Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Sad signs of a passing era

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WHEN Bill Dixon set up shop as a pharmacist decades ago, there were 14 independent or "community" drugstores in River Heights, bounded by Stafford Street, Kenaston Boulevard, Academy Road and Grant Avenue.

Today's Dixon's Pharmacy at Corydon Avenue and Niagara Avenue, the only one left, is to close at the end of July.

I feel sad, like many others, that this local institution is to disappear, because it contributed to a sense of community and friendship. Going to Dixon's was in the nature of a social visit, chatting with the friendly staff and other customers.

We knew the owners, Bill Dixon, a gentle low-key individual, invariably with a smile, and Morna Cook, open, vivacious and welcoming. She says of her days at the pharmacy, meeting customers: "It was like having family in your living room."

The entire staff will go to the new Pharma Plus store at Stafford and Corydon.

But in my neighbourhood, it spells the end of an era and the continuing absorption of small independents by the chains.

It divests the community of local control and concerns, in contrast to the chains, all based outside of Manitoba where decisions are made.

I don't know of anyone expressing love for a conglomerate, but as a customer for many years I recognize a genuine affection for Mr. Dixon, Ms. Cook and staff.

Bill Dixon worked for George May, who opened the store in 1956 when a chocolate bar cost a nickel, then took over in 1961. There were four drugstores within a block and all flourished. Next to the May drug store was a dry goods shop and a hardware store.

In recent years, Ms. Cook bought Dixon's and thought of building new, larger premises nearby. However, she could not raise the necessary finances and sold it to Pharma Plus.

"The discount stores pretty well killed the small community stores," says Mr. Dixon.

The chains offered a wide range of goods and articles, giving customers the convenience of having their prescriptions filled while they shopped. They competed for pharmacists who are in short supply.

Today, chain stores have grabbed most of the business. Ronald Guse, Registrar of the Manitoba Pharmaceutical Association, tells me there are 41 stores like Dixon's remaining in Winnipeg, compared to 106 chain stores.

The changes in Winnipeg have been reflected in Dixon's neighbourhood store. It has been held up about seven times, the robbers seeking narcotics.

For years, Dixon's Pharmacy stood as an example of a small store flourishing in the face of fierce competition from the giants. Dixon's was filling 3,000 prescriptions a month because of the allegiance and trust of the people.

Families of three generations patronize the store. Mr. Dixon liked hiring their children. "We found it most comforting as parents having two children and a niece work there," says one River Heights resident.

The store has its own identity, not an anonymous place in a mall. Charge accounts were available but the defaults "few and far between."

It is a pleasant place to work. Peggy Gardner worked there 30 years, which speaks well of the character of the store.

I call Nancy Levine, an employee for 14 years, "Nice Nancy." She illustrates the spirit of the place. She gives her gloves to an elderly customer who has lost them on a cold day. She ties up a stray dog, reads the tag and calls the owner. She sets up home care for an 87-year-old who doesn't know it is available.

Don Kirbyson, a customer for 35 years, naturally asked Mr. Dixon what to do about an allergy that developed when he flew. He had the antidote. Mr. Kirbyson, like others, had a great deal of confidence and trust in Mr. Dixon.

Ron Gutnik recalls when his wife died suddenly, he received a card signed by the staff of Dixon's expressing their sympathy.

"At that time," he says, "it meant a lot to me."

"I'm going to miss this place terribly," says Mr. Dixon. "Most of the memories have been good."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 26, 2003 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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