In the rampant development of the last several years, perhaps no arm of the mercantile sector (with the possible exception of Starbuck's) has expanded as much or as quickly as chain drug stores. Sure, we get a Target here, a bunch of Subways there. But our city is now polluted with innumerable Duane Reades, Rite Aids, CVSs and Eckerds. It's impossible to run the smallest errand without passing one of them. We see them every day, but do we know anything about these monster corporations?
I always find history comforting in a way, so I decided to look into the pasts of the drug store giants to see if I could find something that might ameliorate their looming awfulness. Here are a few thumbnail sketches.
DUANE READE: I've always felt the least malice toward Duane Reade, because at least it's a local chain. It was founded in 1960 and it actually owes its name to its first warehouse location: on Broadway between Duane and Reade streets. No, there was never a guy names Duane Reade. The founders were brothers Abraham, Eli, and Jack Cohen. And it was run by skads of Cohens until the early '90s. The rampant expansion didn't start until the late '90s, after it was sold to Bain Capital, Inc. Aside from having poor service, and bad labor relations, they're known for shoehorning their stores in anywhere, including an old movie theatre on the Upper East Side. Which is sort of charming. There are more than 230 locations, all in the New York area.
RITE AID: Duane Reade is puny next to Rite Aid: 5,000 stores in 31 states. The first one was started in 1962 by Alexander Grass in Scranton, Pennsylvania. It had the hokey name of Thrif D Discount Center. Rite Aid became the name in 1968. The company is headquartered in Camp Hill, a suburb of Harrisburg. It's sucked up a bunch of other chains along the way, including Read's of Baltimore, Perry Drugs of Michigan and the west coast's Thrify Payless. It "partnered" with General Nutrition Companies in 1999. The Grass clan wasn't such a loving family. Son Martin made himself CEO by pushing dear old dad out the door. Martin pleaded guilty to charges of fraud involving the restatement of $1.6 billion in earnings in 2003.
ECKERD: Eckerds are all around, but in a manner of thinking they don't exist anymore. Rite Aid bought Eckerds in 2006, and announced it would be retiring the old name. That name is the oldest in the drug store chain game: 109 years. Eckerd Pharmacy was founded in 1898 (McKinley was President) by young J. Milton Eckerd (seen above), in Erie, Pennsylvania. In 1912, Eckerd sold his original store to his sons and moved to Wilmington, Delaware, establishing a new store. It was from Delaware that the chain expanded to the the south. At its height, it had 2,800 stores in more than 20 states. Prior to the Rite Aid buyout, CVS had bought 1,000 Eckerd stores in 2004 and 2005. Perhaps not coincidentally, all these sellouts occurred after Jack Eckerd, son of J. Milton, and a man who kept running for Republican office (and losing), died in May 2004.
CVS: This is the big boy, the largest drug chain in the U.S. 6,200 stores. It's a slippery fish. It was founded in Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1963, by Stanley and Sidney Goldstein and partner Ralph Hoagland, a Proctor and Gamble salesman; is incorporated in Delaware; and is based in (of all places) Woonsocket, Rhode Island (the Goldsteins hometown). The chain goes by an acronym for a good reason: it used to be called Consumer Value Stores, which makes it sound like a vaguely Communistic enterprise. CEO Tom Ryan now likes to pretend it stands for "Customers, Value, and Service." Sorry, Tom. No history rewrites. Here's a weird detail: many of the original stores did not include pharmacies. Throughout the years, it's gobbled up Mack Drug of New Jersey, the mid-Atlantic Peoples Drug chain (another Soviet-esque name), Revco and Arbor Drugs, as well as Albertsons, which include Osco Drugs and Sav-On Drugs. (My, drug store chains certainly have ugly names.) Stanley Goldstein was still with the company until only recently.
Things they all have in common: CEOs who get into hot water and have to resign; constant efforts to improve customer service, which stinks chain-wide; and lawsuits, lawsuits, lawsuits.
Strange to think all these faceless corporations were founded by striving individuals. So that's the history. Do I find it comforting? A little. But not really. Except for Duane Reade being named after two downtown Manhattan streets. That's cool. James Duane, for whom the street was named, was an early mayor of New York. Joseph Reade was warden at Trinity Church.