Sunday, January 06, 2008

Documenting the world of Rennies, a "great good place" long before the Starbucks era

RennebohmsMontage copy
I've never felt comfortable poking a camera in strangers' faces, but sometimes I make sketches of them -- doodles, really -- while sitting in public places. This is a montage of a few I made long ago in Rennies, a Madison institution for much of the 20th century.

Talk to older native Madisonians, and chances are that sooner or later, they'll slip and refer to Rennies in the present tense, as in "I'll pick that up at Rennies." What they're referring to is Walgreens, the drugstore giant that bought the local Rennebohm-Rexall Drugstore chain in 1980, after the death of Oscar Rennebohm, the UW alum and pharmacist whose drugstores made him a wealthy man, a respected philanthropist and governor of Wisconsin.
Rennebohm's was the pharmacy owned and operated by Oscar Rennebohm, himself a 1911 graduate of the UW Pharmacy program. Rennebohm's drugstores became iconic in Madison. There eventually were more than two dozen locations, and they had lunch counters that were famous in their own way. There are city residents who still rhapsodize about the grilled Danishes and hot fudge sundaes. Oscar Rennebohm, the patriarch, was an imposing figure who was elected governor in 1948.
Sometimes it almost seemed there was a Rennies at every streetcorner, including several adjacent to the UW campus. Each had a food service facility -- ranging from soda fountains to lunch counters, cafeterias, and table-service restaurants, all featuring the same inexpensive, bland American menu (roast beef with mashed potatoes and gravy was one of my favorites). You could sit all day with a brownie a la mode and a cup of coffee for 37 cents, complete with endless free refills. I often did. In all fairness, the coffee, brewed in huge industrial strength vats, probably had more in common with dishwater than today's high-end gourmet blends, but hey, we weren't paying gourmet prices, either.

Rennies was a true "great good place" in the sense author Ray Oldenburg wrote about. The stores were public spaces and hangouts that were enormously egalitarian, in a way that Madison hasn't seen since the city became more socially and economically stratified, starting about the time that Walgreens dropped the food service. Scholars mingled with street people, students rubbed elbows with working people, and all enjoyed a no-hassle environment where nobody was trying to maximize turnover. The person next to you could be a schizophrenic drawing elaborate charts documenting the force fields trying to take over his mind -- or a physics student struggling with his dissertation. Today's coffee shops with their wireless networks provide some of the same all-day hospitality to cybersquatters with their laptops, but its not the same thing.

Given the affectionate memories so many people have of Rennies, you'd think there would be a lot about Rennebohms on the Internet, but the web is remarkably spotty when it comes to pre-Internet history. Sometimes it's there, and often it's not. That applies to photography as well -- it's really hard to find images.

With one exception. In 1979 a UW student named Chuck Patch set out with a friend to eat breakfast at each of the Rennies in town. His boss at the Wisconsin State Historical Society, where he worked part time, heard about the plan and offered to provide film and enlarging paper to document the odyssey. Fortunately, Patch was not as shy about photographing people at Rennies as I was, and that's how the Historical Society came into possession of the images, which they made available online a couple of years ago. They provide a wonderfully evocative look at a Madison institution that has vanished forever.

Patch gives a little more background about the series at his Flickr site. His other Flickr photos are worth your attention, too -- especially the set called Old Silver. Patch was an accomplished street photographer who gave it up as his work became more time-consuming. He came back to photography in recent years, lured by the simplicity of digital photography and the ability to share his work online at Flickr. You can learn more about Chuck Patch and how he returned to photography in an interview with photographer Michael David Murphy in his photo blog 2point8. <

1 comment:

nichole said...

Thanks for this interesting post! Not being a Madison native, when I hear about Rennie's I get this nostalgia for something I've never experienced (isn't there a German word for that feeling?). I feel like Patch's photos are like a spiritual precursor to Eating in Madison A to Z, too. :)