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Talk of the Valley

By Alexe van Beuren

    Binford “Binnie” Turnage is a tall spare man with a kind face. He’s also the town’s most well-known pharmacist-as was his father and grandfather before him.

    In 1905, Wade Smith Turnage climbed off a train in Water Valley and bought an existing drugstore where the Turnage Drugstore is now. Wade was a certified pharmacist who’d gotten his degree in Atlanta (as Mississippi did not have a pharmacy school at that time).

    His son and Binnie’s father, Wade Watkins Turnage, graduated from Ole Miss during the Great Depression. After working in Jackson, Greenville, and Memphis, Wade came home to Water Valley and took over the drugstore when the patriarch Turnage’s health began to fail in 1944.

    Binnie was just starting school. By the time he was ten, he was on the pay roll.

    “I earned five dollars a week,” he tells me as we sit across from one another at a round table. “I made money, and I saved money,” doing chores like delivering medicines on his bicycle, serving ice cream, and sweeping up.

    “What did you spend the money on?” I ask, and Binnie begins to smile.

    “I bought me a leather holster and a real cap pistol. Man, I was proud of that,” and he tells me about shooting it off at the Western picture show.

    The allure of working at the family business wore off by the time he entered high school. “I’d just about had enough of this old drugstore,” Binnie tells me, and so he worked part-time at a garage. When he entered Ole Miss, Binnie majored in mechanical engineering-until he flunked out.

    “I was coming home every night to see the prettiest cheerleader in town,” he says. Dating and college didn’t mix, so in 1967, Binnie and Jo married at age nineteen and eighteen respectively. Immediately after their marriage, Jo sent him back to school.

    When Binnie realized that engineering would mean that he and Jo would have to relocate, he decided to enter pharmacy school after all. “When I changed,” he tells me, “I found out that’s where I should have been all the time.”

    After four years of pharmacy school, Binnie graduated and came to work at the drugstore in 1962. “I wondered if the little old ladies would let me fill their prescriptions,” he says. “They remembered me as the boy on the bike.” And sure enough, many customers would greet Binnie by asking if his father was available. “I had two answers: he’s gone to lunch, and he’s not here.” Binnie shakes his head. “Now, I refer them to Bobby.” Bobby Turnage, one of Binnie and Jo’s five children, is the newest Turnage pharmacist and began working at the drugstore five years ago.

    While the drugstore’s owners have not changed, the building itself has. From our seat in front of the coffee counter, Binnie tells me that the area currently devoted to merchandise for sale back to the pharmacy counter used to be a separate store; Binnie’s father leased the other store in 1962 and took out the wall to join the two spaces. The area where greeting cards are now sold used to be screened-in and closed-off to the public, and the Turnages would gather there weekly to churn the homemade ice creams and sherbets that the drugstore sold.

    The elder Mr. Turnage had already made other changes as well. Prior to 1949, a metal balcony ran around the inside of the old drugstore, the ceiling was made of pressed metal, and the walls were paneled with the same dark wood as the back bar behind the coffee counter. The counter itself used to be a slab of marble, but during the renovations, it was propped up with two-by-fours and a child sat on it, bringing it crashing to the ground.

    Since the 1960s’ enlargement of the drugstore, most everything has stayed the same. Like his father, Binnie does not plan on retiring from the drugstore (though he does want to gradually scale his days down to make room for his Christian missionary work). With Bobby working as the fourth-generation Turnage pharmacist, it seems nothing at the drugstore will change any time soon.

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