From the Archives: Duke ‘Dope Shops’

John F. Kennedy visited the soda fountain on West Campus in 1959

Part of the From the Archives Series

East Campus Dope Shop
East Campus Dope Shop, undated. Courtesy of Duke University Archives

Back when Duke University was known as Trinity College in 1916 and located entirely on East Campus, two sophomores, J.A. "Lon" Bolich and Robert Few (nephew of Trinity College's president William Preston Few), approached the president with an idea to start a store.

The students received space in Epworth residence hall on East Campus and convinced Coca-Cola to extend a week's worth of Coke and lend them an icebox. They received a display case and extended credit on cakes and cookies from Nabisco, and a grocer supplied bananas, apples, nuts and raisins.

The store, known as the "Dope Shop," turned into a soda fountain on East Campus, and moved to different East Campus locations over the years before changing from a 1940s luncheonette to a modernized eatery in 1981.

The second Duke soda fountain location, the West Campus Dope Shop, opened in the basement of West Union when West Campus was completed in 1930, according to Duke University Archives.

Calling the hangouts Dope Shop "probably came from the once popular belief that Coke contained small amounts of cocaine or from its thick, medicine-like consistency," according to the University Archives. The shops were known for thick milkshakes, hamburgers and french fries. John F. Kennedy even visited the West Campus Dope Shop, looking for a hamburger before his lecture at Page Auditorium. He was visiting Duke just weeks before he announced his presidential candidacy.

Longtime Duke barber Dave Fowler, who's worked at the university since 1959, said the barbershop used to be located across from the Dope Shop in the West Union. He would take advantage of the $1 burger and fries special at the soda fountain on Fridays.

"It was nothing fancy. Just a place to meet and eat," said Fowler, whose shop is now on the bottom floor of the Bryan Center. "I've said quite often that I hated to see it go, but they probably saved my life from all that cholesterol."

West Campus Dope Shop, 1970s
West Campus Dope Shop, 1970s. Courtesy of Duke University Archives

Over the years, the "Dope Shop" became the all-encompassing term for Duke University's West Campus stores, and offerings varied from cigarettes and shoe strings to exam "blue books" and slide rules. When women moved into West Campus residence halls, the shops began to carry women's magazines and hairspray. In the late '70s, the West Dope Shop sold hundreds of records, sometimes posting fliers for student sales.

By 1979, the West Campus Dope Shop was experiencing a sharp decline in sales, causing the shop to cut its hours. The manager at the time said there was a "definite decline in the soda fountain business over the past few years."

The Dope Shop closed in 1982, the same year the Bryan Center opened.

"People in the Allen Building and the hospital will really miss it," Carol Rigsbee, a Dope Shop employee for 22 years, said in a 1982 newspaper article in the University Archives. "Students liked the communion of the place."