Cydney Gillis: Will my Bartell Drugs survive corporate owner?

Once locally owned, its well-stocked drugstores are now in the less-sure hands of the Rite Aid chain.

Cydney Gillis

Cydney Gillis

By Cydney Gillis / Herald Forum

I was poking around a Staples store for a fast way to assemble a set of binders. When I saw the prices for the packs of tab dividers, however, I thought I might get a better deal by walking two doors down to the Rite Aid drugstore.

I asked a clerk what aisle for office supplies and instantly saw my error. She stared into the store’s vastness for what seemed an eternity. “Aisle 18,” she ventured at last. “No, aisle 22.”

“Eighteen,” she corrected again. “Everything has moved around.”

The office supplies turned out to be on Aisle 22, but during my search, aisle after aisle, I came face to face with the fear that someday my neighborhood Bartell Drugs could end up just as drab and dusty as a Rite Aid; or worse.

In 2020, Rite Aid, a public company with more than 2,400 locations, bought our region’s 67 Bartell stores, one of the oldest family-owned drugstore chains left in the nation. Since then, the tiniest change at my Everett Bartell’s store has raised my alarm that the days of being able to browse in Bartell’s warmly lit, well-stocked aisles are coming to an end.

Rite Aid is wrong in so many ways. Long before covid and today’s supply and labor shortages, Rite Aid stores always looked like picked-over corporate commissaries lit in a distinctly forlorn gray. Even the piles of stuffed pink Easter bunnies I passed looked sad.

For office supplies, there were notebooks and a smattering of envelopes, file folders and reams of copy paper. Packs of clips, push-pins and Post-It Notes dangled one or two deep from pegs above. At the end of aisles where most retailers put sale items, odd assortments of lone bottles and packages defied any sense of merchandising.

At Bartell’s, tidy rows of olive oil or juice or coffee line the endcaps, and office supplies and other goods are stocked five to 10 items deep. There is variety and choice: binders in primary colors or bright patterns, clear or textured report covers, piles of plain notebooks or fine journals of all kinds.

Another charm of Bartell’s is its hoard of little sundries, like cat-shaped erasers, “raffle-ticket” sticky notes, or cell-phone stands shaped like stiletto heels. I haven’t even touched on the art supplies.

Some of the Rite Aid’s aisles had long, empty stretches that were ominous. The company had lined these areas with giant placards and printed boxes that blared slogans like “We’re restocking with a better you in mind.” The dust on the boxes said otherwise.

I’ve wondered for years how Rite Aid made any money, and now I’m a bit panicked that, in fact, it doesn’t. On April 14, the chain announced it had stronger sales in its fiscal year 2022 — $24.6 billion with a “b” — but it lost a whopping $538 million and now plans to close 145 stores. In fiscal 2021, Rite Aid lost $100 million.

Covid caused much of the losses, but the question now is can a dowdy Rite Aid rebound? There’s concern in the financial sector that the chain could fail, in which case dust is the least of what could befall Bartell’s as a subsidiary of Rite Aid.

Whatever happens, as long as the bright lights of Bartell’s are on, I’m going to linger in its aisles as long as I can.

Cydney Gillis is a paralegal and a former reporter for Real Change News. She lives in Everett.

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