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When chain drug retailing was a game

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As Bob Dylan once famously wrote: The Times They Are ­a-Changin’.

These times, at retail, certainly are a-changin’ — quickly. America is quickly reopening — and the mass retailing community can’t yet accurately read whether initial indications are positive or negative.

On the plus side, retail sales in May lept ahead by over 16% compared to the March and April numbers. On the minus side, March and April were devastating months for most retailers, who didn’t even open their doors. On the plus side, many chain drug stores, granted “critical” status, did remain open. On the minus side, those that did stay open recorded mixed results, as a skittish public largely stayed indoors or, choosing to venture out, made only selective purchases — when they bought at all.

So we’re now poised to enter yet another new phase of the apparently unending battle against the coronavirus that has so ravaged our country. Will the coming weeks and months see something approximating a return to normalcy? Or has the virtually barren spring taught Americans how not to shop?

Through it all the chain drug store community has remained virtually silent. Some headlines were made — witness the departure of the very popular and capable Walgreens president. But in the main, chain drug retailers have remained mostly silent, wondering what happens next and how to respond to these uncharted waters.

Questions linger: How soon will normalcy return? How many stores should we open? For how many hours a day? What should we expect from returning customers? Will they, in fact, return in anything approaching the numbers the chain drug industry once knew?

Through it all, we’re reminded of another time and another group of chain drug store executives, on both the retailer and supplier side of the business. Would they have responded more aggressively to the current pandemic? Would they have taken a more cautious approach? Would they have risen to the occasion? Would they have hesitated perhaps a bit too long?

Here’s a random sampling of how some of them are responding to the current crisis:

• Bob Kwait is currently hunkered down in Cleveland, where he grew up. He and his wife, Elayne, are mostly bored, he more than she (when Bob was active in the industry she was more bored than he). But Bob admits that his primary concern is about the people lost and yet to be lost. To that end, he phones his many friends regularly, panicking only when they fail to answer the phone. Otherwise, the hugely popular one-time retailer and supplier executive acclimates to Elayne doing the cooking, as she did when they were newly married 63 years ago, and speaks to such former colleagues as Jim Mastrian and Tome Ryan, and bemoans the passing of such former industry icons as Scott Roberts and Joe DeKama.

• Alan Levin remains in Wilmington, Del., with frequent side trips to Florida. He is devoted to his grandchildren, claims not to miss chain drug retailing, and remains loyal to many of the friends he accumulated during his years at Happy Harry’s. He speaks often of his wife, Ellen, who appears to have developed a life of her own, as was pretty much the case when Alan steered his drug chain to the very first ranks of chain drug retailing. Otherwise, he remains as he always was, a delightful, unassuming, easygoing scion of those days long ago when the people who ran America’s drug chains were as compelling as the chains themselves.

• Chris Bodine largely spends his time in Alabama, having picked up the lingo with surprising ease. When he speaks of the chain drug industry he speaks of a time in the distant past. Always a person of varied and impressive interests, he is busy pursuing those interests at this moment. He claims not to recall the time when he helped Tom Ryan propel CVS to the very front ranks of chain drug retailing and indeed was in many ways an equal partner to Ryan. No matter. The people who loved Bodine continue to do so, convinced that any path he chose would have yielded the same positive results as did his chain drug retailing career.

• Bob Hannan and his wife, Barb, have retired to Florida, again to ponder the status of the drug chain he ran so capably so many years ago. To those whose memories are fading, that drug chain was Thrift Drug, and Bob proved to be one of the industry’s most successful executives. Now, however, it’s the memories that take center stage for the Hannans, as they have for so many chain drug executives from the industry’s halcyon days.

This reminiscence could go on forever. Tom Ryan, for example, spends much of his time in Florida, as does Richard Kron­rad, who is a permanent resident. Tony Civello is alive and well and happily remarried. Jim Mastrian is equality alive and well in Arizona and … well, you get the picture.


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