The price war that erupted this week among Amazon, Wal-Mart, Target, and Barnes & Noble has authors, publishers, and independent booksellers nervously speculating about what the future holds for them. Ironically, Barnes & Noble, whose sheer size gave it pricing leverage with publishers and threatened to drive independent booksellers out of business, is now finding itself threatened by the even more predatory pricing practices of Amazon, Target, and the notorious Wal-Mart. B&N is fighting back with its own eBook reader and it looks like a serious threat to Amazon’s Kindle. Unfortunately, as discussed in this Slate article, no matter how successful the device is, B&N’s brick and mortar business is likely to shrink. While B&N may be able to take some business away from Amazon in eBooks, pricing pressure from its brick and mortar competitors on physical books will lower their margins. Target and Wal-Mart can sell books as loss leaders to get people in their stores where they are likely to buy more than just books. Bookstores, no matter how big they are, can’t do that. One can hope that the book departments in Target and Wal-Mart will be just as crappy as their other departments and offer a pitiful selection of popular dreck and the value of true bookstores will not be lost.
These current-day price wars conducted by giant retailers remind me the the transformation of the business my father was in for forty years. He was, by profession, a pharmacist. He was also a businessman. He owned the neighborhood drugstore in our section of Elmhurst, Queens. After working his way through pharmacy school, serving in the Army during the Korean war, and then working in other people’s stores for a couple of years, managed to buy the neglected and rundown business in his own neighborhood. From the time he bought the business in the early fifties until he modernized it in the early sixties, the store looked very much like the one in Edward Hopper’s painting. Hopper is perhaps best known for his handling of light and the thing that strikes me about this painting is the light streaming out of the store into the darkened street. It’s 10 PM and everything is closed but the drugstore. The doorway in the shadow next to the store leads to the stairway up to the second floor where the druggist’s children are sleeping and his wife is waiting for him to close the store and come home.
The picture also prominently shows two hanging show globes. Even after my father completely modernized the store, he had two antique standing show globes that he kept in the store windows. From time to time, he would empty them out and change the coloring. I remember helping him in the back of the store, filling them with water and tincture of this and tincture of that. For some reason, I never knew what the hell these things were and what purpose they served and I never even thought to ask him. With the help of Wikipedia, I now know they are a traditional symbol for pharmacies dating back to at least the 16th century.
My father took his profession and his responsibility to his customers and to our community very seriously. He considered himself a healthcare provider and his customers looked to him that way. If they had a cold, or a fever, or a scratch, or a sudden rash, they consulted him first. If it was something easy, he handled it. If they needed to see a doctor, he patiently soothed their fears so that they wouldn’t be too afraid to go. When they had seen a doctor, while my father filled their prescriptions they often asked him all the questions about their condition and their medication that they had been too afraid to ask the doctor. Some people even called him “Doc,” just like in the old movies.
Although my father was a health practitioner, and no one who knew him ever had any doubt that he did what he did because he loved it, he was also running a retail business. Over the course of my life I saw it become more and more difficult. When I was born, it might very well have been his dream that I too would grow up to be a pharmacist and he would hand his business down to me. By the time I was a teenager, he had seen where the retail pharmacy business was headed and realized there wasn’t much of a future in it. At least in the way he thought a pharmacy should be run.
We lived in a middle class neighborhood. My father’s business was successful, so we were probably better off than most people, but we were not rich either. We lived modestly in an apartment above the store even when we could have bought a real house in a slightly better neighborhood, as some of the other merchants on our street did.
My father’s store was pretty much like any other neighborhood drugstore at the time. On the shelves near the front of the store where the various sundries one expects: combs, hairbrushes, shaving cream, toothpaste, shampoo. There was a small counter with cosmetics, a cigar humidor and a candy counter next the cash register. At the back of the store, on a raised floor, dominating the entire space, was the reason the store existed, the prescription counter. While my father’s store carried all the normal drug store items, it was the prescription counter that was, as we call it in retail business-speak, the primary revenue center.
Other than my grandfather, who worked in the store dusting stocking the selves, and running deliveries, my father never hired any additional staff. Over the years he occasionally had a temporary pharmacist come in so that he could take some time, but that was very rare.
As the sixties turned into the seventies and the seventies turned into the eighties, the retail pharmacy business changed drastically. Chains were established, very often by pharmacists of my father’s generation who liked business management more than they liked pharmacology. Chains battled, then merged and became ever larger. They became large enough to negotiate prices directly with pharmaceutical companies and HMO’s, open stores with floor space three or four times the size of the traditional (now labeled “independent”) drugstores. They sold everything from lawn furniture to motor oil to potato chips. The prescription counter was still in the back of the store, but it was the loss leader that drew you into the store so you could buy all the higher profit margin non-prescription items in the front of the store.
Somehow, through all of this, my father remained successful and left on his own terms when he retired comfortably in the early nineties. The key may have been that he never actually tried to compete with the chains the way they competed with each other. He didn’t fill up his store with aisles of toys, housewares, and car fresheners. Instead he focused on filling prescriptions personally while his customers waited. I remember seeing him behind the counter when the store was busy, deftly filling one prescription after another, banging out the labels two-finger style on his Hermes Rocket, and talking to his customers. I may be exaggerating, but I don’t think anyone ever had to wait more than ten minutes to get their prescription filled. So, while the chains used the prescription counter to get customers in the door to buy other stuff, my father used the prescription counter to get them to keep coming back.
He was the last of his breed. The other neighborhood drugstores in our area either went out of business or got acquired by the chains. Newtown Pharmacy at 91-09 Corona Avenue in Elmhurst was the last to go. One fact is telling: When he retired, he didn’t sell the business, he sold the building.
Last week I needed a prescription filled. I brought it to a nearby CVS in the morning. I was told by a pharmacist technician who didn’t know my name to come back in the afternoon to pick it up. That afternoon when I came back, she handed me the prescription and I made my way back to the front of the store. I’m sure that same pharmacist technician won’t be there the next time I get a prescription filled. On the way to the cashier, I picked up some blank DVD’s, some AAA batteries for my wireless mouse, a spare light bulb for the lamp in my office, and a six-pack of Arizona Iced Tea.
As I stood in line waiting to check out I understood how my father stayed in business and competed successfully against the giants, why customers old an new brought there their prescriptions to him instead of the supermarket. He provided personal, human service and didn’t treat healing and wellness like commodities.
© 2009 – 2015, Fred Bubbers. All rights reserved.Email This Post Print This Post