Independent pharmacies can be part of a healthy local economy.

Source: Stephen Craven

Source: Stephen Craven

Independent pharmacies are the sort of place where everyone knows your name. They often have a deep history and provide business opportunities for entrepreneurs, yet, today they are increasingly rare. I believe independent pharmacies are an important part of a strong town. They are run by strong citizens, they bolster healthy local economies and they use their land wisely.

Strong Citizens, Strong Local Economies

The small business owner is a quintessential strong citizen. He knows his neighbors because they are his customers. He works with them to resolve conflict. He seeks connection to others outside of his neighborhood to understand how to better his business. He honors the past, respects the present and plans for the future, because he hopes his business will continue beyond his life.

My grandfather, Joel McKay Jolley, was such a small business owner. In 1950, he graduated from pharmacy school and later began a partnership to purchase King Rexall Drug, which would eventually become Jolley’s Compounding Pharmacy. When he became the majority owner, his first act was to take the cigarettes off the shelves and to close the store on Sundays. His business partner, Mr. King, was convinced this would drive the business into the ground. My grandfather went ahead with his decision and sent mailers to the entire neighborhood announcing the decision. This initial act kickstarted the growth of his businesses.

My grandpa Joel also sought connection outside his neighborhood, and became president of the Utah Pharmacist’s Association. He served his church in countless roles. He was able to do so much for his community because he was invested in it, he had the means to help others, and he truly cared. Like so many pharmacy owners of his generation, he continued to work in the pharmacy long after he sold the business to his sons and long past “retirement age.” He came in to sweep the floors, to check in the inventory, and to catch up with his friends when they came to the pharmacy.

I started to work in the family pharmacy, now under my father’s ownership, at age 14. I worked as a clerk, as a delivery driver, and as a pharmacy technician. Three years ago, I followed my grandfather, my father, and my sister to pharmacy school. I moved to St. Louis. I knew I wanted to work for an independent pharmacy, and I was fortunate to find a position as a student pharmacist in an independent across the street from my college.

Recent statistics about independent pharmacies. Click to view larger. (Source: National Community Pharmacists Association 2016 Digest)

My employer, Chris Geronsin, success story similar to my grandfather's. After graduating pharmacy school, Chris began working at Beverly Hills Pharmacy, a small, one man shop in north St. Louis County. The owner at the time had tried to convince him to buy the place and one day placed the keys on the counter, said “pay me when you can” and left. Thanks to that decision, and Chris’ subsequent hard work and business savvy, Beverly Hills Pharmacy is still in business and thriving, having expanded to a second location.

Chris employs six other pharmacists, dozens of technicians, and almost a dozen delivery drivers. The pharmacy provides free delivery services to the whole of St. Louis City and County. This allows thousands of low income residents of the surrounding community, many of whom do not have a car, to access vital medications with the convenience of answering their own front door.

Through my involvement in the National Community Pharmacist’s Association, I have met hundreds of pharmacist-owners from all over the country who, similarly, care deeply about their communities. They express this in many ways. They intervene when something is wrong with a prescription and make a call to a physician to make sure their patients are safe and healthy. They donate to their local community. And they stick their necks out to design practices that are concerned with more than moving prescriptions out the door as quickly and cheaply as possible.

Designed with Care

Consider for a moment the typical chain pharmacy. You walk in and see thousands of square feet of retail, and tucked behind all that, you get to the pharmacy.

Now picture an independent pharmacy. You walk in and within seven paces you are at the pharmacy counter. Take, for example, my current rotation site, Towncrest Pharmacy, in Iowa City, Iowa. It is surrounded by a CVS, a Walgreens and a Hy-Vee drugstore — all within a quarter mile.

Towncrest Pharmacy is tiny with a 1600 square foot footprint, but employs six pharmacists and a dozen technicians and students. The pharmacy fulfills at least as many prescriptions as any of the nearby chain stores. The building and its parking lot could almost fit inside the CVS across the street. This is an extreme example, but no independent pharmacy I’ve ever set foot in has had footprint larger than 4000 sq ft. Meanwhile, every CVS that I’ve visited has been over 10,000 sq ft.

If you get your medications from a chain store, I challenge you to ask yourself why. Is it because you, like so many of us, live your life at automobile speeds and do not notice the comparatively tiny sign for the independent pharmacy, and therefore assume it doesn’t exist? Do you think that service will be slower or somehow less convenient at an independent?

When you spend your money at an independent pharmacy, you ensure that that money will be spent in turn within your community (and plenty of it donated to community organizations too). I think shopping at independent pharmacies is a small but important way you can help build strong towns. You can find your local independent using this locator tool.

Benjamin Jolley is a Strong Towns member and 2018 PharmD candidate at St. Louis College of Pharmacy. He grew up in Salt Lake City, UT. 

(Top photo source: U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Sandra Marrero)

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