The milkman, F.W. Woolworth and my corner drugstore

Article by Richard Harris

Business – December 1995 – Colorado Central Magazine

It’s about staples.

When I first saw Waggener’s Pharmacy in 1978, it was a tiny, dim place with fading paint and worn carpet. It had too much inventory sitting in neat rows like little soldiers at parade rest, long past any hope of a profitable sale.

But I stepped through the door and traveled back in time, to a small piece of history that had been blessedly bypassed by modernization. The first thing that struck my senses was the smell. From my childhood I remembered the way a real drugstore smelled. I was never able to identify the odor — perhaps its a blend of fragrances: cinnamon and camphor, perfumes and paregoric, vanilla, and mothballs. I hadn’t smelled this in many years, but it was immediately recognizable.

The historic McGovern Building was built in 1887 and the corner business was occupied by Algers Drug Store. The pharmacists that followed were Meier, Bode, and then Waggener. Robert Smith and Genevieve Oberly, the two aging partners who sold the business to me, admittedly were too old and too tired after nearly forty years behind the counter to carry on the daily struggle. “The place needs some younger, stronger hands to keep it on course” were their words.

Standing in the prescription room behind a century-old pharmacy dispensing counter, I often thought that I could feel the presence of the ghosts of Alger, Bode, or Conrad Waggener — all pharmacists who like myself stood in the same place for long hours each day in the performance of an occupation they also loved. I felt in a way that I was responsible for keeping their tradition alive.

Over the years I have found many artifacts in the basement that tell the stories of my predecessors. Old prescription files with the formulas for remedies, potions, and compounds that were the wonder drugs of their day. Glass stoppered bottles that contained the ingredients to create the wizardry ordered by the physicians of another era. There were also the tools and equipment left from the soda fountain days. No real drugstore would have been complete without a fountain.

Now, seventeen years to the month for me, and eighty-four years beyond its namesake, Waggener’s Pharmacy is coming to a peaceful end. We have kept it alive and struggled to make it survive but progress has finally outlasted us. The ghosts will have to retreat to their basement museum where I can put them to rest, ending more than a century of service. The old fixtures and dispensing counter will for now stay put until I can find a safe place to preserve them — they have served us well.

The pharmacy business that dispensed medicines, remedies, advice, and ice cream sodas for so many years has lost its place in the high stakes world of modern competition. The “bottom line” for an independent pharmacy has an ever more bleak forecast.

In a recent article in Pharmacy Times it is reported that just under 20% of the retail pharmacy trade is still done by independent pharmacists. That figure is shrinking as more and more independents sell out or close from competition that they can’t survive.

A major reason for this trend is staples. Not the metal variety, but those things like bread, milk, underwear, and medicine.

It hasn’t been so many years since a gentleman came by our house in the early hours of the morning a couple times each week and left unique paper-stoppered glass bottles filled with fresh milk. His customers could also order fresh cream, butter, and even eggs. You just left the empties in a prearranged place on the porch with a shopping list of dairy items for the day. By the time the sun came up, you had your order and fresh milk delivered to your door for your breakfast cereal or pancakes.

Now when you go to the dairy case at the supermarket, you find disposable plastic or cardboard containers holding any quantity of “dairy fresh” milk. And often if you are a careful shopper and have the coupon from the newspaper or a card filled with trading stamps you can pay as little as 1 for a gallon of milk. That, I guess, is progress.

The people who design marketing strategies for supermarkets know that most grocery shoppers buy milk (a staple) with their order. A gallon of milk for 1 will surely attract shoppers to their market. And in fact it does. That’s why the milkman doesn’t deliver to our doors anymore.

He was selling a product that is costly to produce and must be sold for a profit. He couldn’t sell a gallon of milk for 1 and still be able to feed his cows and his kids. But the grocery store can survive selling milk for a penny as long as they can also count on their customers buying many other items that have built-in profits. That’s progress.

Someone is giving away as promotion what another must be able to sell profitably. Does that make the milkman a gouging con man? It makes him the unfortunate victim of progress. He loved his work, his cows, his customers, and his lifestyle, but his existence was preempted by progress.

Until a few years ago, Salida boasted an F.W. Woolworth five-and-dime store. It was closed when a corporate executive decided that “bottom line” economics would surely make it unprofitable in the coming years. This despite the continuing profitability of an historic store. It was finally closed over the objection and letters of the entire town.

The five-and-dime was a remnant of another era. It was probably partly responsible for its own demise. Being one of the first of a wave of mass merchandisers put it in a special place to most of us. Woolworth stores were almost always high-ceilinged locations in the downtown of small towns, often occupying the larger retail spaces on the main street.

I remember from childhood that they all had a characteristic smell just as real drugstores also have a characteristic aroma. Even if the five-and-dime didn’t have a hot nut counter, there was still a recognizable odor when you first came through the door.

As a child I spent valuable time standing in front of the candy counter deciding how best to spend a quarter to get the delicacies I wanted most in that little white flat-bottomed bag. Wandering back and forth in the aisle of the cheap toys could also take up a good part of Saturday afternoon.

As an adult in my downtown pharmacy, I could run across the street in the middle of the afternoon and pick up a few items as diverse as a package of underwear and a box of meal worms to feed my second grader’s chameleon. They always had an aquarium full of gold fish and tropical fish to lure my children into thinking they too could raise exotic fish in a tiny fish bowl at home. I don’t think the fish ever lived past a week.

But the mass merchandising era that Woolworth’s helped start was eventually the reason for its closing. Sure they had sales, and seasonal clearance sales. You could always wait until after Christmas and get some real bargains on over-stocked Christmas decorations, but you certainly were never able to get below-cost discounts before Thanksgiving. Again, they sold staples as well as impulse items for profit. Now they are gone, another victim to progress as the retailing giants sell staples at or below cost to attract customers to the more profitable items.

Which beings me back to my own situation with staples. Medicine is something the modern world can’t do without. We now have pills and potions to cure all but a very few maladies. The advertising media are constantly advising us of the right remedy for whatever ails you. Even prescription medicine is now mass marketed on T.V. and in print.

The attraction of discounted prescription medicines and patent remedies has brought the retailing giants into the picture in the last 10-15 years. Admittedly they are giving away millions of dollars worth of prescription medications to their customers in order to get them into their mega-stores where customers are likely to purchase other items to produce a profitable bottom line.

However, to the independent pharmacist who has to sell prescriptions for profit to pay his overhead and feed his family, just like our departed friend the milkman, there is no way to compete. The product that you depend on for your livelihood is being traded as bait by the giants. A profitable prescription department is secondary to bringing customers into the bigger picture.

As the discount giants have cut the retail price of prescription medications, the third-party payers (insurance companies and various levels of government) haven taken note of the drop in prescription prices.

Now, most payers of prescription insurance plans have established their own reimbursement prices for prescription drugs based on their findings in price surveys.

What that means to independent pharmacists is that although they realize that the reimbursement rates being paid are neither equitable nor fair, if they intend to keep their customers coming through their doors they must match prices with the giants. To do so means the independents must give away their prescription profits and try to be profitable selling greeting cards, cosmetics, or candy. But you have to sell a lot of chocolate to recover the investment in a month’s supply of today’s wonder drugs for hypertension and arthritis.

In my small town, a recent price survey of a drug most commonly prescribed to treat ulcers was selling in a range from $90 to $98 for a one month’s supply. The wholesale price of the medicine is just under $110. Consequently, most insurers are paying under $100 for a month’s supply.

As an independent pharmacist I hoped that I didn’t have to fill very many prescriptions each day for this medicine when I lost $15 to $20 on each prescription. Most patients, if asked, believe that a pharmacist’s profit would run from 50%-100% of his cost on each prescription filled. It that was ever so, it certainly hasn’t been for a long time.

Among the relics in the basement of Waggener’s Pharmacy are old cigar boxes filled with dusty prescriptions from the early 1900’s. It is interesting to me that the prices that the pharmacist marked on the face of each prescription rarely exceeded $1. Most were 75 or 85, depending on the time involved in the preparation. Many of those formulas could take eight hours to prepare. So a pharmacist of that era would be really working to fill 25-30 prescriptions in a day’s time.

Today we must fill 75-100 prescriptions per day just to pay the bills. It is no longer feasible for me to believe that I can produce the volume necessary in today’s competitive marketplace to generate a profit given my investment.

I can continue to hang on and try to sell alternative retail products in my small location, but it was designed many, many years ago to sell prescription drugs primarily, and drug sundries as a sideline. Unfortunately it was designed in an era when medicine (a staple) was being sold by professional pharmacists like Conrad Waggener as an avocation, an occupation, and a way of life.

Sadly for me, that time has passed, lost in the headlong rush of progress.

I believe we must have progress, and change is necessary to the evolution of our society. But sadly we lose some very valuable and irreplaceable assets as the consequence of it all.

I have been extremely fortunate to have spent the good years of my life in pursuit of my dream in my corner drug store. I will preserve the relics in the basement of Waggener’s Pharmacy and occasionally when I can find the time I will visit the ghosts who live there and recall the way it was.

Richard Harris will soon be glad to fill your prescription at the Safeway Pharmacy in Salida; the pharmacy building at 101 F Street, where Laura Evans once shopped for cosmetics, is the “Made In Colorado Shoppe.”