Profile of a small-town pharmacy: Something old, something new

May 21, 2007

The life of a small-town pharmacy is anything but ordinary. The days of soda fountains and bicycle delivery boys are long gone and have been replaced with bulky neon Coke machines and UPS. For one small-town pharmacy in Hazlehurst, Miss., the old way of life is exactly what this family wants to keep in place.

 

It starts at 8:00 AM with the clinging of a bell and the turning on of lights. Before the first cup of coffee can be put in its place, customers start streaming in and the last one won't leave the floor until sometime after 6:00 PM, which is closing time. The hustle-and-bustle never stops and the people never seem to stop streaming in. Callers want to know when their "reflex" medicine will be filled, only to hear the friendly clerk who knows them by name correct them gently and tell them that their "reflux" medicine is indeed ready.

The life of a small-town pharmacy is anything but ordinary. The days of soda fountains and bicycle delivery boys are long gone and have been replaced with bulky neon Coke machines and UPS. For one small-town pharmacy in Hazlehurst, Miss., the old way of life is exactly what this family wants to keep in place.

Allred's Pharmacy and Gifts was established 80 years ago by Cecil Allred. Jackie and Nancy Thompson found their way to Hazlehurst 45 years later, bought the business, and are still the owners and operators today. Allred's competes with three other pharmacies in the area, yet its parking lot remains filled from the moment the bell clangs until closing time, Monday through Saturday.

So what are the positives to a dying breed of small-town pharmacies that allow them to stay afloat? Pharmacist Jackie Thompson said it's their flexibility and convenience. "I think that the flexibility to do anything at any moment in time and to be able to do anything you need to do to improve your business keeps us open. You are your own CEO and CFO, and it works out great."

Many big businesses envy the freedom and flexibility of small-town pharmacies. Thompson said, "We can change and do anything we want as long as it complies with the state board regulations and, well, the government's regulations as well."

While Thompson sees his life's business as a positive thing, he said he still can also spot a few cons. "Inside my business, I have the flexibility to do what I want to do. But outside of that, I am restricted. Because I am my own CEO and I make all the decisions, I always have to be there and I don't get a lot of time off. This can sometimes seem like confinement because I don't have a lot of time for vacations and things like that."

His wife, Nancy, sang the same tune. "We are typically confined to the store because we are the only ones that really know how to run it. But the pros outnumber the cons by far," she said.

Getting to know you

While Jackie sees the flexibility of his business as the main attraction, Nancy said that the personal basis on which you get to know your customers is the best thing to her. "You really get to know your customers, and they become like family to you. It becomes a one-on-one type of relationship. Regardless of race, age, or gender, you get to know them and their families and they become like your own. They truly care about us and we truly care about them and all that goes on with their loved ones." She also said that one good thing about a small-town pharmacy is all of the goodies the customers bring in. "They bring you lots of fresh vegetables in the summer from their gardens and other things that they have made. That is always fun!"

Andrea Ashley, long-time employee of Jackie and Nancy Thompson, said she feels that small-town pharmacies work because they actually are able to care for their customers. "One of the things everyone likes is that we deliver. Whether it's medicine to someone that's sick at home or to people in the nursing home, we deliver medicine and medical supplies every day. We still have charge accounts, and even though it's frustrating to the owners sometimes when the promises to make payments aren't kept, we keep them because our store loves people. Customers can call small-town pharmacists like Jackie in the middle of the night if they need medicine. We are in the business of not only medicine but taking care of people."

Another long-time employee, Pam Thompson, enjoys the friendly atmosphere of Allred's. "If you were a customer, wouldn't you rather go to a pharmacy where the clerks—and especially the pharmacist—at least knew your name?" she asked. "Most of the time our pharmacist knows not only your name but you, your family, and most of your medical history. He also works very closely alongside the local doctors and many that are out of town." She continued, "You can actually go behind the counter and speak to the pharmacist about things that are going on in your life, and you feel as if you are their only customer. Why would anyone want to go anyplace else? Maybe you can go through an automated system in the corporate world, but in our small-town pharmacy, you are anything but just another Rx number."

While it's easy to see all of the good in this 80-year-old business, at times it can become a chore trying to keep up with corporate America. Ashley said, "Small-town pharmacies are indicative of small-town America in general. All small businesses are in a struggle against the mega-this and the mega-that. In the short run, it may be attractive to people because of the ability of giant retailers to undercut the little guy, but in the long run a town loses its sense of identity and community."

The hours can be extremely trying for the pharmacists as well. Pam Thompson said, "They tend to work long, hard hours on their feet all day long rarely with a break. Jackie doesn't have much time off at all, but the reward for helping people, I hope, makes it worth it."

Medicare Part D

Medicare Part D has presented a problem for many small pharmacies. Several elders in the pharmacy field have even had to close down their businesses because they could not afford to keep them open with this new government program. Jackie said, "I think Medicare Part D is the most ill-conceived and totally unresearched program the federal government has ever given to the American people. It is so hidden in a cloak of deceit that it helped absolutely no one but corporate America. I think the President sold small-town America out." Jackie believes it is a conspiracy by the drug companies because all of the Medicare Part D providers are owned by drug companies. He said, "I think it's a ploy by certain power mongers in this country to get rid of independent drugstores."

Nancy added, "It has been very confusing and has taken a lot of time to educate our customers. The program and the government took zero time to teach the people and left it up to the pharmacists to educate their public. This took time away from what the pharmacist's job really is."

Ashley has seen a lot of strife due to the new plan. Jackie, she said, "spent a lot of time on the phone trying to straighten out the messes, talking to customers and helping them get on the right plan. He could have just shrugged them off left them to figure it out on their own. But he cared for his customers because he is a genuine small-town pharmacist!"

A blessing

Jackie Thompson feels blessed by his business, and his family does as well. Much can be said about a small-town business and its owner. One of Thompson's two daughters, Jennifer Walker, has learned much by growing up in her father's drugstore. She said, "I have a strong work ethic because of growing up around my dad and his business. I am seeing this more and more as I grow into my career. There are days I remember dad getting up at 2:00 AM to meet someone to get something as simple as Tylenol. You will never find this in a chain store. Sometimes we had to wait for him to get back from helping others to have family dinners, but other than that, nothing at all was bad about his business and his spending time with our family. I completely respect him for what he does—not only for our family but for our community. Anyone in town who needs anything knows that he or she can call Mr. Jackie and, if necessary, can even charge it!"

As with many small-town businesses, Allred's has many funny stories to report about its customers. Recently, a man came in and looked over the blood glucose monitors for some time and asked the clerk if he could activate them. With a look of confusion on her face, she asked him what he meant. He thought they were cell phones.

Early one December a man came in to charge some medicine. When asked what the name was on the account, he said, "Murry Christmas." Nancy responded with a very cheerful, "Merry Christmas to you too, sir." When he was asked again the name on the account, he said, a little more irritated this time, "I told you my name is Murry Christmas!"

The humor definitely makes this job worthwhile, but the most rewarding part of working in a small-town pharmacy for the owners is the people. Jackie Thompson said, "The best thing about my job is helping people. The reward of knowing you are helping them in an area that they really know nothing about is amazing. I feel that without question my wife and I are doing exactly what God wanted us to do and that's why we are at such peace with where we are and what we do. Why else would we be in Hazlehurst, Miss.? We had to get a map out to find this place!"

Small-town pharmacies may be a dying breed, but they are undoubtedly among the most amazing places to visit. You can be entertained and informed all in a single visit while stepping foot in a place where everyone knows your name.

The author is a freelance writer in Mississippi. She has considerable experience with community pharmacy and is the daughter of the owner of Allred's.