What the Doctor Ordered
Every day since 1971, Lake Charles pharmacist Frank Pryce has driven the same car down the same block to his family’s business.
Pryce bought the orange-and-white Buick Skylark for $7,500. When people ask him if he will ever get rid of the car, he responds with a deadpan expression and a sense of indignation. He wouldn’t think of driving another car for three reasons.
First, it’s paid for.
Second, Pryce has a mechanic specifically for this make of car to take care of it.
Third, if Pryce’s customers didn’t see the sport coupe sitting outside of Pryce’s Pharmacy at 331 Enterprise Blvd., they’d think the store was closed.
As far as Pryce is concerned, aside from taking a trip out of town for a family function, there is no reason why he shouldn’t be at work, tending to the business that has been operating continuously since 1908.
“We’ve been a one-stop shop,” Pryce says, then jokingly adds, “I say a person could come here and get a tonsillectomy and an ice cream cone afterward.”
Pryce and the pharmacy are the gold standard on Enterprise Boulevard in Lake Charles. Even at 78, Pryce is younger than the store, which marks its 100th anniversary this year.
Pryce’s grandfather, George Pryce, a Jamaican immigrant who obtained a college education before teaching in different locales in the South, settled in Lake Charles and opened the city’s first black-owned pharmacy. It has been in the same location ever since.
George Pryce left the city and headed to California in order for his younger children to get a better education. His son Ulric –– Frank’s father –– took over pharmacy operations in 1917. He went on to open other businesses in Lake Charles and an insurance company in New Orleans.
Ulric Pryce lived in the same house that Frank now resides in on Louisiana Avenue, less than a block from Interstate 10, which passes through Lake Charles, and about two blocks from the pharmacy. To this day, elderly residents remember Frank’s father as a well-dressed and dignified man who walked to work and everywhere else he had to go.
“He used to drive but stopped after one of our relatives got killed in an accident,” Pryce says. “You could never get him under the steering wheel again.”
The father was a successful businessman and a trailblazer in the state pharmacy industry. He was the first black pharmacist in the state to be admitted to the Louisiana State Pharmaceutical Association. Ulric Pryce applied 14 years before he was actually admitted; his first application was unsuccessful because at that time, the organization was for whites only. When he was finally admitted, an announcement was published in local papers.
That event remains close to Frank Pryce’s heart. Even though he isn’t a boastful man, Pryce is very proud that his father made a difference and is happy to pull out the old newspaper clippings.
Pryce is one of five children. He’s the only one of the siblings who worked in the pharmacy, starting at the age of 9 serving ice cream to young people. As he got older, he worked every job in the store, learning the business inside and out before graduating from Lake Charles’ only black Catholic-operated educational institution, Sacred Heart School, in 1947. He spent two years at Dillard University in New Orleans before transferring to Howard University in Washington, D.C., where he graduated with a degree in pharmacy in 1953.
Two years later, Pryce went back to Lake Charles to work full-time in the family pharmacy.
Just as it did when George Pryce opened the store, Pryce’s Pharmacy serves the city’s black community, providing medicine; medical help when needed; and a gathering place for young and old, lay people and professionals, preachers and politicians.
Over the course of a century, the pharmacy has witnessed the evolution of Enterprise Boulevard and the black community that surrounds it. What was once a vibrant street –– though at times lawless and bar-laden –– is now quiet and lined with concrete slabs, the remains of buildings that used to be open.
Pryce isn’t happy about the situation and has spent years working behind the scenes as an advocate to try to shape municipal policy and get the area revived. The hard work of Pryce and other people passionate about the area has resulted in millions of dollars in local and state tax money being appropriated for overlaying the street and extending it further into the predominantly black section of the city known as Goosport. The project is aimed to kick-start economic development.
“This area should have been developed a long time ago after everything slowed down,” Pryce says. “I hope Afro-Americans living here get involved and take pride in the property they own and do something with it.”
Celebrating the pharmacy’s centennial doesn’t excite Pryce, who is more content just working every day as usual.
But there are people who are proud of his family’s accomplishments, such as 73-year-old barbershop owner Nathan Thibodeaux, whose shop is next door to the pharmacy.
“We’ve both survived the good and the bad times down here,” he says. “At least we’ve done something right since we’re still here. When a business survives as long as Pryce’s, it says something about the person and that they are pleasing the people.”
Thibodeaux’s father opened the barbershop –– the second-oldest business on Enterprise Boulevard between Interstate 10 and Broad Street –– in 1939. Combre’s Funeral Home opened in 1940 and is the third-oldest African-American-run business in Lake Charles. Pryce’s Pharmacy and Sacred Heart, which also opened in 1908, are the two oldest functioning operations on the street. All of the institutions started out serving the city’s black population.
Faye Blackwell, owner of B&C Broadcasting, which operates urban radio station 104.9 KZWA-FM, built her facility next to Pryce’s. Like Thibodeaux, she is proud to know Pryce and proud of the pharmacy’s staying power in today’s competitive business climate that has squeezed out large portions of the family-owned business sector.
“I salute the Pryce family for their determination, dedication and commitment to Lake Charles and for their many years of service,” Blackwell says. “Pryce’s is the epitome of the neighborhood and community pharmacy.”
At the moment, Pryce, who has had to contend with various physical ailments, is determined to remain in the store, but the question of the business’ future is a topic of conversation for him.
The pharmacy’s aisles are a mix of old and new products –– such as headache medicines, cod liver oil, shoe polish and other odds and ends. Local artist Eddie Mormon’s pictures line the north side of the store, watched over by the two pictures of George and Ulric Pryce that are situated in the pharmacy area.
Large chain pharmacies have expressed interest in purchasing the land Pryce’s is on, but Pryce would like to sell the store to a person who wants to be an independent operator.
“There isn’t anybody to pass it on to,” Pryce says. “I’ve tried to sell to Afro-Americans, but some wanted me to give them the business for nothing.”
Knowing that the future of Pryce’s Pharmacy is undecided, Pryce intends to hang on until he physically can’t continue. That means waking up in the apartment that sits behind the family’s old house on Louisiana Avenue that he shares with his wife of 25 years, Deloris; getting dressed; and getting into his 1971 Buick Skylark. Driving the path his dad took when he used to walk to the store. And being there for the people who need medicine, household products, advice or just good conversation.
That’s the way Pryce intends to carry on, just as the sign outside the store advertises: “Pryce’s Pharmacy –– Serving the Community Since 1908.”