Independent pharmacies helped form the landscape of my youth and early adulthood. Each community had one, usually near the center of town. In addition to health products, most offered a good selection of newspapers, magazines and greeting cards. A wide assortment of candy was a staple and some even had a soda counter with light refreshments. These businesses employed people from the area whose task-oriented jobs were to manage materials and service customers. The pharmacists were generally well-educated and a bit reticent, preferring the pace, intimacy and independence of a local pharmacy to working in a hospital. Their remedies included medications and good advice about your ailments, sympathy cards and compassion for your losses, and a range of antacids to reduce the indigestion of spicy food and local politics. Pharmacies were more than dispensaries, they were community spaces.
Despite providing necessary services and clear value to their communities, independent pharmacies have all but disappeared in my region (Massachusetts, southern New Hampshire). Nationally, there are nearly 45% fewer today than there were in the 1980s1 and this decline has occurred amidst an explosion in pharmaceutical sales. People have simply adopted other ways to meet their needs. They fill their prescriptions by mail. They get health information via the internet. They get refreshments at the drive-thru. And they purchase goods from retail giants that offer all the products independent pharmacies do, and more.
A thousand cuts versus a single blow drained the viability from these community fixtures. Across the nation, community by community, independent pharmacies have struggled and closed. As I said, they’re pretty much gone where I live. Although a few news outlets connected the dots along the way, the closings were viewed as local matters. I remember people used to talk about them (“Hey, have you heard McCarthy’s Pharmacy over in Shrewsbury is closing?“) but the change occurred so steadily over so many years that people stopped talking about it. After a while there just wasn’t anything left to say.
1Sarah Moses, “New independent pharmacy in Lyncourt fills need for personal touch“, The Post-Standard, January 31, 2010.