By Pat Sherman
Grace “Betty” Clifford, a fixture behind the pharmacy counter at Burns Drugs and Home Health Care, retired last week to much fanfare, including two days of celebrations, baked treats and hugs for the kindhearted, at times curmudgeonly, cashier who assisted La Jollans with their prescriptions for nearly 20 years, keeping them smiling with her wry humor.
“I’ll be back (to visit),” Clifford told longtime customer Jo Nerini. “I have to keep them in line.”
Clifford, who turned 91 this month, said she was thankful for the tributes in her honor, which included an accordion serenade by former Burns pharmacist, Jack Novak.
“It becomes tearful,” she said. “You have to try to control the tears.”
Her emotion is understandable. Clifford’s history in La Jolla far predates her employment with Burns.
In 1976, she purchased a china shop on Girard Avenue, turning it into one of the most respected in the industry. She operated Clifford’s Fine China & Crystal in two locations on Girard until the early 1980s.
“There have been so many wonderful, small shops that had to go out of business because of the greedy landlords — and I’m free to say that, because that’s what killed my business,” she said.
Clifford gave the china business one last shot, relocating to Bird Rock for a spell.
“I had a lot of porcelain and crystal giftware that was priced so that tourists could buy it and take it home in this lovely box from La Jolla,” she said. “I had a good thing when I had it … (but) there was no foot traffic (in Bird Rock) for the kind of business that I had.”
Clifford went on to work at Bird Rock Pharmacy for about five years, before winding up in the office of Burns Drugs owner Wayne Woods on Oct. 14, 1994.
“She walked into my office and said, ‘You have to hire me,’ ” Woods recalled. “She goes, ‘I’ve always worked in La Jolla … and now you have to hire me’ — and she demanded that she get a job here. I did hire her and she’s just been a character in this pharmacy for her entire stay.”
“That’s the story
tells and he continues to tell,” Clifford countered, with a laugh.
Clifford said she is retiring because she didn’t pass the eye exam required to renew her driver’s license.
“That made up my mind, because I had to drive to work,” she said. “Once I got that notice, I had to make a decision and move on, so that’s what I did.”
Woods said Yelp.com reviewers referring to “the grouchy old woman in the back — how could they possibly keep her?” never knew Clifford like her adopted La Jolla family and friends.
“There are people who are going to miss her a lot, because she’s been a part of the fabric (of this store) ever since they’ve been coming here,” he said. “She has a dry sense of humor, and just a heart of gold.”
A native of Los Angeles who arrived most mornings at 8 a.m., Clifford conceded she would miss her customers the most.
“I wanted to get up every morning and go to work,” she said. “That’s why I stayed so long, because I liked what I was doing. They’re just really nice people in La Jolla. I’ve rarely ever had a problem — and if so, then it was probably my fault.”