A Look Back: Forty Years of Community Pharmacy

After 40 years in business, Community Pharmacy has quite a story to tell.

by Megan Bjella, CP Staff

After 40 years in business, Community Pharmacy has quite a story to tell. What began as a small, volunteer-run pharmacy located in a basement down an alley on the campus end of State Street has blossomed into Madison’s favorite alternative health resource. I’ve always been proud of the things that make Community Pharmacy unique, but I didn’t realize the full extent until I combed through stacks of age-yellowed newspaper and magazine articles. What I found was a rich history of community service and worker empowerment.

In The Beginning
In 1972, the politically active UW-Madison Wisconsin Student Association (WSA) opened WSA Community Pharmacy to provide affordable prescription medication and health care information. Peter Kiesch, a pharmacist and one of Community Pharmacy’s founders, raised funds to open the pharmacy by setting up a table in front of the Memorial Library and selling $7000 worth of non-negotiable $1 bonds. With an additional $8000 loan from student newspaper The Daily Cardinal and acquisition of inventory from a WSA-sponsored variety store, the pharmacy was up and running. However, the original founders faced the skepticism of local businesses and residents. The Pharmacy Examining Board was reluctant to issue a license. “’Hippies giving away drugs;’ that’s how a lot of people viewed us,” recalled Kiesch.
Despite these hurdles, WSA Community Pharmacy opened its doors in September 1972. Jane Greischar, another founder and pharmacist, explained the early days. “We were different from traditional drugstores. We began with only $18,000 cash and inventory, and relied on 60 to 70 student volunteers who worked on a rotating schedule. Most people didn’t think we would make it. There were a lot of cooperatives at that time, and their survival rate was not good.” Fortunately for them, their uniqueness attracted customers seeking an alternative. “We were lucky, because it became almost required, to be politically correct, to shop at the Pharmacy. It was that community support that carried us through the early years,” said David LaLuzerne, an early pharmacist.
In 1976, the pharmacy severed ties with WSA. Ownership was turned over to the employees,who formed a collective that operated on the principles of worker self-management and control. Unlike other cooperatives in which the goals of the board and the staff may conflict, at the Pharmacy the collective also served as the board of directors. This model helped foster employee loyalty, and kept the collectively-run store in business while other co-ops came and went.
In addition to its unique structure, the Pharmacy strove to differentiate itself from other drugstores by offering herbs, vitamins and supplements, natural foods, and informational materials in addition to prescriptions, beauty aids, and over-the-counter drugs. The dedicated staff was knowledgeable about the store’s products. “Good information is difficult to get almost anywhere you go,” said Kiesch. “I think that’s one of the reasons people come back.” The combination of alternative health options and prescription medications in a store run by pharmacists and informed staff gave the Pharmacy an edge over health food stores in helping customers decide how to address their particular health needs. “Just because there is a lot of propaganda against alternative therapies doesn’t mean they don’t work,” Kiesch said. “Of course, there are also many alternative therapies that are baloney. So it’s through our personal experience and pharmaceutical background that we try to help people learn which treatments are reasonable.”

Four Primary Functions
According to an early pamphlet written by the staff, the pharmacy performed four primary functions. The first function was to offer “low-cost pharmaceutical services, health and body aids, vitamins and supplements, (and) over 100 generic brands.” The Pharmacy maintained a lower dispensing fee for prescription drugs and sought generic substitutes for more expensive brand-name drugs. Secondly, the Pharmacy strove to provide “financial support for community groups, developing co-ops and other collectives.” By donating to these types of groups, the Pharmacy supported alternative business models and invested in its community. Consumer education was the Pharmacy’s third function. In addition to donating literature to several organizations, the Pharmacy provided customers with free informational pamphlets and access to health information cards and reference books. The fourth function was to promote “an alternative to standard business operations.” According to Kiesch, this concept launched the idea of the Pharmacy, and it evolved as an alternate choice to monopolized pharmacies. “People feel they can talk to us,” Grieschar said. “We have a reputation that we’re helping people, contributing to the community. A chain can’t be as responsive.”

Finding a New Home
In 1983, the Pharmacy moved from its cramped basement location to its current location at 341State Street. Initially set up on two floors, the inventory was expanded to include health food, baby care products, and a greater range of herbs, books, vitamins, and supplements as well as a larger dispensary area. At the time, the Pharmacy had the most complete line of vitamins and supplements in the Midwest.
The more central location helped the store attract a larger non-student population. While the move attracted a new client base, the pharmacy remained faithful to its founding values, maintaining its commitment to affordability, worker control, and consumer health education.

Cooperation Makes It Happen
At the time of the move, the eight full-time employees divided responsibilities, including ordering, stocking, helping customers, and store upkeep. While the Pharmacy operated as a collective from the beginning, it was not until 1991 that it achieved cooperative status.
In the late 1980s, employees began investigating different workplace structures, including a traditional management model. Inspired by W. Edwards Deming’s method of improving quality by dividing responsibilities among groups of people who planned, implemented, checked, then corrected work as needed, a subset of pharmacy workers developed a proposal. Jackie Nickolaus, a 26-year veteran of the Pharmacy, described sitting in her apartment and sparking the idea of dividing work among teams. She proposed the new structure at a staff meeting and, to her surprise, everyone agreed to give it a try. There was shared sense of excitement in creating something new, and finding the right people to help the Pharmacy grow and thrive.
Community Pharmacy remains a team-managed worker cooperative to this day, with duties divided among the Outreach, Advertising, Personnel, Business, Buying, and Merchandising teams. Each worker, after six months of employment, gets to cast a vote on important decisions and can apply to be a member of up to two of the store’s teams.

Celebrating 40 Years
Having grown to 26 employees, 7,049 square feet, and approximately $350,000 worth of inventory, the Pharmacy has changed a lot in 40 years. Yet, as a collective, we remain committed to many of the same founding values while responding and adapting to changing demands and conditions.
Please join us on Saturday, September 8th for an in-store party to celebrate this milestone.

Sources:

Christensen, Susanne. “Eight generic years: Alternative pharmacy is alive and well.” The Daily Cardinal [Madison] 1 Oct 1980, 3. Print.

Guthrie, Margaret E. “A Healthy Alternative: WSA Pharmacy makes alternative business concept work.” In Business. Nov 1986 : 55-58. Print.

Lamboley, Ann. “WSA Pharmacy Moves On Up.” Isthmus of Madison 2 Sep 1983, Vol. 8, No. 35 1,7. Print.

Mitlo-Shartel, Cindy. “WSA Community Pharmacy.” Co-op America’s Building Economic Alternatives. Spring 1989: 19. Print.

Riddle, Jennifer. “Break with tradition: WSA pharmacy carves own niche in market.” Economy [Madison] 27 Apr 1986, 1. Print.

Robinson, Bill. “Pharmacists who practice off the beaten track.” Drug Topics: the newsmagazine for today’s pharmacies. 24 Mar 1986: 42-58. Print.

Wilson, Marianne. “College Co-Op Pharmacy Moves To Shopping District .” American Druggist. June 1984: 26-30. Print.

Megan Bjella is a vegetable-growing yogi with a particular taste for kale. She has had the privilege of working at Community Pharmacy since 2010 and enjoys learning about holistic approaches to health.

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