A'70s-Style Pharmacy Enters The Millennium

With a worker's cooperative approach Community Pharmacy, Madison WI, survives and thrives marching to its own music

It was 1972 and times were tumultuous on Madison's activist campus when the Wisconsin Student Association started a collectively-run nonprofit pharmacy off a downtown alleyway. Yet with $18,000 in cash and inventory, four pharmacists and 65 student volunteers, WSA Community Pharmacy had a near sell-out on opening day.

That initial success provided a crystal hall into the future; today, Community Pharmacy is still going strong, and is quite possibly America's only worker cooperative pharmacy. Long out of the alleyway, it occupies 4,000 square feet in a prime location between the University and state capitol, with a staff of 25 and annual sales of $3.5 million.

Head Pharmacist Jane Greischar recalls the pharmacy's early days. "Our main focus was on consumer education, rather than retail. At first, we sold student items--soap, shampoo, toothpaste--and provided birth control pills, antibiotics and psychotherapeutic drugs. The prescription business was fairly small and cash-paid--things students couldn't easily get at the Health Service."

After its 1973 separation from WSA, the store sought nonprofit status, but a retail business can't go that route. (Instead, Community Pharmacy incorporated under Wisconsin's co-op law; WSA remained part of the name until 1995.) At first, the pharmacists ran the store. Staff turn-over was high until 1991, when Community Pharmacy elected to own itself, as a workers' co-op. After one year of employment, newcomers join one of seven management teams (Pharmacy, Buyers, Merchandising, Planning, Business, Public Relations, Personnel) which meet regularly to problem-solve and delegate tasks.

The staff says it likes the cooperative approach, and apparently it works for customers, too; some of them have patronized the downtown drug store for a decade or more. In fact, University alumni often come back to say they miss Community Pharmacy. "The atmosphere's so friendly, with no dress code. I can ride my bike to work, enjoy my workday--and it's nice not to have a boss," Greischar admits.

Pharmacist Michelle Melsby says she likes the sense of employees building their own community. "We really see customers as people," says Melsby, who joined the staff in 1998, after seven years at University of Wisconsin Hospital. In that setting, says Melsby, she felt pushed to the limits of safe practice, working shifts of 10 hours or more, without overtime pay. "The stress of constantly trying to make very important drug-related decisions, not knowing if I'd make a mistake due to fatigue and overwork, was too much responsibility."

So while Melsby says she took a substantial pay cut to join Community Pharmacy, her true goal was to improve her quality-of-life. "I still have stress as a pharmacist, but much less, in a more supportive environment with co-workers very aware of a pharmacist's needs," says Melsby, who now enjoys a 32-hour work week (plus one Saturday a month).

The store averages 100 prescriptions a day; two to four pharmacists are always on duty. Community Pharmacy publishes a free bi-monthly newsletter, pamphlets and other educational material. To compete with Madison's 12 Walgreen's and many smaller drugstores, Community Pharmacy budgets $50,000 a year for local print advertising.

Of course, a lot has changed in Community Pharmacy's 28 years of operation. When the store first opened, shelves of vitamins, supplements and natural products occupied a mere 16 square feet. Now, herbal and homeopathic remedies fill one-third of Community Pharmacy's space. A sniffling customer has the choice of a traditional OTC remedy or an herbal remedy such as Bi Yan Pian, a Chinese formula to break up sinus congestion. Homeopathic purchases include advice from a pharmacist, often Peter Kiesch, who spends 75 percent of his time in the store's natural section.

In fact, Community Pharmacy has gained a reputation as a regional information source for alternative as well as prescription drugs, says Kiesch, who's been with the store since its opening day. Phone calls may come from 250 miles away. Clients range from well-educated members of the university community to seniors from rural areas who buy alternative remedies their parents used, Kiesch adds.

Supplements and natural products account for nearly 50 percent of Community Pharmacy's sales: these are "important for dollar volume and better [profit] margins," says Kiesch. "With high prices and expensive new drugs, prescription revenue grows faster but margins keep shrinking; we have to make it up elsewhere. We were a richer store in 1985. Sixty percent of our business is through HMOs who don't want to pay for filling prescriptions." Not surprisingly, the store barely breaks even on prescription drugs, Greischar reports.

Alternative best-sellers include herbs (ginseng, gingko, kava kava, St. Johns Wort) and anti-oxidants (vitamin C and E), says Kiesch, who adds he is slow to recommend new natural products. "With all the hype in the industry, you have to wait long enough to see what works. If something does, we'll be selling it 20 years from now." He says he waits for customer feedback and reads a lot--some of it for his correspondence studies at England's School of Homeopathy, leading to a national exam and recognition by America's homeopathic community.

Local natural health professionals say they like having a place to send their patients for a wide array of natural products. Karen Kunkler, a doctor of naturopathy, says she is able to stock a limited supply in her own office "partly because I can send people to Community Pharmacy for their large selection, from vitamins to natural cosmetics to a full pharmacy, which is very unique. Their staff includes people who have a greater knowledge base from which to guide a consumer." In turn, the pharmacy sends referrals to Kunkler for problems such as chronic fatigue or women's health issues.

As Community Pharmacy heads into the millennium, its employee-owners say they're working in a setting that makes them truly happy. "Instead of being behind a counter filling prescriptions, I talk to people about injuries, sinus problems, arthritis, or whether they can use St. Johns wort with an inhaler," says Kiesch. "I'm here for them as both pharmacist and healthcare professional. Alternative health care takes a long time to learn; I knew nothing about it when I got out of pharmacy school. Every week, I get mail from chain stores and hospitals, offering me twice what I earn here. I decline them all. At Community Pharmacy, we have a lot of control over our workplace--something most people don't have today."

As Greischar puts it: "I keep thinking I may outgrow this, but it hasn't happened yet. I just can't imagine working anywhere else."

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