Beloved Austin soda fountain and pharmacy, Nau’s Enfield Drug, to close

Nau’s Enfield Drug, one of the last bastions of what can be called “old Austin,” is closing by March of next year. The drugstore and one-time soda fountain is the latest in a string of longstanding businesses to shutter during the COVID-19 pandemic, an inevitability when the Labay family lost its lease on the building in April.

Opened by the Nau family in 1951 on West Lynn Street, the business remained a popular and mostly unchanging local pharmacy and greasy-spoon eatery for most of its existence, even after Lambert Labay bought the business in 1971. From then until 2020, when the soda fountain closed, Nau’s was a post-war relic, beloved for its small-town feel and its cheeseburgers, served with a smile and a side of chips.

Laura Labay’s mother, Lambert’s wife, was pregnant with the Nau’s manager in 1971, when her parents met at the future home of their family business.

“Mom and dad were sitting there,” Laura Labay gestures, to the disused soda fountain, the stools already gone. “And it didn’t look too much different than it does now.”

The soda fountain closing spelled the end of Nau's.

The soda fountain closing spelled the end of Nau’s.

Chris O’Connell/MySA

Labay started working in her family store in 1999, returning to Austin after stints in New York City and Houston. Her father Lambert, Nau’s pharmacist since 1963, had a massive heart attack and mostly retired in 2016, leaving most of the day-to-day to his daughter. Following a string of what Labay calls “bad things and unfortunate circumstances” with pharmacy hires and an air conditioning failure and installation that forced the soda fountain closure briefly, she made what she considers to be a misstep in maintaining the future of the business. 

There was always a plan to reopen the soda fountain after the pandemic waned, but when Labay went to the building owners before approaching the city to pull permits, they asked her to hold off. The families had a handshake agreement that seemed natural in 1971, and perhaps even normal for an old-school business like Nau’s in 2022, it being a vestige of mid-century America that thrived on such deals. 

“In hindsight, that was a really bad decision on my end, because I should have been more forceful and tried to raise capital,” she says. “[The soda fountain] was really what drove traffic and sales.”

The Labays had right of first refusal to purchase the building, but after their lease expired, that right disappeared along with it. Rumors swirl around the store that McGuire Moorman Lambert, owners of nearby Clark’s, Jeffrey’s, Josephine House, and a slew of other restaurants, are the mystery buyers. After all, it would make sense, and has been a matter of hearsay for years around town.

When reached for comment, however, an MML employee denied that they had purchased the building. Labay is not sure what will become of her family business. For now, she says she is focused on selling off the parts of the store and, importantly, forming a transition plan for the store’s customers.

Many of Nau’s customers are used to the kind of personalized service that independent drugstores used to provide. They’d carry cigarette brands or a type of candy or a certain soap at the request of a single local. Labay says her father used to start getting prescriptions ready when he’d notice his regular customers’ cars pulling in to the lot. She has a customer who is disabled, and so Labay will personally drop off the patient’s medication.

“It’s just crushing,” she says, “because I don’t know who else out there is going to be able to do what we do.

Customers began claiming and purchasing pieces of the beloved drugstore and soda fountain in April, when Nau's lost its lease on the building.

Customers began claiming and purchasing pieces of the beloved drugstore and soda fountain in April, when Nau’s lost its lease on the building.

Chris O’Connell/MySA

Labay greets a customer, one of many curious about which piece of Nau’s they can take home with them before the bulldozers come. He apologizes for the family losing the lease and asks what’s left for sale. It’s mugs and one table, for now, but everything must go. He asks if she’ll sell the iconic Nau’s Enfield Drug sign and she demurs.

“Probably not,” she says, “but everything else …”

Above all, Labay hopes that Austin remembers Nau’s Enfield Drug the way it was for its first 70 years instead of the last two. Her mother is still alive, and still regularly visits the store. Her father is in poor health. Both are still coming to grips with losing their grasp on the family business.

“It’s devastating, because I don’t want people’s memories … ” Labay trails off, waving to the rows of empty racks and the dusty chairs stacked upon the tables at which giggling teens and stern lawyers alike once slurped down milkshakes. She stares into the negative space. It’s a void that can never be refilled in a city with such a short memory.

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