We’ve heard the story so often we could tell it ourselves. And we do. Another family-owned business in another Western town closes.
This time it’s Roedel Drug in Cheyenne, Wyo., dispensing medicine, greeting cards, lipstick, film, lavender soap, teapots and good fellowship for 118 years. When I moved here 15 years ago, Roedel’s employees called me “hon,” and the 78-year-old clerk could find everything I wanted: a finger splint, essential oils, a lapel watch. Some days I bought soap just for a friendly visit.
Maybe your town has lost a grocery store whose owner remembered your mother, or a hardware store with oiled wood floors and a potbelly stove. Owners cite slow insurance payments for prescriptions and competition from superstores as among the reasons for closing, but this story is not about blame.
All 16 store employees of Roedel Drug, playing together, recently won the lottery. When I ask about the windfall, a clerk says, “But it wasn’t enough (almost $9,000 each). If we’d won more, we might have saved the store.” They wanted a different ending, but even winning the lottery wasn’t it.
Visiting a sprawling housing development, I’ve often noticed a building, maybe labeled “General Store,” containing a mini-grocery, pharmacy, post office and coffee shop. Usually it’s decorated with shiny farm implements and antiques, a fantasy recreation of real neighborhood businesses. Developers know they can make money by creating a small-town ambience, pretending home is a place where “everybody knows my name.”
Like many other Western settlements, downtown Cheyenne has historically been people-friendly, with old businesses thriving in antique buildings. When someone proposed replacing the Romanesque-style sandstone Union Pacific depot with a parking lot, citizens said “no.” The gorgeous building is now a museum and pub facing a plaza where bands play and a farmers market thrives. The owner of a jewelry business won a preservation award for restoring the decorative facade of his building; he lives upstairs, with a view of a parking garage with a false-antique front.
Yet after a historical hotel was recently restored, city leaders offered inducements to the hotel’s competition -- a chain motel that’s demanding a skywalk to its new parking garage. “We’ve got to grow the downtown,” city leaders say, happy to slaughter both grammar and history as they seek money for the skywalk.
Meanwhile, at the corner drug store, customers murmur, “A shame, but what can you do?” A woman proclaims, “Wal-Mart is cheaper.” The owners will transfer prescriptions to another pharmacy. But when I trudge a mega-store’s miles of aisles and encounter an employee, will she be able to help me find anything? In another super-store, I ask a pharmacist how the telemarketers got my unlisted phone number and confidential prescription information. A clerk whispers an answer with one eye on the boss; company policy forbids chatting with customers.
In the corner drug store, the 92-year-old pharmacist listens patiently to an old joke, knowing this may be his customer’s only outing in a lonely day.
For years, this town’s business district has managed to blend business and living. Small apartment houses and one-family homes downtown shelter elderly people able to live independently partly because they can walk or slo-o-o-wly drive to nearby businesses. Some of the town’s newcomers say they moved here because it is so homey, so much like a small town. They don’t have to drive the strip-mall speedway, already the deadliest street in the state.
Visitors to the Frontier Days rodeo who shop downtown for Western clothing and furniture often stay for lunch. Dozens of people gather in a tiny green park to watch a shooting club stage gunfights on summer afternoons. Now, the city has announced plans to pave that park. Creating another street will move people in and out of downtown faster, experts say. Some cities lure new businesses with free land or tax rebates; couldn’t we give rebates to any business that’s stayed solvent and paid taxes for more than a century? What’s happening to my town is by now an old story that usually ends with a city centered on parking lots and office buildings that empty at dark.
Picture instead an urban center that invites pedestrians to walk cobblestone streets, breathe in fresh air and visit buildings glowing with layers of human history. And on the corner? A family-owned drugstore.
Linda M. Hasselstrom is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She plans to live and write in Cheyenne, Wyoming, for another year, before moving back to her ranch in western South Dakota.
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