A presidential drugstore

“What is up with the Obama Walgreens?” a North Side friend wanted to know.

I had never really thought about it. It’s my local Walgreens, on the corner of 55th Street and Lake Park, and I’m in there at least twice a week. But its transformation into Barack Obama Headquarters—and it says so on the LED sign out front—was so gradual, I was like the frog that had been dropped into a pot of cold water and then boiled alive without realizing the water was getting warmer.

The store’s Obamafication took five years. In 2004 Obama, then an ambitious Illinois senator and a candidate for the U.S. Senate, gave the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention. Store manager Kevin Crowley picked up Obama’s biography, Dreams from My Father, and liked it so much he started stocking it. At the time, it was Obama’s local Walgreens, too, and on one of his shopping expeditions he signed Crowley’s copy. Later Obama signed a photograph for Crowley, who hung copies of it next to all 15 registers. Despite the Hyde Park connection, a few customers complained, Crowley says: “Not everybody’s a Democrat.”

A month after Inauguration Day the store still stocks hundreds of Obama products, though “Valentine’s Day has cut into his shelf space,” says Crowley. There are both of his books, one on Michelle Obama, and numerous magazines. There are T-shirts, sweatshirts, and hats. There are posters, plaques, pennants, a commemorative plate, and a coffee mug. There is a teddy bear, dressed in an Obama T-shirt, that dances to James Brown’s “I Got You (I Feel Good).”

The two most popular products, Crowley says, are Spider-Man #583 ("Spidey Meets the President!") and the talking pen, which plays—quite loudly—two excerpts from Obama’s election-night speech in Grant Park. Crowley was skeptical about the pen until a customer came by and bought five before he had finished unpacking the box. He estimates he sells about 25 a day for $7.99 each.

obama-doll.jpgThe most controversial item, of which Crowley sold 300 but no longer stocks, was an Obama doll that danced to the tune “Oh Susanna.” As some patrons made plain, the Stephen Foster song was originally written to be performed in blackface. “Older customers were offended,” Crowley says. “I had no idea.” By that time, Obama was too famous to shop in the store personally. But a campaign staffer told Crowley, “He knows, and he’s OK with it.”

Carrie Golus, AB’91, AM’93

A cell-phone camera captured the "Oh Susanna" Obama dolls dancing on the shelves at the Obama Walgreens last fall. Carrie Golus, AB'91, AM'93

Photo by Mary Ruth Yoe.

February 16, 2009