1 store, 1 family, 150 years: Iowa pharmacy celebrates despite uncertain future

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Posted: Wednesday, November 13, 2013 12:00 am

SIDNEY, Iowa — It's been 52 years since he played football for Sidney High School, but Greg Simpson remembers the post-practice trips to the Penn Drug soda fountain like they were yesterday.

“I've probably drank a thousand cherry phosphates in here,” he said.

Those days are easy to remember partly because the soda fountain is only feet from where Simpson is sitting now, drinking coffee around a cafe table with a half-dozen other men who are living pages in the store's history.

The men who stop in daily for coffee and conversation were boys in the 1950s and '60s, but they don't date back even halfway into Penn Drug's past. The pharmacy, “Your prescription store since 1863,” was already almost a century old when Simpson played for the Sidney Cowboys.

This week, Penn Drug turns 150 years old. Not only is it the oldest pharmacy in Iowa — older than other historic shops like Hammer Pharmacy in Des Moines (1872) and Jay Drug in Shenandoah (1888) — but it's been in the same family all these years, passed down through five generations of Penn men.

An open house event from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday, with door prizes and refreshments, will mark the occasion.

But amid the celebration, the store's future is uncertain. Fifth-generation owner Jeff Penn is 58 with no children to take over the operation. And independent pharmacies are being squeezed by chain-store competitors, lower-cost mail order fulfillment and shrinking government reimbursements.

“We always say, as long as there's customers, we'll be here,” said Penn's 86-year-old father, Bill Penn, whose great-grandfather John Newton Penn started the buisiness here on the Fremont County courthouse square.

Those customers tend to be older, said pharmacist-in-charge Jane Buck, the third partner in the business. Not only are older folks more likely to need medication, but they're less likely to drive the 16 miles east to the Walmart in Shenandoah, or the 17 miles west to the Walgreens in Nebraska City, or to other competitors.

The number of independent community pharmacies in the country has fallen to about 23,000 from about 40,000 in the 1980s, though the number has stabilized, said John Norton, spokesman for the National Community Pharmacists Association.

“They have a lot of pressures in the marketplace,” he said. “They can survive. They've got to fight every day.”

Remaining independent pharmacies tend to be in communities of fewer than 20,000 people, where there aren't as many chain stores, or they in some other way serve a niche patient population, such as customers of an oncology clinic, Norton said.

“We've found a business model that is very patient-centered,” Norton said.

Penn offers free in-town delivery, and even though the pharmacy is not open 24/7, Buck gives her number to people who might need her in the middle of the night. When you call Penn Drug during business hours, a real person answers the phone, and when longtime customers walk in from the rain, Bill greets them by name.

Like other independent pharmacies, about 90 percent of Penn Drug's revenue comes from its pharmacy, where Buck works behind a tall counter in the back of the shop.

But the front of the store, where you can buy greeting cards, shampoo, candles, batteries, sunglasses, M&Ms, picture frames and Christmas decorations, is where the camaraderie happens.

The coffee klatch comes in two shifts, around 9 a.m. and around 2 p.m., with some regulars hitting both.

Men and women sit separately.

“We think we're smarter than them,” says retired science teacher and coach Roger Eitzmann, in his red Sidney Boosters jacket. “Truth is, it's probably the other way around.”

Eitzmann is the one who usually ends up picking up the tab. He has bad luck with the number-guessing game the men play to see who will buy the day's round of $1 coffees.

He's also the peacemaker — the one who tries to steer conversation at his table away from politics and toward sports. It's not easy when Gene Pearsall starts ribbing Simpson, who swears he's an independent, not a Democrat, and Simpson pokes back with, “I will say this, the Republicans are about to turn me into a Democrat.”

Old ceiling fans spin above them as they talk. Fluorescent lights glow on the gold-painted tin ceiling, the ice cream freezer hums and the shake machine churns up another malt.

Penn Drug feels just the same as when the regulars were boys.

On rainy days, when it was too wet to plant or harvest their fields, Larry Hume would ride into town with his father. “We'd come to Penn's and get malts,” he remembers.

Tom Van Scyoc ran up a tab at Penn Drug, charging pop and candy bars to his family's account, “Until Dad put a stop to that.”

“There's a lot of history in here,” Pearsall says. “Oh, my God, there's a lot of history in here.”

While eastern Iowa generally saw European immigrants sooner, the far western edge of Iowa has its share of old business establishments thanks to Missouri River traffic, said Lona Lewis, president of the Fremont County Historical Society. In fact, John Penn traveled up the Missouri River until his boat got hung up on a sandbar near St. Joseph, and he had to finish the trip to Sidney in a covered wagon, according to family history.

Penn Drug will have its own exhibit in the historical society's new museum, planned to open Memorial Day weekend in Sidney, Lewis said. It has outlasted other early businesses that included dry goods stores, blacksmith shops, a wagon and carriage factory, a tailor, saloons and a chair factory.

Bill Penn remembers when the business community was busier, and on a Saturday night, after all the farmers had sold their produce, the shops on the square would stay open until 11 p.m. and it was hard to find a parking spot.

Today the square is no longer a retail hub. Most storefronts are filled by professional services or government offices, along with a bar and restaurant.

So it's no problem for customers like Bob Mather to park and stroll in for coffee. The 79-year-old retired carpenter remodeled the store in 1972 and said it hasn't really changed since then, and he hopes it never does.

“That drugstore kind of keeps Sidney alive,” Mather said.

1863: John Newton Penn, a Pennsylvania native who moved to Sidney, Iowa, to open a medical practice, buys a stock of drugs from a physician who was leaving town and opens a pharmacy.

1864: Penn builds a new drug store at 714 Illinois St., the same place the pharmacy stands today.

1876: With his eyesight failing, Penn turns over operations of the store to his son, Alphonso Valdeze Penn. Known as “Phon,” he later became one of the state's first registered pharmacists. Working with other pharmacists, Penn mixed drugs to order.

1898: Penn Drug adds a soda fountain.

1910: Alphonso Valdeze Penn Jr., known as “Val,” joins the family business.

1920s: The store is remodeled with a new facade and a new marble-topped soda fountain.

1925: Val Penn takes control of the pharmacy and operates it alongside his wife, Christena E. Penn.

1946: A bigger soda fountain, with room to serve lunch and store more ice cream, opens.

1949: Val Penn's son William A. “Bill” Penn graduates from the University of Nebraska with a pharmacy degree and comes home to work at the store.

1970: Bill and his wife, Patricia, become owners of the pharmacy.

1977 to 1981: Patrick and Theresa Travis are part-owners of the store but sell their interest back to the family.

1990s: Fifth-generation owner Jeffrey Penn, who is not a pharmacist, returns to Sidney to manage the store, after studying music and earning a master's degree at Indiana University.

1999: Creighton University College of Pharmacy graduate Jane Buck becomes the store's “pharmacist in charge” and becomes a part owner along with Bill and Jeff Penn.

2013: Penn Drug celebrates its 150th anniversary.

Source: Penn Drug

There are several other independent pharmacies and other shops with old-time soda fountains in the region:

Springfield Drug

205 Main St., Springfield

Opened in 1977 in a former bank. Owner Keith Hentzen added an old-fashioned soda fountain decorated with antiques.

Old Time Soda Fountain

100 N. Central Ave., Allerton, Iowa

Run by a nonprofit organization that was founded to save this community landmark, which was established in the late 1800s. The group has been remodeling the shop over the past several years.

Reiney's Soda Fountain

1301 Broadway, Denison, Iowa

Originally known as Reiney's Candy Kitchen and Soda Fountain. It shares space with the Donna Reed Foundation's headquarters.

Stoner Drug

1105 Main St., Hamburg, Iowa

A pharmacy with six locations in Iowa, Nebraska and Missouri. Its soda fountain also sells sandwiches.

Jay Drug

612 W. Sheridan Ave., Shenandoah, Iowa

Established in 1888 and still operates as a pharmacy and soda fountain.

Hy-Vee/McMahon Drug Store

625 Davis Ave., Corning, Iowa

The old-fashioned soda fountain serves ice cream and drinks and was maintained by Hy-Vee when it bought the store in 2011. The pharmacy opened in 1965 and moved to its current location in 1995.

River House Soda Fountain & Cafe

402 Main St., Plattsmouth, Neb.

The owners bought the soda fountain on eBay.

Ramsey Family Fountain

155 S. Third St., Tecumseh, Neb.

The fountain and cafe was established in 2009 and features hundreds of framed photos of local servicemen and women.

— Barbara Soderlin

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