Jim Myers reflects on the golden age of pharmacies and 52 years serving Portage County

Image of an older white man wearing glasses and smiling, kneeling near a display case
Jim Myers helped curate the exhibit “Prescriptions for Memories,” using artifacts from his career. Wendy DiAlesandro/The Portager

At age 91, longtime Thompson’s Drug Store pharmacist Jim Myers has done what few folks can claim: Far from being a legend in his own mind, he is truly a legend in his own time.

Myers recently helped the Kent Historical Society create its newest exhibit, “Prescriptions for Memories,” using artifacts from Myers’ collection culled from his days of working at the Kent pharmacy and relying heavily on his recollections of years gone by.

For him, pharmacy work started in the 1950s when he interned at Thompson’s while completing his studies at Ohio Northern University. He graduated from pharmacy school in 1954, became a full-time pharmacist at Thompson’s, then found his career put on hold.

Instead of filling prescriptions, Myers spent two years serving his country in the U.S. Army — specifically, the 52nd Medical Battalion of the Fourth Armored Division in Fort Hood, Texas.

Somehow, he found time to marry Sally Ann Wolcott in 1955, and the pair returned to Kent in 1957. Myers returned to Thompson’s, where he rose to store manager.

The work hours were brutal. Thompson’s was open from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. five days a week. The store closed at 8 p.m. on Saturdays, but opened right back up for “short hours” from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and again from 5 to 9 p.m. on Sundays.

Myers shut that down when he became manager, closing the store earlier on Sundays, running a steady 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. schedule Mondays through Saturdays and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sundays and most holidays.

Before long, he became majority owner of Thompson’s Drug Store, joined by pharmacists Tom Young, Charles Parkinson, Jim Hostler, Ed Martie and Bob Lovell, Jr., in ownership of three Thomspson’s Drugs in Kent, Streetsboro and Brimfield.

This ain’t a Walgreens

Neighborhood pharmacies were important fixtures in communities because “it was a meeting place, it was a melting pot. There were a lot of times there weren’t enough physicians around, and you relied on the pharmacist for medical advice,” Myers said.

It’s not that pharmacists tried, or for that matter, still do, want to practice medicine without a license, “but I think we have enough knowledge that we can direct people to what they should be doing, and maybe that’s finding a physician, or maybe it’s take an antihistamine and call me in the morning,” he quipped.

Wendy DiAlesandro/The Portager

He recalls friendly competition with nearby pharmacies, which at one point numbered five within a block of each other.

Each had its niche. Thompson’s and Carson’s filled prescriptions, Hoard’s had the local Greyhound station, Standard had a booming lunch counter, Lea focused on merchandise, and everyone had soda fountains.

“When school let out, it would just be bedlam in there,” he recalled. “They’d be shoplifting candy and things, and you think, ‘Why am I doing this?’”

The answer was profit. Thompson’s was thriving during those years, Myers said. It even established a pension that ended up being overfunded. 

“The government couldn’t believe it. I mean, it was just unheard of that a little store could have a pension plan that was fully funded,” he grinned.

The end of the line

Profits dried up, though, when unions were able to add prescription coverage to their medical plans, he said. Suddenly, workers — and their families — were able to afford medications for what ailed them. However, the plans were set up in such a way that pharmacies soon found themselves drowning in red ink.

Instead of making a 40% profit on prescriptions, Myers found himself making 3%. Only major pharmacy chains survived, making up the losses by selling other merchandise.

“The profit margin set by the insurance industry is lower than any other product you can think of,” Myers said. “It’s terrible. No business can survive like that. That’s why the little stores went out of business. They don’t sit on a lot of cash or assets or wealth. Small stores just couldn’t survive.”

Benefits managers, he said, continue to do a disservice to the insurance companies and public alike, putting pharmacies in the impossible position of having to sell prescriptions below cost. Meanwhile, he said, the manufacturers are raking it in.

By the late 1990s, neighborhood pharmacies were closing. Thompson’s, which shuttered its door on Jan. 2, 2004, was one of the last to succumb, he said.

Cast of characters

Myers still attends unofficial “Thompson’s reunions,” trading stories back and forth of memorable customers.

One, a Kent State University professor, seemed to have a germ phobia and could not bring himself to touch the doorknob. Effectively trapped in the store, he would wait until another customer entered, then shoulder the door open so he could leave.

Only later did Myers learn that the man’s brother had died of a hand infection.

Another customer had a reputation for being “difficult.” Employees would suddenly find something else to do when he walked through the door, leaving Myers on his own. An offhand comment about joint pain led to Myers suggesting what now is a common remedy.

“I was telling him about chondroitin for joint pain, that it was made from shellfish, crustaceans, shrimp and things like that, to put more cartilage back into your bones and your joints,” he said.

The man returned a few weeks later, livid because Myers had called him selfish.

“I had the hardest time. He was a little hard of hearing, too, so trying to explain to him that that’s not what I said … well, he was selfish, but that isn’t what I said to him. Yeah, that was a funny one,” he recalled.

Those were the days when customers turned to their pharmacist instead of the internet for advice. 

Dangers of dealing drugs

There were dangerous times, too. One day, an employee approached Myers to tell him a man had pulled a gun and was demanding drugs. Myers took one look at the would-be weapon and recognized it as identical to the toy he had recently bought his own son. Shaking his head, Myers ordered the man out of the store.

Still, he enforced a store policy of giving any real robbers whatever they wanted if they would only leave the store. It happened at the Kent store and also at the Streetsboro location.

Then there were addicts, or people who had figured out how to score an easy high.

Paregoric is a liquid medication meant to relieve intestinal distress. Because it contains diluted alcohol and laudanum, or powdered opium, it’s now classified as a Schedule III narcotic.

But back in the day, it was an over-the-counter remedy anyone could buy. Flavored with anise oil, it tasted wonderful and was the perfect path to the legal high. Since it could only be sold one ounce at a time, though, people who had become addicted developed a strategy.

“We had people who would make the rounds of all the pharmacies in the area on a given day just to feed their habit,” Myers said. 

Forged prescriptions were a constant challenge, and some of them were pretty good, he recalled. Kent police would periodically check the store files and put a stop to what they could.

“There were people we knew who had drug habits,” Myers said. “We would call the doctor, and they would take off once they knew we were on to them.”

It wasn’t only would-be customers. Myers says he knew of area doctors who were running pill mills. They’d eventually lose their medical licenses, but the process took years, he said.

“They’d write a prescription for people who were known to have a narcotics habit, and the doctors went along with them because it was profitable to them,” he said.

May 4, 1970

Myers recalls the chaos of events leading up to the May 4 massacre at Kent State. In the wee hours of the morning of May 1, 1970, Myers fielded a phone call from Kent police. Someone had thrown a hammer at the drugstore, shattering one of the large plate-glass windows.

Myers found the hammer, which is now on display at the Kent Historical Society. The window had been broken before, so he had a beautiful walnut panel already prepared to fill the hole. Then he went home to await further developments.

At the time, Myers was president of the Kent school board. Not only did he have to arrange for permission for the National Guard to use Walls School as a bivouac area, he knew an election to decide an 11.6-mill school levy was scheduled for May 5.

“Here I am, the president, thinking, ‘We’re going to take a beating on this one because you just know there were people in the community that were really upset about the whole thing, mad at the university, mad at the kids, and they’re going to take it out at the ballot box.’”

No one even knew if the election would take place or if anyone would be allowed to venture from their homes to vote if it did, he said. After all, martial law had gone into effect in Kent.

Polls opened and Kent voters delivered, Myers recalled.

“It was the biggest victory percentage-wise we ever had,” he said. “I still get goosebumps right now. It just tells you this is a great community. They passed that issue despite what everybody thought would be a terrible defeat.”

Turning over the business

Years before other drug stores stopped selling tobacco products, Thompson’s led the way. Davey Tree’s headquarters was located just above the store at the time, and its employees would come down and buy cigarettes.

In 1988, Myers stopped the sale of tobacco products at Thompson’s. He knew that one of his customers had emphysema and felt badly about being in the health industry and selling cigarettes to a person tethered to an oxygen tank. Four or five television stations, including PBS, descended on the store, all making a national story out of his simple decision.

Some customers were angry, but the tide turned the other way, too. Myers learned that one new customer drove from Hudson to get his prescriptions at Thompson’s for the sole reason that he had banned tobacco sales.

“That was a proud moment,” he said softly.

Jim Myers of Thompson’s Drugstore with Mary Kay Sitko, who worked with him for 27 years. Wendy DiAlesandro/The Portager

No business can survive without profits, and soon after the turn of the century, Myers had to make a difficult decision.

He tried to find a buyer for Thompson’s, but the owners of the Akron pharmacy he was negotiating with didn’t like what they saw as a lack of parking in downtown Kent, and the deal fell through.

“CVS and Walgreens had been after us for some time,” Myers said. “They didn’t need my merchandise. They didn’t need my location or my store. They wanted our prescription business. That’s what they were really looking for: a customer base for prescription service.”

The lack of profit on prescriptions didn’t bother the buyers because they knew customers would also buy other merchandise, Myers said.

He settled on selling to Walgreens on the condition that it took on any Thompson’s employees who wished to transfer.

“That helped them greatly because they knew the people coming in,” he said.

Without that personal touch from community drugstores, though, pharmacy customers now are little more than data on a computer screen, Myers said. And that “distance” can be lethal. While technological advances give pharmacists a better chance of catching potentially dangerous prescription drug combinations, that’s only true if customers are getting all their prescriptions filled from the same source and have come to know the pharmacist well enough to feel comfortable asking questions.

Even dealing simultaneously with a local pharmacist and a mail-in pharmacy can be risky, he said. He understands that customers are in a bind: Even with a starting salary of over $100,000, pharmacists are in short supply, forcing some drugstores to once again shorten their pharmacy hours.

Myers, then aged 72, retired in 2004 after serving Thompson’s and the Kent community for 52 years. He had filled his last prescription.

By the time the sale went through, the Thompson’s store in Kent had been in business for 128 years, the Streetsboro location for 35 years, and the Brimfield site for a quarter century — a combined 188 years of serving Portage County, he said proudly.

After pharmacies

Looking back, Myers says he enjoyed the customers, people who stopped by just to pass the time, and the Thompson’s employees.

“We were a family,” he said. “I enjoyed every minute of it.”

Kent thought the world of him, too. He was presented with the Kent Chamber of Commerce’s community service award and served on the board of Kent’s First Federal Savings and Loan, which eventually morphed into Huntington Bank.

Myers was a public information officer for Kent’s first Charter Commission and later served on a Charter Review Commission. He represented the Chamber of Commerce on behalf of KSU to establish the May 4 Memorial.

In the 1980s, he was presented with the Bowl of Hygieia, which the Ohio Pharmacy Association bestows each year on one pharmacist in the state for outstanding community service.

He is also a member of the Kent schools Hall of Fame, having served on the school board for 18 years, including three stints as president.

It’s all behind him now. A snowbird, he enjoys wintering in Hilton Head, South Carolina, with his wife, Sally. They’ve been married 67 years and have every expectation of making it to 70. They have three grown children and five grandchildren, and he enjoys every minute with them.

Now 91 and in fine health, Myers claims he has no secret. He takes some over-the-counter supplements, the occasional cocktail and, he said with a smile, chondroitin.

“I don’t know if it helps or not, but I’m not about to stop taking it. And I don’t have any joint pain,” he grinned.

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Wendy DiAlesandro is a former Record Publishing Co. reporter and contributing writer for The Portager.