Editor’s note: The weekly Illinois Bicentennial series is brought to you by the Illinois Associated Press Media Editors and Illinois Press Association. More than 20 newspapers are creating stories about the state’s history, places and key moments in advance of the Bicentennial on Dec. 3, 2018. Stories published up to this date can be found at 200illinois.com.
A pharmacist at Walgreens for 37 years, Joel Karlinsky might often see people on their worst days, coming to him for antidotes to their health maladies.
But in providing a helping hand and friendly smile, Karlinsky formed a bond with his customers. One regular appreciated the service so much that he had an engraved Montblanc pen made for Karlinsky with the pharmacist’s name on it.
“I tried to go out of my way to be nice to them,” said Karlinsky, now retired, who for a time managed the pharmacy at a Walgreens near the company’s Deerfield headquarters. “Customer service goes a long way. Everybody fills the same prescriptions, but if you’re providing them with a friendly, knowledgeable individual, that gives them a level of service above and beyond.”
That pharmacist’s personalized touch mirrors the 117-year-old company’s origin story, when founder Charles R. Walgreen Sr. and colleague Arthur C. Thorsen personally greeted each customer who came to the door of their modest 20-by-50-foot pharmacy on Chicago’s South Side.
Some customers also called in their orders to Walgreen. He famously tried to keep the person on the phone long enough to give his assistant Caleb Danner time to gather the requested items and personally deliver them.
Company historians have coined it the “two-minute drill.”
“He was bringing a new level of customer service to the industry,” said Michael Polzin, a longtime Walgreens spokesman. “It was one of the things he focused on early on.”
Walgreen, born near Galesburg, moved to Dixon with his family as a child. At 16, he got his first pharmacy job, working for Horton’s Drugstore, where he earned $4 a week. He quit after a year and a half, but continued in the pharmacy business, working for several pharmacists after arriving in Chicago in 1893.
Walgreen ended up at Isaac Blood’s drugstore inside Barrett’s Hotel at the corner of Cottage Grove and Bowen avenues. In 1901, Blood sold the store to Walgreen for $6,000. It took Walgreen years to pay off a loan he needed to make the purchase.
Walgreen became an innovator, taking what had been a dimly lit drugstore and installing bright lights. He widened the aisles and started selling items uncommon for pharmacies at the turn of the century, like pots and pans.
Walgreen, like other pharmacists, introduced the soda fountain to his stores, but he kept his open year-round, serving his wife Myrtle’s homemade specialties, like chicken, tongue and egg salad sandwiches, bean and cream of tomato soup, and cakes and pies.
In 1919, Walgreen had 20 stores, which a decade later grew to 525.
Company historians have attributed Walgreens tremendous growth in the 1920s to the popularity of the malted milkshake, invented by soda jerk Ivar “Pop” Coulson in 1922. Coulson added vanilla ice cream to the common malted milk drink, which consisted of milk, chocolate syrup and malt powder.
Daniel Okrent, in his book “Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition,” suggests the store also benefited from alcohol sales during that time, because pharmacies were allowed to sell booze for medicinal purposes.
It was in the 1950s when Walgreens entered the modern retail era, with the introduction of self-service stores. Until then, clerks working behind counters retrieved goods off shelves for customers.
By the 1980s, the company was building more and more stand-alone stores instead of those in strip malls or attached to other retailers. By the next decade, the company started building drive-through pharmacy lanes.
Expansion has continued in recent years: in 2010, Walgreens acquired New York-based pharmacy chain Duane Reade; in 2014, it merged with Switzerland-based Alliance Boots, and in 2017, it got regulatory approval to purchase about 2,000 Rite Aid stores.
With that addition, Walgreens will have about 10,000 locations in the United States.
So how can a chain that’s become America’s pharmacist maintain its personal touch?
“It was so important to Charles Walgreen Sr. to make that connection with his customers,” says Polzin, the company spokesman. “I think that carries through today, too.
“Obviously, we’re a much, much bigger retailer and pharmacist than we were back then, but we still want to provide that care to each individual that comes into our stores.”