I must have passed it a thousand times or more. Certainly I’d noticed the white terra cotta facade and its odd trapezoidal shape, canted in such a way that it doesn’t quite align with the street, like a mis-set bone.
But it wasn’t until very recently that I happened to actually look up and take in the detail above the doorway/windows. Two names (?) permanently formed into the ceramic tile that read like ancient runes, some hep jazzcat jive, or a preposterous stage name: Lackzoom Acidophilus.
The small, two-story building at 5438 Penn Avenue turns out to have been the one-time laboratory and corporate headquarters for the lineal parent of the General Nutrition Corporation (or GNC), the Pittsburgh-based retail giant that made a fortune over the last half century urging America to “Live Well” vis-a-vis shopping and popping (malls and pills, respectively).
It’s no surprise that I’m not the only one to ever spot this curious storefront, but there’s remarkably little information out there on it. The definitive piece seems to be a short Western Pennsylvania History Magazine article written in 2003 by Chris Potter.
Potter’s story details David Shakarian, founder of GNC, whose:
… Armenian parents ran a business called “Lackzoom” which sold yogurt, buttermilk, and Bulgarian acidophilus–milk fortified with the bacteria lactobacillus acidophilus to intestinal bacteria that make digesting milk difficult for some.
Apparently the original Lackzoom never survived The Great Depression, but Shakarian would go on to found his own health food store, and eventually the GNC chain. In 1983, the year before his death, Shakarian was named by Forbes magazine as the wealthiest Pittsburgher on their annual list. Live well, indeed.