Though pharmacist R. David Norman sold off his family-owned buisness, Ava Drug Co., to a chain in 2008, he still strives to harbor a community feel.
Business Spotlight: Fountain of Youth
Carol S. Harris
Pharmacist R. David Norman didn’t want any part of his family’s drug store in downtown Ava when he was growing up in the 1950s and ‘60s.
“In my teens, my mind was only on basketball and girls,” Norman says, laughing. Back then, he’d rather bale hay, he says.
Norman was 8 years old when his grandfather, E. Boone Norman Sr., and father, E. Boone Norman Jr., along with a third partner, Dr. Marvin Gentry, opened Ava Drug Co. in 1950.
The protagonist in the Ava Drug story – now 60 years in the making – has not been the pharmacy, the Norman family or a fire that damaged the store before it was rebuilt in 1958. Ava Drug’s soda fountain has always held center stage.
Taking up a third of the store’s space, the soda fountain offered 5-cent soft drinks, coffee and ice cream cones, the same as it says today. It was the quintessential hangout for teens who stopped in before and after the movies that played in the theater a block away.
Norman had a change of heart about the drug store business and came back to work for his father after graduating from St. Louis College of Pharmacy in 1967. E. Boone Norman Jr. sold Ava Drug to his sons, David and Stephen Norman, in 1974. The company traded hands again in 1991, when longtime employee and pharmacist Bill Mackey acquired the store. David Norman couldn’t stay away and bought the business back from Mackey in 2003. The soda fountain, which had been removed by Norman in 1982 as being “too old-fashioned,” was rebuilt by him in 2005 just the way it looked in the late 1950s.
As manager and pharmacist, the 68-year-old Norman says 95 percent of the drug store’s roughly $6 million annual revenues comes from prescription sales. It’s the soda fountain, however, that draws people to downtown Ava.
“People visit from everywhere just for the soda fountain,” says Virginia Linder, the store’s most veteran employee. Hired by E. Boone Norman Sr., Linder started as a soda fountain girl in 1952, when she was 18 years old. She has worked there as a cashier for a total of 50 years, first full-time and now part-time.
Linder says service has distinguished Ava Drug from the retail chain pharmacies. “If (customers) need something on the weekends, they will call (David Norman) at home and he will come in to get it for them,” she says.
The pharmacy celebrated its 60th anniversary in August, with free community events including an American Red Cross blood drive, health screenings by St. John’s, a Lennon Brothers concert and a classic car show.
In 2008, Norman sold Ava Drug to 150-store chain USA Drug, of Little Rock, Ark., citing challenges associated with Medicare Part D.
Ava Drug is not alone in its loss of independence, says Missouri Pharmacy Association CEO Ron Fitzwater. Of the 1,400 licensed pharmacies in Missouri, some 30 percent, or roughly 450, are independent, a drop from the 50 percent of state-licensed pharmacies that were considered independent in 2003, Fitzwater says.
Norman blames the decrease of community pharmacies, in part, to Medicare Part D that went into effect in January 2006 under the Medicare Prescription Drug Improvement and Modernization Act of 2003. One of the legislative changes allowed pharmacy benefits managers, such as CVS Caremark and Express Scripts, to work with insurance companies to promote mail-order prescriptions.
Fitzwater says his association has actively supported legislation to regulate PBMs.
“One of the biggest issues with PBMs is the move to mandatory mail-order of prescriptions. Some patients are forced to go outside of the community pharmacies for prescriptions whether they want to or not,” Fitzpatrick says. “They want the ability to talk to their pharmacists.”
Pat Henry agrees. She is one of five family generations to use Ava Drug.
“A good pharmacist is important,” Henry says. “A pharmacist can catch prescriptions that conflict with each other and even discover if a patient has been given the wrong prescription.”
Customer rapport is key to Norman.
“It’s important to know who you wait on,” Norman says, remembering when he removed the glass window from his countertop and took down the gate across the entrance to the pharmacy area – two perceived customer barriers – when he remodeled the store. “The real job is not filling prescriptions. The real job is learning about the people who bring in the prescriptions.”
Norman says he plans to continue working as long as he is physically able. While his brother, Stephen, is the manager and pharmacist for Willow Springs’ Ferguson Drug, which USA Drug also owns, Norman’s children are not in the business, leaving him as the apparent last line of the Norman family at Ava Drug.[[In-content Ad]]