‘BURNS’ INTO HIS MEMORY: Clerk Todd Hoover returns to site of legendary La Jolla drugstore
As soon as he enters Brooks Brothers at 7824 Girard Ave., Todd Hoover sees ghosts.
It’s Hoover’s first time back in the building since Burns Drugs closed in 2014. From 1982 to 1991, he served as the iconic pharmacy’s predominant public face, working the cash register and chatting with customers.
Pharmacist Jack Novak appears to Hoover first, followed by store manager Art Keever and then label typist Flora Gomez.
“Yep, we had a label typist,” says Hoover, 58. “It was pre-computer, so we had to type out all the labels and write out all the receipts.”
Hoover — who currently works as a pharmacy technician at UC San Diego Medical Center — ventures further into the men’s clothing store. He remembers his customers, who included Costco founder Sol Price, Helen and David Copley, and Audrey and Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel.Hoover got to ring up Dr. Seuss only once.
“He really put you at ease and moved around kind of majestically,” Hoover says. “But we didn’t say much because I didn’t want to fawn over him.” Audrey, however, was a store regular and, according to Hoover, a hoot.
“You could always tell she was in the store, because she whistled and warbled,” Hoover says. “You could hear her from way in the back of the store.”
Hoover claims that Mrs. Seuss — who died on Dec. 18, 2018 at age 97 — once told him that “she wanted to run her toes through my beard.” (“That was my claim to fame for a little while,” Hoover says, blushing.)
Hoover continues his tour, pointing out a tie display situated in the former cosmetics department.
“And the photo department was over here,” he says.
Bob Burns and Strother Kay started Burns Drugs in 1952 in a two-story building constructed in the early 1900s that served at various times as a grocery store, Masonic lodge and U.S. Post Office. In addition to filling prescriptions and giving vaccinations, Burns Drugs sold cards, gifts and make-up.
But Burns was more than a retail store to La Jollans. It was a social hub.
“It had the personal touch and everyone knew everyone’s name,” Hoover says. “I saw all my old teachers and classmates and you heard about everything happening. It was just really fun.”
Hoover — who can still occasionally be found playing the musical saw for tips on the streets of La Jolla — says he has always been regarded as a wild character and enjoys the attention.
“I have always been the wizard, class clown and riddle man to my customers and friends all my life,” he says.
Hoover figures out the location of his old pharmacy counter in the back of the store. It’s now the space between a rack of sports coats and a shirt display case.
When he arrives at the exact spot, more of his customers’ names come back to him. There was Ellen Revelle, wife of UC San Diego founder Roger Revelle and grand-niece of Ellen Browning Scripps. There was Virgil Vance, founder of the La Jolla Cab Company. And Hoover served not one but two Nobel Prize winners he can recall: Francis Crick (1962) and Kary Mullis (1993).
Oh, and how can Hoover forget the lady who referred to herself as “Peachy?”
“She was a philanthropist who loved to wear really funny clothes,” Hoover says. “She would pay me to do housework for her twice a week, fifty dollars an hour. Back in those days, that was a lot!”
Hoover began at Burns on the cigarette and candy register. He had been the shipping clerk at the Mole Hole gift shop when his sister, who was working as Burns’ bookkeeper, landed him the job.
“Two days later, they said, ‘We’re gonna try you out in pharmacy,’” Hoover recalls. “I didn’t find my pharmacy career. It found me!”
Hoover didn’t last at Burns until it closed. He bailed in 1991 for Long’s (now CVS, at 7525 Eads Ave.) and a bump in pay.
“La Jollans were really mistrustful of a chain drug store coming into town at first,” Hoover says, “so they wanted somebody who already knew all the people’s names, which made me a shoo-in.”
What Hoover didn’t realize was how many Burns customers would switch stores with him.
“I gave (Burns Drugs) two weeks’ notice but they were furious and wouldn’t let me work the two weeks,” Hoover says. “I didn’t mean to step on feet when I changed jobs, but they didn’t like me taking all my customers with me.”
Hoover says he wishes the pharmacy’s final owner, Wayne Woods, sold to a La Jollan who could have kept the only remaining independent drug store in La Jolla open. But Woods told the Light in 2014 that this wasn’t achievable.
"In recent years, insurance companies have narrowed the profit margins such that the (independent) pharmacy is no longer a profitable business,” Woods said, noting that when he purchased the pharmacy in 1991 from former owners Orrin Gabsch and Keever, there were five independent La Jolla pharmacies but that his was the last.
“Mail-order pharmacy and insurance reimbursement have taken its toll such that it is no longer a viable business model,” Woods said.
Hoover says he’s glad to at least see the property in the hands of Brooks Brothers.
“They’ve done a great job here,” he says. “This is a classy store — someplace that’s respected and that’s going to stay around.
“In fact, I think I’m going to come back here and buy some things.”`
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