Losing Bartell: More than just a drug store
By Jean Godden
When it comes to sad news -- and there's plenty of that to go around -- among the saddest is word that Bartell Drugs, the nation's oldest local drugstore chain, has been sold for $95 million to Rite Aid, the national chain headquartered in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania.
News of the sale came at a bittersweet time -- the week Bartell Drugs celebrated its 130th birthday. Founded in 1890 in Seattle's Leschi neighborhood, the business now counts 67 stores, located throughout Seattle and in nearby cities and counties.
Founder was George H. Bartell, a 21-year-old pharmacist who arrived in town from Kansas and purchased the pharmacy where he'd gone to work for $3,000. Since then it's been a family business, with leadership passed along to son George H. Bartell Jr. and finally to grandchildren George D. Bartell and Jean Bartell Barber. It wasn't until 2015 that Bartell got its first non-family CEO.
News has hit many Bartell customers hard. Reactions range from an anguished "No!" to remarks like: "No other drugstore comes close. I think I'm going to cry." Most Seattle residents have Bartell stories, tales of late-night trips to fill a prescription and fond memories of the old triangle store at 401 Pine Street, just opposite the World Fair Monorail station. If you were around for the 1962 fair, you could have met entertainers like Elvis Presley and George Burns at Bartell.
Bartell's (Seattleites say it with an "s") has always been an all-purpose store, from getting a flu shot, to picking up beauty products and buying graduation cards and Halloween decorations. The store features local products like Fisher's Fair Scone mix, Brown & Haley's Almond Roca and Applets & Cotlets from Liberty Orchards in Cashmire.
On the good side, sale of Bartell Drugs won't mean end of the company name in December when the sale will close. They're saying the name -- among the city's most famous -- is safe for now. Nor will Bartell's 1600 employees lose their jobs. Even the corporate employees are being "carefully vetted" -- whatever that means -- for merged positions with Rite Aid.
Making the Bartell's sale even more wrenching has been word of other losses. That same week, news came that Meritage, a San Francisco investment firm, is buying Les Schwab Tire Centers, the friendly 68-year-old Oregon outfit that offers customers popcorn while they wait.
A third stunning loss that same week was announcement that the 64-year-old Elephant Car Wash at Battery Street and Denny Way would be demolished and its iconic sign threatened. However, the jolly pink elephant sign, designed by Western Neon's Beatrice Haverfield, won't be lost forever. It's going to the Museum of History and Industry. MOHAI director Leonard Garfield says the sign will be repaired and join other Seattle neon including Rainier Brewing's giant "R," the Dog House's tail-wagging mutt, and the city's first neon sign. It simply read: "P-I, Main 2000."
The sale of Bartell for a seemly modest $95 million was attributed to thinning profits, on-line competition and falling insurance reimbursements. Even Rite Aid, which earlier bought Pay 'n Save, has been struggling.
Closure of the Elephant Car Wash was blamed on a steady increase in camping, drug activity and vandalism at the downtown site. There remain a dozen other Elephant Car Washes, although none in the center city where merchants have been decrying an epidemic of crime and urban decay.
The loss of so many local institutions, while sad, may be the inevitable dark side of Seattle's sudden rise to top city status during the half dozen "boom" years. One has to take some comfort in the words of local historian Felix Banel who says, "Every 25 years the city sheds its exoskeleton and a new city emerges." It's now incumbent on our elected leaders, faced with the ash of lost institutions and shuttered businesses, to help bring that new city to life, making it the better, livelier, people-friendly city we want to become.