the street was Shagwong Tavern,” he said in an oral history interview in 2022. “And in those days, Montauk was inhabited by the U.S. Army, the U.S. Signal Corps, the U.S. Navy, and the Coast Guard. And I saw many of those men chatting with each other as they rolled out of Shagwong Tavern swinging at each other.”

As a child he, too, worked at the drug store, putting newspapers together and sweeping and so forth.  He was, he chuckled, “an indentured servant,” although he did get paid, and there were some job perks.

“And Jimmy Hewitt used to say that I really didn’t have any friends — but the fact [was] that my dad had an ice cream fountain and chocolates and comic books. Guys our age wanted to come and visit me in the afternoon because there was, you know … a pretty good chance you could get a fresh comic for free and an ice cream soda or ice cream cone.”

In 1953 his father sold the business to Al Rattiner, who went on to build the current White’s Drug and Department store, on the Plaza, in the 1960s. When Al’s drug store opened in the new space, his son Dan used the old space as an office for the Montauk Pioneer. Afterward Dick White Sr. used the old space for the Montauk Liquor Store, which Dick White Jr. bought from his father and ran for decades before he sold it and retired. The business is still operating as White’s Liquor Store, and White’s Drug and Department Store is still operating under the “White” name around the corner.

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