- Associated Press - Monday, October 27, 2014

CALICO ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Although it has changed hands, locations and names time and again in the past 135 years, this small town’s pharmacy remains vibrant by staying true to its roots in a world of apps, insurance claims and corporate competition.

Mitchell’s Park Street Pharmacy can trace its lineage, uninterrupted, to 1879, according to owner Steven Mitchell. That places it among some of the oldest continuously running pharmacies in the United States and possibly the oldest west of the Mississippi. A 2013 article by the Arkansas Times indicates that Argenta Drug in North Little Rock opened in 1882 and then was considered the oldest pharmacy continuously in business this side of Old Man River.

Mitchell said that when he bought the operation in 2000, he thought Evans Brothers Drug Store, circa 1918, was the first pharmacy in Calico Rock. Then research for a book published by the Calico Rock Museum showed Evans Brothers Drug Store had bought the pharmacy from Roby & Galloway Druggists, which opened in 1879.

He said the Civil War had left Calico Rock desolate but that documents show Roby and Galloway Druggists opened along with three other stores that year. The exact location of the pharmacy has since been lost, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported (https://bit.ly/1DBxuaL ).

While the ownership and location has changed, Mitchell said, the core tenets of service, community and innovation remain constant. He runs the place alongside wife Sarah, the store’s pharmacist.

The Mitchells grew up around Calico Rock and came back when owners of what was then Perryman Drug Store - Brenda and Jack Ward - contacted them and said they wanted to sell. The two were fresh out of college, with the ink on Sarah’s pharmacist credentials barely dry, but jumped at the chance to own the business.

Nearly 15 years and three children later, Sarah operates the pharmacy end, often greeted by a ringing telephone when she opens in the morning, while Steven runs the business side of things.

“It’s all about relationships,” said Steven Mitchell as he sat in a small office nestled in the corner of the pharmacy, which not only dispenses drugs but also sells gifts, toys, medical gear and even pet and veterinary supplies, all while looking bright and modern - part boutique, part modern retailer.

He said that in the 1970s and 1980s small-town pharmacies tended to be the dollar stores of their time, carrying a lot of items, many of them essential, most of them low-cost and low-quality. He said that when he and his wife took over, they began to examine what worked and what didn’t, what sold and what didn’t, and began to build their business accordingly.

In the end, he determined, demand and a good price point are what drives sales. He said hanging onto product lines or practices simply because they worked in the past was a sure way to let the business stagnate.

“It’s a key to survival,” Mitchell said. “You can’t keep sacred cows.”

In his book, A History of Pharmacy in Arkansas, the late Fred Williams, a professor of history at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, noted that early pharmacists came out of the Civil War as independent businessmen, separating themselves from physicians and focusing on retailing drugs. By 1872, Little Rock had two pharmacists, and a third opened by the 1880s.

From the start, pharmacies were known for their soda fountains, but most offered few other sidelines, confining their stock to drugs, herbs and patent medicines, Williams wrote. As the population and competition grew in Little Rock, pharmacists began to add convenience goods that allowed them to cut prices on drugs, resulting in price wars.

Mark Riley, executive vice president and chief executive officer of the Arkansas Pharmacists Association, said that even today pharmacists face a highly competitive environment dominated by major corporations. He noted the independent pharmacists have been a key component of rural life for decades and they were often a vital component of any community.

He said Arkansas is one of a few states that still has more independent pharmacies in operation than those belonging to chains. Of the 722 retail pharmacies in the state, 454 are independent.

Big-chain pharmacies have Calico Rock bracketed. About 25 miles south of the little town sits Mountain View with its Wal-Mart Supercenter and Walgreens, and to the north just about the same distance, is Mountain Home and the same two large competitors. And each of those cities has a Harps grocery store with a pharmacy.

“The world has gotten smaller,” Mitchell said.

He said he can’t go toe to toe with large chains on certain medicines, like the $4 prescription programs that were rolled out in 2006, but overall he is competitive on price.

“I ask folks to look at all their medications across the board, price them against the competition, and they often find we can save them money,” he said.

Long before the big power players in the pharmacy business came along, the cost of medicine was an issue with customers, Reed Perryman said.

Perryman bought the store along with his wife, Anita, in 1951. It was called City Drug Store then, but the Perrymans changed the name to Perryman Drug Store in 1969 when it was first incorporated. They later sold the business to their daughter, Brenda Ward, in 1989.

Perryman’s father helped him buy the place fresh after graduating from pharmacy school at the College of the Ozarks in Clarksville. He bought it for the price of the stock in the store, $15,000, soda fountain and all.

“I graduated on a Saturday and I owned it by Thursday,” Perryman said.

He said that despite being the owner, he spent years apprenticing under pharmacist Otis Forrest. Forrest stayed on for years while Perryman learned the ropes, got married and went off to do his bit in the Korean War.

“He and my mother kept the store open for years,” Perryman said. “When I got back, he handed me the keys and said he was outta here.”

Perryman recalls a time when few, if any, customers had insurance. He said customers balked at the price when the first broad-spectrum antibiotics were being prescribed by doctors.

“They cost $6, and folks would say, ‘What is in that, gold?’” Perryman said. “They were yellow-colored.”

Perryman also embraced technology, his operation being the second pharmacy in the state to have a computer.

Staying current with technology is even more important in today’s marketplace, Mitchell said. His store’s website allows prescription refills, as does an app that works on Android and iPhones. Customers get a text when their prescription is ready.

In the end, though, the things that helped the chain of successful pharmacies remain unbroken so long are what Mitchell focuses on today.

“We try to help as much as we can,” he said. “We even change watch batteries.”

___

Information from: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, https://www.arkansasonline.com

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