Charlie Smith

Brandon Dill

He’s owned Wiles-Smith Drug Store — “the Union Avenue Country Club” — since 1967. Between filling prescriptions and serving the finest milkshake in the Mid-South, Charlie Smith has done much to shape the way Memphians live. Like It’s a Wonderful Life? Charlie is this city’s Mr. Gower.

The customer comes first” seems to have become an old-fashioned mantra. But this is policy at Wiles-Smith, right?

That’s the only way I know. When I went to pharmacy school, you were taught that the patient was always right. You filled their prescription, you talked to them about their family, you delivered the prescription to them. Consequently, I’m still practicing pharmacy the old-fashioned way, but with new-age insurance plans.

Why have soda fountains disappeared. . . and what keeps yours thriving?

When I got out of school, they started telling us that fountains weren’t supposed to be in drugstores. When Mr. Wiles opened this store, there were 144 drugstores in the city of Memphis — little independents — and probably 100 of them had soda fountains. Mr. Wiles told me that you don’t make any money with a fountain, but you get people to come in.

Tell us about some of your regulars. They go back generations, don’t they?

I have a dozen third-generation families that still deal with me, one may be four generations. And remember, for a long time I didn’t take insurance . . . didn’t work with my way of running a drugstore.

You still deliver prescriptions to customers. Some of your competition would laugh at a request for home delivery.

For my regular customers, we go as far as Collierville and Oakland.

You have a stuffed porcupine on a shelf near the checkout counter. What’s its story?

It came out of a bar at Overton Square, the Looking Glass. A friend of mine and I took it to a wedding reception one time as a gift. Left it on the table for the bride and groom. But I ended up with it. It’s been here 25 years.

The debate over health care — and the government’s role in such — has consumed congress of late. What’s a possible solution?

I’m really not smart enough to know. It’s certainly not working. The only people it works for is businesses that do eight times as much volume as I do, or businesses connected with a third party, those doing their own wholesaling and receiving kickbacks from pharmacy benefit managers who handle their insurance program.

Would a “public option” help smaller, independent drugstores?

Not at all. That’s more or less what we have now. Let the market take care of things. Manufacturers, insurance companies, and wholesalers are the only ones really making any money these days.

Are patients aware of how much they can save using generic drugs?

With some, you really don’t save that much. Used to be, you’d have ten generic companies call you, ask what you’re paying for a medication, and say, “We can beat that.” Now, you’ll only have two or three generic companies that have it, and they’ll all be about the same unless they have a contract with a big wholesaler.

You often bring up your mentor and former partner, Paul Wiles. Any tips of his you can share?

I still do business like I was taught. I went to pharmacy school to learn pharmacy, but I came to work at Wiles-Smith to learn how to treat people the way they want to be treated, and to give them the best possible advice I could. Tell them the truth about things. Patients would call me and they just wanted to talk about their ailment. People would call us after they went to the doctor to make sure it was okay to take a certain medicine. Everyone knew us by name.

If Mr. Wiles came back, would he recognize the drugstore?

Oh yeah, he’d recognize it. We’ve had a fire since he passed away, but it’s exactly as it was before. Now, he wouldn’t agree with getting medicine from Manila to fill a prescription for a friend of his, but he’d recognize it.    

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