Demise of the corner drugstore

Not anymore at a corner near you

Chalk it up to the ubiquity of national chains such as Walgreen’s and CVS; to the low prices and convenience of in-store pharmacies at Walmart or Publix; to the poor economy; or to causes less obvious and more mysterious. Whatever the cause, or combination of causes, MedTown Pharmacy closed its doors this week. As the sole surviving full-service drugstore on the northside of downtown (within the 200 block of 20th Street North), this comes as a blow to not only the daytime business population in the CBD, but to the many downtown residents (including this author) who chose MedTown as their drugstore of choice. MedTown joins the ranks of other downtown drugstores (such as Dewberry’s, at the corner of 2nd Avenue North and Richard Arrington Blvd., pictured above in 1939) which have closed over the last couple decades. As recently as 1998, there were still 4 independent drugstores operating within a few blocks of MedTown (itself formerly a Big B Drugstore). Now there are none.

Another blow for 20th Street

The closing of MedTown is sadly in sync with the generally haggard feeling of Birmingham’s “Main Street”. Despite some bright spots–Trattoria Centrale, Brick & Tin, Cafe Dupont, the private residence designed by Appleseed Workshop–recent years have seen the shuttering of the old First Alabama Bank building (and the failure of the proposed Marriott Renaissance Hotel there); the departure of SouthTrust/Wachovia from their 2nd Avenue Branch, leaving an entire half-block of empty buildings; thwarted redevelopments of both the Empire and Brown-Marx buildings; and of course the very, very tired and dated “Birmingham Green” of 1970’s era plantings, concrete benches, and low concrete walls that’s in desperate need of renovation.

Sign of the times?

It seems emblematic of Birmingham, in a way, that our “Main Street”, symbolic center of town, has been allowed to become so frayed. Other areas of downtown are brimming with promise and interest–but the energy dissipates where it instead should be united in full force on 20th. An encouraging sign: I heard members of the Mayor’s staff and the Horticulture department walked 20th Street last week discussing how to overhaul the landscaping to bring it in line with more modern, sophisticated efforts such as Railroad Park and the proposed streetscapes around the Pizitz project. And just seeing the crowds spill out of Trattoria for lunch, dinner, or brunch–no matter how desolate the immediate surroundings–also gives hope. Hope that other entrepreneurs will take initiative to renovate buildings and bring new businesses; hope that the Mayor will continue to search for ways to improve the City; hope that other nearby developments will exert pressure on 20th Street to revive.

Of course, some of us also hope that a drugstore will open up in the neighborhood again, and soon.

33 responses to “Demise of the corner drugstore

  1. I have never understood why Downtown Atlanta is completely filled with corner stores but Downtown Birmingham can’t support a single one. This is sad news.

    • Anecdote about Atlanta drugstores–I was downtown for a conference a while ago on a Sunday; exiting the MARTA stop I asked a transit employee to direct me to a drugstore. She laughed and said, “You’re downtown on a Sunday!” and said every drugstore was closed, except a small stand in a food court connected to the MARTA station. I crossed an empty, windswept street, entered the food court, and waited 20 minutes for a small newsstand to open (it never did). So it’s all relative–even such a big city as Atlanta can’t support downtown drugstores on Sundays. But your point is a good one, for the important remainder of the week!

  2. I hate that the demissions always seem to claim unique businesses; the ones that allow downtown to pass, more or less, for a living system (instead of just a pack of remoras sucking lunch money from lawyers and bankers on weekdays).

    I’m hopeful that the Pizitz redevelopment, well-placed to draw some of the McWane Center visitors across the street for a treat, will create a second foothold (after the RR Park) for people to enjoy downtown as casual visitors instead of just lunch warriors.

  3. On 21st Street between Dewberry Drugs and Protective Life were a few other places which have also closed. These included Rex Shoe Repair and Guaranty Federal Savings and Loan. It is interesting about Rec=x Shoe Repair: today at Saks I was talking to this customer about 15 or 20 minutes before he asked me what my name was. I told him and asked him his name. His last name was Gagliano and when I heard it I immediately thought about Rex Shoe Repair. He was stunned that I would have remembered his father’s business and told me that he was going to let his sister know that their family had not been forgotten.

  4. I still shake my head when I hear that they city and the BJCC are going to BUILD a new entertainment district when there are empty storefronts sitting downtown that would make an ideal location for such a project. The money that is being spent on NEW buildings could be used to update the area……. I just dont get building something new when there is plenty of charm already downtown

    • CR–A lot of people agree with you. Here’s one issue–it can be a lot harder to assemble the multiple properties, preserve the historic buildings (and finance all this) than it is to acquire “virgin land” and build a new complex all at once. Further complicating this is that there is a real need for the thousands who are sometimes at the BJCC to connect to amenities like restaurants and shops. It’s a real quandary. This would have been so much easier if the interstate had been built on the other side of the BJCC; then we’d have a better time integrating “entertainment” into the existing urban fabric, and having it be walkable to the convention center.

  5. 20th Street has such potential to be a jewel in downtown Birmingham and it’s frustrating to see it fall into such a state of demise. I’ve always thought it would be a perfect street to close off to vehicular traffice and become a pedestrian shopping/dining hub downtown, much like the 16th Street Mall in downtown Denver. http://www.denver.com/16th-street-mall/ if a city as big as Denver can do it, surely Birmingham can too!

    • Marci–I’ve not been to Denver, but you do have to be careful about pedestrian-only streets. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. At the moment, since there is so little on-street parking, and 20th Street dead-ends at Linn Park, there is relatively little traffic and with the median it feels more pedestrian-friendly than, say, one-way 2nd Avenue. But yet 2nd Avenue is attracting more interest than 20th Street. What I do agree with is that a concentrated effort to revitalize the street is long overdue.

  6. Is there no Main Street plan or strategy? As in other cities, we witness a great renaissance of their Main Street area with updated facades, locally-owned specialty shops, pedestrian-friendly sidewalks and unique outdoor art/benches/ammenities. You see actual storefronts for these “Main Street” projects … you see the work happening.
    I was in Memphis a few weeks back and was instantly reminded of our dear Birmingham. Downtown is full of closed-up windows and vacancies. Little foot traffic is seen on city streets on the weekends. The city is gritty, it’s considered “unsafe”…BUT, there are pockets of growth. The Downtown Memphis Façade Improvement Grant Program offered incentives to small businesses throughout the past three or four years to spruce up their storefronts and interiors, with greater incentives in targeted areas. You have spots like South Main and Pinch District that have become destinations for gallery-goers, diners, etc. You see a great number of repurposed buildings that have been converted into lofts that are occupied by young professionals. I look at the new Cityville development in downtown Bham and I think “Great!”… then I wonder, “What can these residents do without having to get in their cars? ” Sure, we have phenomenal hope in places like 2nd Ave North and, loosely, Five Points South… but look at the great potential in pockets like 4th Ave District and the Theatre district… I’m dying to spend an evening in and around these two areas that includes cocktails, dinner, a show and live entertainment afterwards. And I want to walk (confidently/safely) throughout the evening.
    My rambling has a point…I think. Is there, has there ever been, an organized/focused/committed plan to revitalize and strengthen this area? What incentives do the city offer to budding entrepreneurs who might be a perfect fit for setting up shop along this main corridor? I’m all for a baseball stadium (and not so much for the BJCC entertainment district), but what is being discussed or considered for places just like this that need immediate attention?

    • What we have is Operation New Birmingham and a City Center Master Plan. Interesting that “Main Street Birmingham” operates mainly in former suburban commercial centers (which is great, but there is a downtown in need of help)

      I’d suggest that Greenville, South Carolina is one city in the region that has done a splendid job with its main street.

    • LKW–you hit it–plan, incentivize, follow-through, persist. We usually only have 1 of these ingredients, not all. In the case of 20th we probably have none. In the case of other areas we may have a decent plan, but no subsequent incentives or follow-through. Or persistence. And there’s your answer.

  7. Agreed, John. I recently asked David Fleming (E.D. of Main Street) about any type of downtown “main street” revitalization effort and he said there was one organized back in the ’80’s, but that it has not seen revisions (to keep up with inflation and/or community needs) since that time. He mentioned they frequently “discuss updating”, but nothing happens…
    I suppose ONB is the source and maybe I should do more research to see what they are doing. I know the organization’s funding has been slashed within the last year and now they are looking for new leadership… I’m impatient and I want to see more, quicker. Immediate gratification is a fatal flaw…

    • Since you like talking to people, I think you would enjoy talking to real estate executives Joseph McClure (jmcre.net – his office, across from Trattoria Centrale, usually has a great model train in the window this time of year) and John Lauriello (southpace.com). They (along with Jeremy) have been hands-on leaders in preserving and promoting downtown commercial properties, achieving some notable successes despite sometimes appearing to tilt at windmills.

    • ONB has never had the power to truly plan, incentivize, and follow-through. They’ve been more of a mediator for other efforts, or a marketing tool. We need a true redevelopment authority that can be active, not passive. You’re not the only one impatient–maybe the change in leadership at ONB will inspire others to press for a true Redevelopment Authority.

  8. Could the city offer tax incentives to small businesses that choose to locate there? I really don’t understand why there aren’t more restaurants. Every time I visit Rogue Tavern, Trattoria, Brick and Tin, and others, they are packed. Are the liquor licenses too expensive? Taxes too high?

    I know that Rogue isn’t technically on this stretch of road, but as LK said, it would be really nice to be able to enjoy a full evening (dinner, movie/show, drinks) all in one place here.

    • Yes–but due to lack of will/finances/other priorities, we don’t have that type of incentive. If you’re a newcomer, just realize that only a few years ago, none of those places were there. And on 2nd Avenue, where on Saturday night I passed by dinner at Urban Standard, a bouncer enticing people into the German Club for house music, a packed Rogue, and a packed Pale Eddie’s–3 years ago there was just the occasional homeless person on that same Saturday night, and dark storefronts. So things are improving–and there’s more to come–but it could indeed be improving faster if there was a plan and incentives.

      • You are correct – I have been here long enough to know that just a few years ago nothing was there. I considered living in a loft downtown when I moved here, but it was hard to justify when there was so little to do downtown. If I were to make the same decision today, I would absolutely choose to live there.

        I think the Pizitz renovation will really push things over the top with the inclusion of a V. Richards grocery. In time I can see this whole corridor being redeveloped. I just really wish the city would provide some incentives, at least for the first few years or in the renovation phase. The city could promise to waive certain taxes for the first few years, waive permit fees for renovations that involve downtown storefronts in this district, or even help business owners apply for federal grants. Better a lively bar, restaurant, or business than some dilapidated empty storefront.

      • The city has provided incentives (typically by backing low-interest loans to smaller redevelopment projects and providing infrastructure improvements and tax abatement for larger new businesses), but they have not done it according to a unified redevelopment plan.

        Something like that is in the works for the “Park Place” district between the RR Park and Titusville. Though it hasn’t taken shape yet, perhaps it will prove such a good experience that the idea can be quickly adopted in other commercial districts.

  9. I’ve been using MedTown since I moved to the northside 5.5 years ago. It is truly sad when the businesses you make a point to support end up folding. Remember when this happened with Red Mountain Market as well? I really hope that more and more people will take notice of places that they don’t want to see leave and give them their business. Hopefully if we all do that, we can prevent this from happening. – sara

    • Let’s all try to make an effort to support independent merchants whenever we can–keeps your dollars in the local community, and helps strengthen our urban fabric. Thanks.

      • Let’s! A good way to start? Consider making your holiday purchases from locally-owned retailers this year. I’ve committed to a 100% local shopping list and, although enticed by ease of online shopping and big-box discounts, I’m enjoying finding new businesses to support that have far more unique offerings than anything I’ve seen in department stores and the like. Then, make it a resolution as you enter the new year! SHOP LOCAL. It may not be the easiest way to shop at the moment, but if we all make the effort, business will blossom… And we’ll begin to see places like 2nd Row develop all over the city. I believe…can I get a witness?

    • I have unconfirmed information that MedTown’s closing didn’t have anything to do with the lack of business. I have heard that it was a”personal” issue.

      • Well, this is always a possibility. Hopefully we’ll get more information about the decision to close, and if there’s any hope for a replacement on the horizon.

  10. Let me take the opportunity to suggest that a gift certificate at Jim Reed Books or What’s on 2nd is like two gifts in one: the undoubtedly-unique item(s) the recipient finds, and the opportunity to spend time looking for them in such rich surroundings.

  11. I was very disheartened to learn of MedTown’s closing. I have just recently moved downtown (from Hoover) and always made to point to shop there when possible. I see so much potential for the downtown area, but wonder what kind of action it will take to get things on the right track? I feel like if ONE retail, non-food service business would take the chance to be open during “non-work” hours, we downtown residents would flock. I know of one that would for sure. I share the optimism of other posters that the Pizitz renovation will be a catalyst to further development.

    • MedTown closed for a few reasons. MedTown was a partnership and while one partner believed in downtown, the other did not. There was not a lack of business downtown. However, medicaid cuts and with the impending Obama health care plan combined with a combative partner gave little room for negotiation.The store was not profitable but it was not a complete loss and I believe it had potential and tried everything within my ability to keep it open. IT WAS SO CLOSE! No one has shed more tears or over this decision than myself. I believe in downtown. I’ve been fighting this battle for three years now but the real loss is to downtown Birmingham to which I will always consider home. I have not given up hope for the future. I have many ideas and plans and I pray for God to grant me the opportunity and wisdom to reopen. I would be willing to work extensively with anyone wanting to reopen without any compensation and I do not have to be an owner to dedicate my time.

  12. Jeremy, I just read the new issue of the Synergy newsletter from ONB. There is an article confirming what you heard about the City leaders strolling 20th Street. Let’s hope this is followed up with some action.

    http://custapp.marketvolt.com/cv.aspx?cm=191690781&x=28043350&cust=3665630

    • There was another piece of interest in that newsletter, regarding the relocation of the Subway from 20th Street N. to 5th Avenue N. In October, the News’ Stan Diel reported that a then-unidentified sandwich shop chain had made an unsolicited offer on the retail space then occupied by the 5th Avenue Coffeehouse next door to Chick-Fil-A.

      It seems that Subway (specifically franchise owner Barry O’Hare of the Afton Group LLC) effectively forced out a locally-owned downtown business while leaving a vacancy on 20th Street.

    • Chuck–I saw that too. I too hope this is followed with action, and that the City understands that, while a place like the Summit shopping center can teach 20th Street some basics about cleanliness, maintenance, etc., the design of a suburban shopping center is not a great model for an urban core. That’s part of what got 20th Street in the state it’s in now–misplaced suburban-style landscaping in vogue in the 1970s.

  13. The article posted by Stan Diel (http://blog.al.com/businessnews/2010/10/fifth_avenue_coffee_house_exit.html) states that the owners of 5th Av Coffee was made an offer “too good to pass up”. Interestingly enough, the owners also own the building. I do not get that Subway “forced” out another downtown business. I also understand that the reason Subway left 20th Street is because they lost their lease.

    • I used the phrase “effectively forced out” to acknowledge that, while the owners of the coffee house could have rejected the offer that was “too good to pass up”, Subway could just as well have made good offers on any number of vacant storefronts in the immediate area that wouldn’t have necessitated the immediate closure of a local business.

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