collector’s cache

(originally published in Klipsun magazine)

At the corner of 12th and Harris Street in Fairhaven is a small, homely drug store. Some might say it possesses “character.” Besides having opened its doors nearly 110 years ago, there is nothing outwardly remarkable about the place.

Modern medicines line the shelves. Electronically-filed prescriptions are dispensed in opaque paper bags. Most major credit cards are accepted. But underneath Fairhaven Pharmacy, in the clammy basement with concrete floors and pale incandescent lighting, the building’s ample history is on display.

A cement stairwell outside the pharmacy’s 12th Street entrance leads down to the multifaceted museum of Gordy Tweit. Along the walls, floor-to-ceiling glass cabinets filled with archaic pills, salves and remedies gleam dully; a half-dozen more waist-high cases hold all manner of pharmacological bric-a-brac. Past the drugs are shelves and shelves of other Bellingham miscellanea, including a near-complete set of Western Washington University’s short-lived yearbook, Klipsun.

Tweit and his salmon cans

“It’s a shame they stopped making those,” says Tweit, who also collects annuals from all the local high schools. “They’re a great way to visually chronicle history.”

A retired pharmacist and lifelong Bellingham resident, Tweit, 81, started amassing sundries in his teens, when he began work as a delivery boy for the Fairhaven Pharmacy in 1941.

“Most of it went into storage for decades,” he says. “It wasn’t until the late 80s that I began taking things out of boxes to start figuring out how to put it on display.”

After a two-year stint in the Navy, this lanky son of Norwegian immigrants attended the University of Washington from 1948 to 1952 to become a pharmacist. He would take the train back to Bellingham every weekend to work at the pharmacy.

“I love this stuff—I still find reasons to be here almost every day,” says Tweit, who retired in 1991 after a nasty accident nearly took his life: falling down a flight of stairs in the dark, he broke his neck and lay bleeding on the floor, alone.

“I basically saved myself,” he says, staring at his hands with brown, bespectacled eyes. “I realized my neck was broken, so I stabilized it, slowly climbed the stairs, and called 911.”

Now he limits himself to simple tasks in the pharmacy and acts as a tour guide every Friday from 1-4 p.m., opening the basement’s doors to all.

“Doing this keeps me out of trouble,” Tweit says. “When you get to be almost 82, you don’t want to burn yourself out.”

Leaning over a glass case, he locates a thick roll of wafer-like pills.

“Young man, take a look at this,” he says. “This is one of my favorite brands.”

A large, white capital “P” stands out against the faded pink wrapper. The alliterative title reads, “Dr. Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People”—an iron pill for anemics, circa 1930.

At around 3 p.m. others begin trickling in, softly knocking on the door before greeting Tweit heartily. There is a pair of twenty-something Western graduate students from the history department. A Bellingham writer who leafs through the archival stack of photo albums, working on a new book. Three middle-aged men and their friend from Alaska, eager to see Tweit’s collection.

Like a clichéd small-town pharmacist, he knows almost all their names. It’s no stretch of the imagination to picture Tweit 50 or 60 years ago, writing prescriptions, chatting with regulars and weighing doses on an apothecary scale. This is his milieu; the pharmacy, his life.

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