Much has changed in the 60 years since Doc Muse first opened the doors of the Green Valley Pharmacy in Arlington County.
Back then, Northern Virginia pharmacies sent African American customers to the back door for their orders and purchases, he recalled. But Muse’s store, opened in 1952 in the heart of the black community of Nauck, treated those same customers with respect. Over time, the pharmacy would become known as the shop where you could get a fair deal and, when necessary, a little help.
Now others are coming to know the roles that Green Valley Pharmacy and Leonard Muse have played.
The pharmacy was recently named a local historic landmark, and Muse was recognized as an example of “the triumph of the spirit and the indomitable will of one man.”
Quiet and humble, Muse has little to say about the honor. He didn’t attend the County Board meeting where his neighbors testified about him and where a proclamation was issued and photos were taken. He has rarely talked to the news media, except when he was trying to push the community to tackle a persistent drug-dealing problem.
He has preferred staying at the pharmacy, which is open 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., seven days a week, closing only occasionally, such as when a fire shut the doors five years ago.
It is clear that Muse, at 89, is still very much in charge. He dons his white jacket and shows up nearly every day to work side by side with his granddaughter, who also is a pharmacist. From his spot behind the counter, his calm brown eyes assess visitors and customers alike, his movements sure and deliberate. He knows the price, to the penny, of every item in stock.
The pharmacy remains a throwback, with its Formica lunch counter, notary service and fax machine. Clerks behind a long counter retrieve merchandise for the customers. Candy for schoolchildren is within reach, and water and soft drinks are stacked in the crowded aisle in front of the tall pharmacy counter at the back.
His staff still offers home delivery of prescriptions to regular customers. And Muse still offers warm encouragement and the careful, solid advice of a man who knows the travails of the families from the neighborhood.
“Things have improved,” he said last week from his dark-green corduroy recliner behind the counter while the store’s television blared the latest news from Congress. But “after integration, we didn’t have the community spirit we had then. The youngsters now — it’s a different story. They don’t know the history of black people.”
They could learn from his life, an experience that required both fortitude and cunning.
Muse was born in Delray Beach, Fla., and after high school graduation, he enlisted in the Army during World War II. Later, he enrolled in Howard University’s pharmacy school, graduating in 1948.
He worked for two years at a pharmacy in Southwest Washington until former classmate Waverly Jones suggested that they set up their own shop in Arlington.
They found a vacant grocery store, and after a few years of renting, Muse bought it from William and Agnes Hyman, whose family had previously operated the market.
Cynthia Liccese-Torres, the county’s historic preservation planner who did the research required for the landmark designation, said it took Muse a while to convince local black residents that the prescriptions he sold were not inferior to those sold at the white-owned drugstores and that his prices would not be inflated.
Muse recalls that period as the only time he had a gun. “It was a rough neighborhood,” he said.
Hazel Brown began hanging out at Green Valley when she was 8 years old.
“I was a motherless and fatherless child, raised by a grandmother who was very ill and could not afford medicine for her sugar diabetes, her high blood pressure or her ulcers,” said Brown, 62.
Muse hired her brother and told her that “my future was being built right then.” When she became pregnant and dropped out of high school, Muse encouraged her to go back to school, and she eventually graduated from college. She now volunteers at the pharmacy.
Joseph Crouch, a Vietnam veteran, said that before he was shipped overseas, Muse called him in and told him to hold his head up and trust in God. “We had a lot of troubled men in the Valley. Doc saved a lot of them, because he reached out and talked to them and slowed them down. I’m one of them,” Crouch said.
Youngsters who attempted to shoplift found themselves in a heart-to-heart talk with Muse, who tried to set them on the straight-and-narrow path.
“He was here when nobody else was,” said Florence Puryear, who said she would often wait outside the store until he opened it at 7 a.m.
“He’s the godfather of Green Valley. It don’t matter if you are white or pink or black or blue . . . and as much trouble as we bring him, he’s still standing.”
The store, at the corner of Shirlington Road and 24th Road South, is in the heart of Nauck, which has been home to African Americans since the mid-1800s.
In the 1960s, drug dealers moved onto the corner, and Muse said police suspected him of being involved. They bugged his store, he believes, and the pay phone outside — even though Muse was the one who often called police.
He recalled a time when authorities suggested that he was selling beer to underage drinkers and nonprescription medicine to addicts who used them to create illegal substances.
“I put everything behind the counter,” Muse said. “I changed how I sold them. I said, ‘You’re not going to run me away.’ I said, ‘I’ll sit right here until you take me out heels-first.’ ”
He laughed, pleased at the memory.
Another time, police raided his drugstore and lunch counter and “put their hands in the food, looking for I don’t know what,” he said.
It’s hard for him to let go of that deep-rooted suspicion of police, even as neighbors such as Brown reassure him that the authorities are now on his side.
“But you know, all of us can change — even Dr. Muse at nearly 90 years old,” she said.
Despite those difficulties, the neighborhood has been solidly in his corner. The hungry can get a free meal at the lunch counter every Wednesday afternoon.
Everyone, from the down-and-out to the up-and-comers, is treated with dignity. His prices are fair, and the elderly or struggling could get the essentials “on the tick,” the local colloquial for running a tab.
His store has never been robbed. There have been few break-ins, including an attempt by a group of ne’er-do-wells to steal an ATM. But residents say the word on the street is not to bother Doc.
Muse nodded in recognition, having heard tales of former neighbors and customers who now live all over the world.
“I have been through segregation, integration and revitalization, and I am still here,” he said.
Then he turned away. Another customer needed his help.