In Smith-McKenney, we are losing a family member

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In September CVS will take over for this venerable institution, and there's a great sense of loss.

By Steve Doyle

I was talking to a man about the dreadful news that Smith-McKenney drug store has been sold and soon would be no more. He is a lifelong resident of Shelbyville, a man invested in the community. He understood and mourned the loss of a venerable institution, just as so many of us are mourning.

He said he loved the old store downtown and missed having it there in its nice little paned-door rectangle across from the Shelby County Courthouse. He said he had remained loyal to the company, that he knew the owners and people who had worked there. But he also said he understood why this was happening.

“I take a couple of maintenance drugs,” he said. “And a few years ago my insurance company said I had to get the prescriptions by mail. I wanted to do business with them [Smith-McKenney], but I had to stop because of that. I hated it.”

Today we are all hating what has happened to Smith-McKenney. We’re not condemning the buyers, CVS, which is a successful regional brand. We simply feel as if a beloved uncle has moved out of one of our bedrooms and been replaced by a corporate executive from New Rochelle. A member of our community is leaving, one of our longest-standing businesses quieted by the roaring power of insurance companies, drug manufacturers and the large-scale modern marketplace.

And that’s a tough pill to swallow.

We are not inured to this, of course. Smith-McKenney, at 108, was one of the oldest businesses in the city. The Armstrong Agency’s century-plus legacy exists only in a line in the phonebook. Others have died along the way, leaving Biagi’s and Tracy’s Home Furnishings as the only veterans left to carry the ball for what once was a robust downtown.

But many years have passed since those salad days, when Smith-McKenney was one of three drugstores dotting a block and a half, there in its cramped little space with the Rexall shingle out front, just, as the man said, off the original town square.

Only a block to the west was Begley’s, which was across the street from the Prescription Shop. All of them were managed, if not exactly, owned by Shelby Countians. When you picked up a prescription, you knew the folks filling your bottle and those making your change.

This is where a confession is due. Our family shopped at all three, but we were a Begley’s family because that store had a lunch counter, and that’s where my maternal grandmother used to work, making a pretty mean hamburger and introducing me to such treats as a Coke float or a Black Cow. I don’t know if we got a family discount, but I do know we got personal service.

She was one of several women who wore white uniforms and worked behind the counter in an era lost to mass markets and fast service. And you can be sure that lunch counter was busy, despite a  few other restaurants cooking up lunches along Main Street.

Begleys was the first store to escape downtown, moving in the early 1970s to the brand new Governor’s Square on the East End and setting up as a neighbor with the third iteration of Kroger.

Smith-McKenney soon followed when Village Plaza was constructed, featuring Roses and A&P, and the Prescription Shop just sort of faded into oblivion, leaving three beloved downtown storefronts to evolve into what has become the all too commonly stoic face of that historic district today: legal offices and financial advisors.

That portrays a sad commentary for those who left and those who came to downtown, but that’s for another day. We are here to praise Smith-McKenney before someone else buries it.

Actually, Begley’s started that funeral, too, when Rite-Aid bought the store in Governor’s Square and later moved it to its existing location. And now we will have CVS, a fine store but hardly unique in this day of offering larger gifts, groceries and alcohol that isn’t simply for rubbing, another big box on another busy corner across from its rival.

Some of us have wondered for years why this has taken CVS so long. If you have ventured only as far as Middletown, you know there appears to be some sort of ordinance requiring Walgreens and CVS to be build on opposite corners. In Florida they are as common as tee-shirt shops and ugly billboards. In fact, that’s likely where this melancholy trend was born.

No, Shelbyville won’t be the same after September. We will have lost an old and dear friend, family, really, because so many of us had warm relationships with the Borders, Hickman and Donovan families. They were giving and loving people, whose dose of service and care were added gratis to your prescription, sort of helping to heal your spirit along with your body.

We take solace in the fact that although ownership is changing – and we don’t blame Greg Hayse for making a good deal while he could – the faces and smiles that have nurtured us throughout the store’s evolution will remain, that we likely will have their warmly chosen gifts from which to choose for one more Christmas.

Back in those days on Main Street, picking through the counters to find just the right gift for a grandparent or parent was part of the tradition of the holidays at Smith-McKenney, where a kindly uncle might wrap it up for you just nice and pretty, much better than your clumsy little fingers could do.

Yes, Smith-McKenney made a lot of things nicer and prettier in Shelby County, and I suppose it’s fitting that the last old Shelbyville-rooted family enterprise now must be Shannon Funeral Home.

The Shannon family has laid to rest so many loved ones who started so much. And now one more family member is passing.