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Monday, March 18, 2013

Old-Fashinoned Drug Stores--A Thing of the Past

By Valerie Battle Kienzle

“The times they are a changing…”

The words to Bob Dylan’s song were accurate in 1964 and they’re accurate today.  Our society and culture experienced dramatic changes during the 20th century.  And the changes continue with the passing of each decade. 

I grew up in the 1960s.  In those days, the local drug store or pharmacy was truly LOCAL – locally-owned and locally-managed.  Pharmacists usually lived near their stores and sometimes used a mortar and pestle to combine ingredients and make their own capsules.

Drug stores weren’t just a place to find medicines and first-aid supplies.  They were a place to eat a hot breakfast at a counter and to grab a made-to-order sandwich for lunch.  They were a hang-out for teens wanting a cool ice cream float, milkshake or soft drink. Kids with a quarter could buy a lunch sack full of assorted candy. They were a place for old-timers to meet each morning to drink coffee and solve the world’s problems.  They were a place to catch up on all the latest community news – who was having a baby, who was visiting out-of-town relatives, what crops were going in, who was leaving to join the military.

Drug stores, like today’s pharmacies, carried newspapers and magazines, an assortment of cosmetics, school supplies, greeting cards, holiday decorations and last-minute gift ideas for loved ones.  Years ago, some even carried Timex watches and fine jewelry. 

Pharmacies were once a neighborhood social hub.  And they were noted for personal service.  If you couldn’t find what you were looking for, someone working behind the counter called you by your first name, asked how your family was and helped you find just the thing you needed. 

Instead of punching access codes into key pads, pharmacists walked through swinging wooden half-doors to get to their compounds and drug supplies.  This was before the days when cookie-cutter big-box stores like Walgreen’s and CVS popped up on seemingly every other street corner. 

Pharmacology was a popular career choice in Mom’s family.  Three uncles and two cousins became pharmacists.  Four of the five owned and ran successful drug stores for decades in their respective communities.  They were esteemed residents in their towns, holding various appointed and elected positions.

They continued to own and work in their drug stores until age and infirmities forced them to sell their stores and retire.  Their individual departures from the pharmacy world were lamented by community residents who’d known and depended on them for several generations.

Refilling a prescription was easy in those days.  Customers brought in their empty bottles and containers, and then the pharmacist refilled them, usually while they waited.  There were no questions about insurance coverage, allowable refills or possible drug interactions.  If you didn’t have the cash to pay, the pharmacist kept a running tab, asking only that you pay once a month or when you could.  Some even took dairy products or produce as trade.  My grandparents raised dairy cows.  Grandma provided fresh cream to her brother’s drug store for use in the milkshakes at his soda fountain.  Such a thing would never happen today.

I thought about all of this the other day as I walked into my nearby Walgreen’s.  I chose to go inside rather than go to the drive-thru, which I find to be a totally impersonal experience.  Yelling into a microphone from my car just doesn’t do much for me.

I’ve been in Walgreen’s stores in various states.  The layout is almost always exactly the same in every store, so I know where to go to find whatever I need.  I’d used my cell phone to scan the bar codes on my previous prescription packaging.  The scan of those tiny bars told pharmacy personnel everything they needed to know about me, the prescription and other medications I take.  I was able to select a time to pick up the prescription via my cellphone.  No personal interaction needed. 

Earlier that day, I’d loaded images from my camera to Walgreen’s website.  In less than an hour, I received an automatically generated e-mail telling me my printed photos were ready for pick up. 

No one greeted me, much less recognized me, as I walked through Walgreen's automatic doors.  I went to the back of the store to pick up my prescriptions and was told that the pharmacist could provide only a partial refill as the store’s supply had run out.  

I didn’t need cash.  I pulled out a Flexible Spending Account card to pay the amount due that hadn’t been covered by our insurance.  I swiped it through a machine and an attendant who seemed distracted handed me a bag with the medicine.  Attached to the bag was a lengthy sheet with tiny type informing me of possible problems I might have while taking the drug.  If I wasn’t sick before, the possibility of experiencing one or more of the side effects shown on this extensive list of negative reactions was enough to make me question how I felt.  Also listed was the amount of money our insurance coverage had saved me – almost $100.00.  At that point, I wasn’t sure whether to feel ill or thankful.

So my trip to the pharmacy was quick, efficient and took very little interaction with other human beings.  And in case I was concerned about touching something that someone with germs might have touched, a bottle of hand sanitizer was conveniently located at the pick-up window.

Saving time is important in today’s fast-paced world.  Efficiency is a good thing in a world where so many demands are placed upon our time.  But some days it would be nice to be greeted, to have someone interact with us, to encounter someone who cares.  I can think of few places where social interaction takes place as it once did at the local drug store.  And I miss those days.