125 and Counting
As seen in the White Lake Beacon – 8/13/07
Written by Greg Means
Pitkin Drug & Gift Shoppe as seen today at the corner of Colby and Mears in downtown Whitehall. The store opened 125 years ago this week.
For 125 years, the corner Pitkin Drug & Gift Shoppe in downtown Whitehall, and its predecessors, have offered the products the community has wanted. And, the family business plans to do it for another generation.
The oldest continuous retail establishment in Whitehall, owned and operated by the Don Nordlund family solely since 1981, will celebrate the business’ 125th anniversary this week with special promotions.
The current business, in addition to filling prescriptions and selling over the counter medications, offers a myriad of products, including upscale and resort clothing, jewelry, cosmetics, gifts, souvenirs, cards, reading material, candy, cards and more. It also is a pay center for utilities.
And, in the past, the store had a soda fountain and lunch counter, and it sold liquor, fishing licenses, guns and ammunition, post cards of local interest, radios and phonographs, and, believe it or not, boats and motors.
When the Greyhound bus came through Whitehall, Pitkin’s was the ticket center and bus stop.
And, from 1900 to as late as 1957, there was an ice cream factory on the second floor of the building. The Velvet ice cream was delivered to local resorts and restaurants.
“Whatever the town needs,” Becky Nordlund, wife of Don Nordlund, explains the marketing strategy of the longtime business.
Competition has also driven changes in the business, according to Don Nordlund.
When the business was opened in 1882 by Lyman T. Covell, it was the seventh drug store in Whitehall during the heydays of the lumber industry.
When the saw mills closed and the population of the community shrank, so did the number of drug stores decrease.
But, nowadays, increased use of prescription drugs for treatment of illnesses and the demand for service has increased along with the number of drug stores. There are currently four pharmacies in Whitehall, with another soon to open.
And, the corner Pitkin Drug Store & Gift Shoppe continues to compete for business.
The original drug store building was destroyed by fire in 1890 along with several establishments located on the north side of Colby Street in downtown Whitehall.
So, C.G. Pitkin purchased the stock and fixtures of the drug store which had been moved into the street. He then opened up in the Whitehall Drug Store building on the south side of Colby Street where Gale’s Jewelry is now located. That is just two doors down from the current Pitkin’s.
Just two years later, in 1892, Pitkin purchased the stock and fixtures of the Conley Drug Store which was located where the current store stands. He named it the Whitehall Drug Store.
Pitkin, this time facing competition from the doctors themselves who were dispensing drugs at low prices, expanded his business to selling sodas and ice cream. He also opened up other lines of products which included school books and stationery.
In 1907, the store’s name was changed to C.G. Pitkin & Company. That was the name until 1959 when it was renamed Pitkin Rexall Drug Co., Inc. In 1981 the current name, Pitkin Drug and Gift Shoppe, was given.
C.G. Pitkin was followed in retirement by his son, Clarence E. Pitkin in 1920. He was joined by pharmacist David I. Dahlstrom (1920-1964).
Clarence E. Pitkin was the sole owner until 1953 when he took on his son, Norman Pitkin, and partners, Dahlstrom and Paul Jensen. James Todd became a pharmacist and owner there in 1953, and in 1959 he opened Todd Pharmacy in Montague which still operates under new ownership.
Current owner, Don Nordlund, began working as a stock boy at Pitkin’s in 1953 just before his 16th birthday.
He became interested in pharmacy after working with Pitkin and Dahlstrom so he entered pharmacy school at Ferris State College. He graduated with a degree in 1959. While in college he returned to Whitehall on weekends and summers to work as a pharmacist’s helper and intern.
In 1960, Nordlund bought out Jensen’s interest and became partners with Norman Pitkin and Dahlstrom.
In 1964, college friend Lynn Carr joined Nordlund and, for the first time since 1890, a Pitkin was not involved in ownership. However, they kept the Pitkin name.
Norman Pitkin retained the store’s liquor license and opened the Village Store on Mears Avenue, next to Pitkin’s.
In 1981, Don Nordlund purchased Carr’s interest and became the sole owner of the business.
The major physical change in the store occured in 1958 when a wall separating the drug store and gift shop was removed to expand the pharmacy and soda fountain. The “Sunken Garden,” which now is a gift area, became headquarters of the liquor and fishing equipment. Later, Don’s wife, Becky, in 1964 opened the Sunken Garden Gift Shoppe.
Another major change occured in 1971 when Pitkin’s removed the longtime soda fountain and lunch counter to expand other lines.
Commenting on the move at the time, Don Nordlund said, “Pitkin Drug has been famous a long time for its soda fountain, and we were aware that many, including ourselves, would miss it. However, we felt that the advantages of an enlarged gift department, the complete “Hallmark Thoughfulness Shop,” an enlarged cosmetic department, coupled with our pharmacy, would offset the loss of the fountain. Our aisles are wider – in general, we feel we’ve improved our store.”
The last big change happened in 2004 when Pitkin’s opened “Pitkin Sale Shoppe” just two doors down from the pharmacy.
The next generation of Nordlunds entered the business. The first of Don and Becky’s three daughters, Dee, graduated from Ferris State University School of Pharmacy in 1986 and began to work at the store. She had worked at the store as a teenager since 1975.
In 1990, daughter, Amy Nordlund-Megna, joined Pitkins as a pharmacy technician and, in 1994, joined her mother in the gift shoppe when the youngest daughter, Stacey Uganski, became a pharmacist. She graduated from Ferris State in 1993 and has worked at the store as a pharmacy technician.
In 1994, Dee’s husband, Ryan Briegel, joined Pitkin’s as its business manager after longtime business manager Marilyn Richardson retired. Briegel is a graduate of the Michigan State University School of Business.
In 1997, the three daughters became shareholders in the business.
One Big Family
It’s a family business which also has hired many young people in the community over the years. They have worked while attending high school or college, and many have kept in contact with the Nordlunds, informing them of graduations, weddings and births in their families.
“When someone is hired at Pitkin’s they become part of the family,” Becky said. “We couldn’t have done this without our employees.”
Currently the store employs 18 full and part-time workers.
A third generation of Nordlunds has started working at Pitkin’s. Ryan and Dee’s oldest child, Kelsi Briegel, age 15, has started working there.
The future of Pitkin’s could also include Ryan and Dee’s other children, Kristen (12) and Connor (8); Stacey and Jeff Uganski’s children, Kate (9) and Jacob (6); and Amy’s two children, Talia Megna (7) and Gianna Megna (6).
The Nordlunds’ customer service has kept them thriving in the face of competition from chain drug stores. Each afternoon, deliveries are made to customers who are shut in.
Involved in Community
The Nordlunds have also been involved in their community.
Don is a past chamber of commerce (Whitehall) board president. He was the last one before the Whitehall and Montague chambers combined. He was also a member of the City of Whitehall planning commission and was its chairman. He’s now on the city’s TIFA board and has been a member of the Montague-Whitehall Rotary Club since 1965.
Pitkin’s, over the years, has sponsored little league baseball teams, men’s and women’s softball teams and bowling teams.
Becky has worked on a downtown beautification committee and retail committee, and she and Amy have worked on benefit style shows for area non-profits.
Ryan has served on the White Lake Area Chamber of Commerce board and he and Amy are involved in the Cool Cities planning committees.
Dee and Stacey are active in the Western Michigan Pharmacy Association, they have been involved in career fairs, and Stacey was involved with an antibiotic reduction coalition which made presentations in schools.
The Nordlunds are looking to the future for the pharmacy.
Ryan Briegel said plans are being made to remodel the exterior of the building, but the entire family agrees the biggest challenge facing the business is the addition of convenient parking for customers. In the 1980s, parking in front of the store on Colby Street was eliminated when Colby was widened to four lanes. Now there are limited spaces on Mears Ave. in front of the store, and city parking lots across the street on Mears, and rear parking in the next block on First Street (at Spring Street).
And, Don and Becky are handing over much of the daily operations to the next generation even though they are still highly involved in the business.