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July 25, 2000

In the early stages of the Great Depression, independent retailers and other merchants used the term "chain store" almost as an epithet as they fought for survival in a troubled U.S. economy. Perry families, like others all over the U.S., just didn't have many dollars to throw around, so there was intense competition by each business to attract as many as possible of them. Perry's biggest chain stores at the time probably were the J. C. Penney Co., McLellan's Variety Store and Safeway Grocery. All of them seemed to have found their own niche in our community and they lived in peace with other stores around the Perry square. We had several locally owned department stores, clothing stores, notions stores and Mom and Pop grocery stores, and they all got along.

My Dad had one of the town's three drug stores. His was the City Drug at 643 Delaware on the north side of the square. The others were Foster's Corner Drug at 328 Sixth street on the east side, operated by Ralph Foster Sr., and Nelson's Pharmacy at 626 Cedar on the south side, operated by Everett E. Nelson. Although they were competitors, the three men were close friends. Mr. Foster worked for my Dad before he opened his store, which is still in the same location and owned by Mr. and Mrs. Mike Shannon.

I can still remember the night Dad came home with the alarming news: A chain drug store was coming to Perry! Mother was properly distressed but my two sisters and I were pretty young. We shrugged in unison and went back to whatever serial episode was playing on the radio. What did we know of such things? We soon understood, though, that this was an ominous turn of events, and we were expected to be concerned. "Chain store" was almost a dirty word. It suggested unfair competition, lavish advertising and cut-rate prices that local merchants could not match.

Fighting back, the three local druggists pooled their purchasing practices and thus qualified for discounts that had not been previously available to them. In effect they formed something like a small chain store operation of their own. They borrowed a page from the big chains' manual of procedure by issuing their own catalog of bargain prices for aspirin, women's cosmetics, razor blades, cough syrup and other staples. They placed their own independent ads in The Perry Daily Journal and all this caught the attention of shoppers, who always welcomed a price war.

'Their strategy was both legal and effective. After a few months, the chain store pulled out of Perry and my Dad, Mr. Foster and Mr. Nelson were left with only the Great Depression to battle. That one was even harder, though. It lasted considerably longer than the chain drug store in Perry.