Soda fountains serve up nostalgia in trendy Athens district


One of the things I love about college towns is the way past, present and future intermingle.

In my hometown of Athens, a favorite part of town for many is the leafy 1920s-era Five Points neighborhood, not far from the University of Georgia campus. It’s where I grew up and used to deliver the Atlanta Journal, and where my kids lived during some of their time at UGA.

It’s a mostly residential area, but at the heart of it (where the five streets come together that provide its name) is a small shopping district that is getting increasingly upscale, attracting trendy restaurants, an indie bakery, and a chocolatier offering bean-to-bar Ecuadorean treats to go along with the New Southern cuisine at celeb chef Hugh Acheson’s famed Five & Ten nearby.

At the other end of the culinary spectrum in the same shopping area are two mom-and-pop pharmacies still serving up more than just prescriptions.

At ADD Drug’s old-fashioned soda fountain-lunch counter, you can sit shoulder to shoulder with teenagers, musicians, professors and even UGA football coach Kirby Smart (a Five Points resident). Nearby, schoolkids, usually accompanied by their parents or grandparents, stop by Hodgson’s Pharmacy’s soda fountain for the ice cream treats that have remained a constant as the store has gone through three Five Points locations.

My roots run deep in both these Athens institutions. When I was a kid living a few blocks away, Mom would treat us occasionally to burgers or a grilled cheese (and maybe a banana split if we’d been extra good) at ADD, where we also got our snapshots developed and bought postage stamps.

At Hodgson’s, I could park my bike outside while on my paper route, go inside to peruse the comic books, and get a vanilla Coke or cherry smash.

Some things don’t carry over from generation to generation, but ice cream certainly does, and my kids always wanted to go to Hodgson’s when we were in town.

Invariably, when I’d walk in the front door, my boyhood neighbor, Hal Hodgson, would greet me by name.

Hodgson’s kept its ice cream offerings through its location changes, even when the trend in drugstores went away from soda fountains. Recently, I asked Hal why. He grinned. “For people like you, Bill. The kids that came in were coming back in with their kids and then their grandkids. It was a tradition. People would come in and say, ‘What, it’s 50 cents now? I remember when it was a quarter.’ Or ‘I remember when it was a nickel.’”

Of course, you’re never outside the Georgia Bulldog realm in Athens, and that’s especially true at Hodgson’s, which had an area decorated with pictures of past UGA cheerleading squads called Coach Mike’s Corner, devoted to the late Mike Castronis, who used to hang out in the store between practices. Coach Mike and his cheerleaders even left notes for one another at Hodgson’s in the days before social media.

The devotion ran both ways — long after Coach Mike had passed on, the cheerleaders continued to make a ritual visit in uniform to Hodgson’s on game day mornings.

That tradition fell victim to earlier kickoff times, Hal said, but a portrait of Coach Mike still hangs on the wall of the soda fountain.

Walking into Hodgson’s always felt like coming home. Likewise, when my daughter Livvy and I ate lunch at ADD Drug on a recent Saturday, it was a return to my childhood.

I remember in 1961 when the Horton family opened Athens Discount Drugs, which eventually morphed into ADD Drug Store. Back then, you didn’t yet have fast-food chains all over town, and the younger denizens of Five Points were thrilled to have a place where you could get fresh, hot french fries and dip them into ketchup.

Occasionally, ADD would do a special where you picked a balloon on the wall and they popped it. Whatever price was inside was what you paid, and my brother Jon still remembers the time he got a large shake for just a dime!

All these decades later, ADD is nearly unchanged, down to the menu of burgers, hot dogs and sandwiches (from chicken salad to PB&J).

Business was brisk on a recent Saturday, but Livvy and I managed to grab a couple of open stools. It was an interesting mix of folks at the counter. An older woman and her grandson. A couple of tween girls working on homework. A few middle-aged area residents. Young people who looked like UGA students.

Midway down was Julian Dorio, the drummer of the Athens-born band the Whigs, now based in Nashville. He was back in town for a show at the Georgia Theatre and was chatting amiably with the stranger next to him, pointing out proudly that an autographed copy of his band’s “Enjoy the Company” album (with a hot dog on the cover) was up on the wall amid the faded Georgia Bulldogs-related photos.

“There’s no better place to enjoy lunch than ADD Drug, it’s my absolute favorite,” Dorio told me as he was leaving. “The onion rings are among the three best I’ve ever had anywhere. The perfect crunch!”

After flirting with the slaw dog, I went for the cheeseburger with lettuce and tomato, while Livvy opted for the grilled cheese. Everyone, of course, ordered those hot, crisp french fries, and the two women in ball caps flipping the burgers, toasting the buns and blending the milkshakes made sure to leave a little paper cup at each place for ketchup.

The lunchtime experience was amazingly familiar in a comforting way, and pharmacist Kevin Florence, who bought the store from the Hortons in 2012, told me that’s exactly the point.

“If you went to school here 30 years ago and ate here and you come in, you’re going to find it hasn’t changed. We don’t mess around with it much.”

The mix of people I noted at the counter has, Florence said, “been the neatest part of running the store. Interesting folks all get to sit together and eat and converse.”

The lunch counter “kind of” pays for itself, he said, “but it does a good job of bringing in customers. I call it our main form of advertising.”

Tradition is also the theme around the corner at the latest incarnation of Hodgson’s, where head pharmacist Rabun Dekle, who co-owns the place with Chris Thurmond, said they decided to keep the 50-year-old name and the ice cream sales when the Hodgson family sold out 5½ years ago.

“The soda fountain loses money,” she said, but “it’s history and tradition. I see that as something that’s very important to maintain. How many generations of kids have been going to it all these years for an ice cream? I think that’s valuable to the community. … They’re very loyal customers. And part of that loyalty is the fact that we still offer the soda fountain.”

It fits in with the family atmosphere of Five Points. “I live two blocks from here and can walk to work,” Dekle said. “My child comes here in the afternoon to do her homework and have an ice cream.”

“It’s just the neatest little community,” part-time Hodgson’s pharmacist Cara McCalley told me. “Wherever I go, even skiing in Colorado, when I mention Athens, people always know about the ice cream at Hodgson’s and lunch at ADD Drugs.”

Bill King also writes about his hometown of Athens and UGA sports in the Junkyard Blawg: dawgnation.com/author/bking.



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