CounterCulture of Texas
Henderson Collins
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by Susie Kelly Flatau

If you’ve ever traveled around West Texas, then perhaps you’ve experienced a feeling of freedom, of tranquillity. Truly, this section of our great state feels like a country unto itself. Much of the land stretches before you, flat and seeming to roll on forever. The roads are a combination of straight lines and curious serpentine courses.

And as I drive those roads, I anticipate the towns and cities that dot this wide Texas range.
In West Texas style, the streets leading into Odessa stay true to the area’s slow pace, ultimately leading me to a unique treasure, Henderson Collins Soda Fountain and Malt Shop.

On North Grant Street, a bright red and yellow sign catches my attention. There, with its name highlighted by neon, is yet another possible subject to be included in my research on Texas places with counters. After finding a parking spot, I stroll down the street to take a peek inside the plate glass windows. Bingo.

There is a long counter at which a handful of customers sit eating lunch. That’s all it takes to convince me to enter and start up a conversation with either the lady behind the counter or the customers sitting at it. And what a pearl this place and the people turn out to be.

The store itself is long and narrow. The tiled floor creates a bold background for the well-worn, orange and white Formica counter which stretches halfway down the building’s left side. Children and adults sit at several of the thirteen stools and chat with the petite woman behind the counter. As she cooks, her hands move continuously yet there is a calmness about her.

Before taking a seat at one of the bar stools, I look around the room. In the middle there are eight booths, three of which hold small groups of women. Down the store’s right side is an aged, wooden merchandise counter filled with old-fashioned calculators, typewriters and cash registers.

Directly behind that counter are shelves brimming with bottles and knick knacks and sundry items. There are old soda glasses, cone shaped paper cups, stainless steel cup holders, store memorabilia, merchandise drawers, and old bottles of soda syrups. Toward the back stand three more dining booths, an original phone booth, and more shelves.

A small voice utters, "Can I get you something," and I turn and sit down. With those five simple words, I soon find myself enjoying an hour and a half adventure of listening and learning with Pearl Collins.

As she stands there drying her hands with a dish towel, she looks like an angel. Her sheer, lace-trimmed blouse, her white skirt and white voille apron, are all fashionably accessorized by a string of pearls and pearl earrings. Her eyes are bright and her smile is contagious. She exudes an essence of Southern elegance.

I order and watch as Pearl sets to work. Standing behind a pyramid of soup cans, she fixes everything from scratch, and as she does, she uses that time to catch up on the latest news. I listen and take notes and whenever possible, join in.

Before long, it is my turn for a conversation, and Pearl graciously begins relating the history of the soda fountain. She explains that it dates back to 1906 when it was known as Henderson Drugs. At that time, it was located in an old historical building at 204 N. Grant.

Then in 1929, the owner, Mr. Henderson, moved his store to a new location, just down the street at 122 N. Grant. His business expanded, and with that growth, Mr. Henderson brought in Pearl’s husband, Jack Collins. That was in 1931. And that was when the place became a long standing Odessa landmark known as Henderson Collins Pharmacy.

As she saunters back and forth behind the counter, Pearl reminisces about the "war years". It was in 1941, Pearl adds, that she started working in the Pharmacy. "I’ve been here ever since. It’s all I know," muses this woman who was born in East Texas, yet moved to West Texas when she was a young girl.

During the 1940s, the pharmacy was a stop for the buses that ran from nearby military bases. They were opened from around five or six in the morning until midnight in order to provide a comfortable place for the soldiers. Then, after the war ended, they cut back on the hours.

That building burned in 1949, and afterward they took over the Fitz Pharmacy which was housed in this present site at 409 N. Grant. It was with this move, she explains, that they inherited the counter at which customers still sit today. Within only eight years, Jack Collins bought the pharmacy and it became a husband and wife business, setting them on a joint venture together in 1957. They were blessed to remain busy during the 1950s and 1960s, but after that, business slowed down a bit.

While dicing pickles, hard boiled eggs, and celery, she talks about how rich her life has been. She explains that this place has created many romances and has been a spot used to settle local politics and big deals.

She speaks lovingly about her late husband who passed away in 1994, and how he was an old fashioned druggist, a real jack-of-all-trades. Reaching behind her, she takes off the wall a photo of him washing dishes. There is a bit of a silence for a moment as I study the photo of this man who projects the same sense of serenity as Pearl. I hand it back to her, and she continued with the story.

After Jack’s death, Pearl decided to keep the business; however, she phased out the pharmaceutical lines and turned her attention strictly to the fountain. With a sly grin, she proudly shares with me that it was at that point she renamed the place Henderson Collins Soda Fountain and Malt Shop.

Almost in the same breath, she offers her life philosophy. She believes we should all keep our lives simple. For her, that means no fax machine, no copy machine, and not even a modern touch tone phone. No, this is a place for good food, a place for regulars to meet, a place for travelers to take a break, and a place for her to maintain roots.

When she finishes fixing the food, she serves the customers sitting in a booth. As she stands alongside them and chats, I take one last look around the malt shop. I then study the content and comfortable faces of those in Pearl’s company. A smile plays across my face.

With that, I pay my tab and thank Pearl for sharing her story. As I grab my backpack, I check the Foremost® clock above the opened front door, and I know I need to move along.

Standing outside underneath that bright red and yellow sign, I glance first to the left and then to the right and grow excited about getting back onto the West Texas roads. I yearn to once again travel those straight lines and curious serpentine courses in hopes of finding yet another "pearl" of a Texas spot.