By Abi Cole
Weaverville – Small town character and corporate progress are constant opposing forces in little towns across the country. Such is the closing of Weaverville Healthwise Pharmacy, better known to locals as Weaverville Drug Company (see related commentary page 2).
Weaverville Drug Company originally opened in 1885, but the present-day store opened in 1928 and was a longstanding institution of downtown Weaverville. The Main Street fixture was owned locally for nearly ninety years before its sale to Smith Drug Company rebranding as Weaverville Healthwise Pharmacy three years ago. A recent Walgreens buyout of Smith Drug Company marks the startling end to this local favorite.
Nearly thirty years ago, Chuck Sprinkle purchased Weaverville Drug Company, following in his grandfather’s footsteps, who was a former owner and pharmacist. His childhood was sprinkled with visits to pick up a candy bar or sip on Weaverville Drug’s famous milkshakes, sometimes popping behind the counter to assist the pharmacists. Frequent trips fueled his desire to attend pharmaceutical school, and inevitably return as an owner.
Sprinkle is no stranger to big-business pharmaceuticals. A 15-year career in corporate medicine left him longing to re-establish local roots. “It was preserving something that was connected to my family. My ancestry was connected to the community as part of the [store’s] history.”
Sprinkle purchased the store in 1993, in the Well-Bred Bakery location. The pharmacy moved a block down Main St in 2001 to occupy the former post office building, a property Sprinkle still owns.
Upon his retirement, Sprinkle sold the store to Smith Drug Company of Spartanburg, a company that started in Asheville in the 1940s and eventually moving its headquarters to Spartanburg, SC. Employees were alerted last Monday that Weaverville Drug Co.’s doors will shut for good, a week before it’s closing.
“It’s upsetting,” said Sprinkle on the Walgreens buyout. “It’s certainly not something I wanted to see happen or I expected to. One reason I sold to Smith management was I felt that they had the resources, background and financial backing to keep it going. The sudden decision to close 30 stores was something I didn’t see coming.”
Some longtime customers and community members are appalled at the sudden closure.
“I was in the store Friday and ran into a number of people who’ve been long term customers just about to cry over the situation, it’s kind of like going to a funeral. It’s been a part of so many people’s lives,” said Sprinkle.
Ronald Cole’s lifelong loyalty to the pharmacy made for an upsetting visit last Thursday when he stopped by the store. The gentle chime of the door welcomed him as he greeted the pharmacists to check on a prescription. Cole was taken aback when the pharmacists, who he had bantered and chattered with for years, confided that the store was abruptly closing the following Monday.
“I was very upset that we, and anybody we talked to, were not notified that this was taking place, which underhandedly makes me feel like their profits were way more important than the welfare of the customers. Some people could have been without medicine Tuesday morning, went down there to get it, the place is closed up.” All prescriptions are being automatically transferred to the Walgreens in north Asheville, but Cole is concerned for patients like himself who special order pharmaceuticals not stocked in a traditional drugstore. Shipping and production delays brought on by the pandemic may delay vital deliveries, says Cole.
A Weaverville resident his entire life, Cole is all too familiar with corporate buyouts of once locally owned and operated businesses. Downtown Weaverville has completely transformed since his childhood he said – it’s even a different austere than twenty years ago.
“Walgreens wanted to keep (the acquisition) as quiet as they could so that they could get as many of the prescriptions which would automatically switch over to them Monday at 7 pm,” says Cole. He has already transferred his prescriptions to Ingles, an Asheville-owned supermarket chain. “Most of the people my age, and even older, have used the Weaverville Drug Co. all their life because they just like to be local people. They like to buy local and service, help local people out.”
You didn’t meet a stranger at Weaverville Drug Co., says longtime Weaverville resident Charles Sprinkle, a very distant relation to former owner Chuck Sprinkle. “It was just a nice community drugstore, where everybody knew everybody.”
Employees of the drug store were told not to talk to the press. One employee, on condition of anonymity, told the Tribune, “We had no clue about this…It was as much a surprise to us as the customers. They [customers] think we knew and didn’t tell them and it is breaking our heart. We aren’t allowed to say anything on social media either.”
Corporate buyouts endanger preservation of small-town character on every Main St, USA. But even Walgreens began as a small corner store in an Illinois neighborhood.
Editor’s note: The Weaverville Tribune’s Facebook post received over 16,000 views and nearly 100 comments about the closing when we broke the story last week. You are invited to go to our Facebook page and read some of those responses.