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Arts & Culture

San Antonio Mainstay Olmos Pharmacy Serves Its Last Shake

An iconic San Antonio eatery and live music mainstay makes a surprise announcement over the weekend. Olmos Pharmacy has closed down, owner Rod Campbell confirmed.

"Yes, and it was a hard decision for me to make. And it was a question of being realistic based on the resources that I have," he said.  

Olmos Pharmacy started out in the 1930s as Gilmore Pharmacy. Through the decades, the art deco and neon sign storefront at the corner of McCullough and Hildebrand has prospered, passed on and then been reborn as something else entirely, several times.

In its last iteration, Olmos was a pharmacy that distributed no prescriptions, but provided something else with curative powers: music.

"A genuine, local live music venue.  This is music without a net" Campbell laughed. "It's happening live, it's happening right now. There's not any auto-tuning going on, there's not any backup tracks. It's not going to be perfect but it's a genuine experience."

Grey-haired goatee'd sixty-something Campbell didn't just own the place. He performed there, too. 

"I did. In fact it was my Celtic session that was the very first music to play at the venue back in June 2008," he said.

Campbell became a co-owner in 2014 and eventually bought out his partner in early 2016.

Besides live music, there was also a focus on comfort food.

"We definitely tried to make sure people were well-served there," Campbell said. "The half-pound burgers and the biscuits and gravy and the big prescription pancakes. There was a lot of good food there."

The chocolate malts and milkshakes were local favorites, and some traced their experiences back there several decades.

"There was a gentleman who came in who said that he had gotten the first chocolate malt that he had ever gotten in his life when he was 14 years old in 1942" he laughed.  "That's the depth of memories that people have for that place."

Along with the malts, music was served up most nights, too. One of those performing was singer-songwriter David Rodriguez.

"It started off offering live music and I jumped in and said 'I can do that!'And then I talked them into letting me have a happy hour slot on Fridays, and that was 8 years ago," he said.

That's every Friday for 8 years, Rodriguez confirmed. He reflects on all those nights and what they meant to him. 

"Relationships were formed there. Songs were created there.  It was just such a special place to be," he said.

Oddly, Olmos Pharmacy never even built a stage. With customers and musicians at the same level, intimacy was the norm. 

"The main thing I had was just an open space at the front of the restaurant. Of course, it was always framed by that iconic green neon around the window" Campbell said, reflecting on the enormous oval window facing McCullough Street.

Campbell says over the years, Olmos has become the go-to place not just for casual musicians, but even some high-end ones.

"We focused on singer-songwriters, on jazz," he explained.  "We had the longest-running jazz jam session in all of south Texas. It was with Kyle Keener, Polly Harrison and Small World. And that was their home for a long time."

Even the musicians of the San Antonio Symphony held jam sessions there. 

"We like the opportunity to sort-of not have to wear our tuxedos and allow for some risk, to invite our students to play with us and it's really a fun and relaxed way of making music together," violinist Aimee Lopez said.

Campbell says open mic nights, poetry slams, folksingers and jazz players all found a home there.

"Everybody was welcome, everybody got a chance to to take their shot.  If I needed to stay open late I was going to make sure that everybody got their turn to play, even if I was the last one there." 

Campbell's Facebook post last Saturday created a real stir in the city's music community. He doesn't want to raise peoples' hopes too high, but some people have said they want to keep Olmos going.

"There's a possibility. I've had some people reach out to me about possibly financing, investing, or just an outright takeover or something," he said.

Only time will tell if the music will be back.

Find more on the Olmos Pharmacy here