Hillsboro's oldest business offer a prescription for community
They range in age from their late 60s to their late 80s, and their career trajectories are as varied as their personalities.
The retired ones used to be school teachers, ministers, choir directors and lawyers. The few still working sell kettle corn and repair eyeglasses for a living — and there's even an active politician in the bunch: Oregon State Sen. Chuck Riley.
But however wide-ranging their professional lives or how different their personal perspectives, the members of two men's groups that meet each morning for coffee and conversation at Hillsboro Pharmacy and Fountain find community at Hillsboro's oldest business.
"This gives me a reason to get up in the morning," said Jerry McAlister, 79, a former Hillsboro School District music teacher. On Monday, McAlister sat perched on a stool at the end of the fountain's long counter, visiting with friends Dave Thayer and Dennis Tisdell.
At first the threesome sits alone at the counter of the 145-year-old pharmacy, located at 243 E. Main St. They chat about the weather and the two-day-old government shutdown. "We talk about world affairs," joked Thayer, 78. "We solve a lot of problems."
As the men eat and drink, waitress Patsy Riojas refills their coffee cups. "I like the people who come in," she said, expertly wiping up a spill. "It's real homey here."
Members of the 10 a.m. coffee group soon start trickling in, ready to spend another morning together in an iconic spot that dates back to 1873, just eight years after the end of the Civil War.
'Doc' Bailey the original proprietor
Founded by Dr. F.A. Bailey, a medical cadet who fought with the Confederate Army, Hillsboro Pharmacy and Fountain was first established in the Morgan Building at the northeast corner of Second Avenue and Main Street downtown. "Doc" Bailey practiced medicine above the pharmacy space in those days, according to owner Doug Johnson, who took over the business in 1978 after years working at the store as a pharmacist and manager.
"He also taught school in the logging camps in Gaston, and he was Hillsboro's mayor at least a couple of times," Johnson said.
The store moved to its current location in the 1920s, and was operated by Harry Bates and Paul Wishart before Johnson took over.
After years of 50- and 60-hour weeks, Johnson, 67, still works three days a week filling prescriptions and visiting with customers. He loves the historic aspects of the business, from a collection of antique medicine bottles to prescription records from the 19th century, he said.
Not unlike the coffee groups, a pair of distinct but significant ledgers co-exist at the pharmacy. One is a thick book Johnson keeps in a back office, its yellowed pages containing prescriptions from as far back as 1904. In those days "Doc" Bailey apparently didn't always know the exact name of the patient taking the medication.
"Here's one for 'Ed Moore's daughter,'" Johnson read from faint cursive handwriting inside the book. "And here's another for 'Mrs. Tedford's girl.'"
The other important register is a spiral notebook in which are recorded the results of a who-buys-the-coffee game the 10 o'clock group has been playing for 15 years while its members pass the time inside the shop.
Over the course of last year, retired teacher Steve Hibbs bought $342 worth of coffee for his friends — the most in the group. According to the ledger, the 10 a.m. group purchased $3,300 worth of coffee at the pharmacy in 2017.
What's the attraction that keeps the group coming back for more?
"I guess we like each other," said Bernie Kuehn, who retired as the choir director at Century High School in 2003 and now lives on Bald Peak near Tigard. One of several group members who bring coffee cups from home, Kuehn holds a mug emblazoned with his first name as he sits at the counter. He bought it after seeing it on a website during the runup to the 2016 presidential election.
"But we don't talk politics," noted Bill Warren, another group member. "That's a $10 fine."
Customer service 'No. 1'
The late-morning group is typically larger than the early one — ranging from eight to 13 members most days, said Kathy Schmidlkofer, the longtime manager of the pharmacy and fountain. On "pie day," she added, the group can grow to as many as 16, taking up every seat at the fountain.
"Sometimes their wives make pie and send it in with them," she said.
Schmidlkofer, who has worked at the pharmacy since 1985, said the key to the business' success is its customer service. She's watched the children of her regular patrons grow up and get married, "and I've gone to the funerals of some of my customers," she said.
Warren said that kind of concern and camaraderie extends to his coffee group as well. "People look out for each other," he said. "If you don't see someone a time or two, you call or send them a card."
Both the 9 and 10 a.m. groups have lost members, and photos of those who've passed on decorate the mirrors behind the fountain counter.
Counting back the change
Besides serving up hearty breakfasts and thick, tasty milkshakes, the fountain's cooks also specialize in Reubens, BLTs and hamburgers at lunchtime, said Johnson.
"The food items are popular and in the summer, so is the ice cream," he noted, but the menu isn't what keeps the store afloat. "The pharmacy's been our mainstay," Johnson said.
"When I first took over the business I tried to compete with the big guys, putting out a Christmas circular and all that," he said. "But it's always just been the prescriptions."
In addition to 10 full-time employees — a tight-knit group committed to providing "old-fashioned ambience and a welcoming atmosphere," Johnson said — the store has also hired Hillsboro-area high school students over the years to fill in on late-afternoon shifts or on Saturdays. "It's important for them to learn to deal with people face-to-face," he said. "We still insist they count back the change to customers."
Though his business has evolved far beyond what F.A. Bailey started all those years ago — selling greeting cards, sundries, stuffed toys and small gifts — Johnson said he's happy to continue serving the Hillsboro community, and hopes to do so for years to come.
"One of my biggest desires is to eventually be able to find someone who can carry it forward," he said. "That's my hope."
By Nancy Townsley
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