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July 29, 2010

Cal-Med gone, but not forgotten

Awareness of my mortality is never more acute than when I hear of a loved one's death. And so it was last week when I phoned Cal-Med Pharmacy.

"Today's our last day — we're closing," the pharmacist said matter-of-factly.

No big deal. Businesses are born and die every day. Right?

But this was Cal-Med, one of La Cañada's oldest businesses (as far as I know).

How proud and nervous my dad was on Cal-Med's opening day in 1965. My parents, four siblings and I — all freshly scrubbed — anxiously awaiting the arrival of our first customers.

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My dad opened a second Cal-Med store in 1969 on the east end of town, which my mom and I still own. (We changed the name to Flintridge Pharmacy a few years back to avoid the misperception that our family still owned both stores.)

Lee Souter took over ownership of the original Cal-Med store back in the '80s, but I still considered it part of our family's legacy here. Now it's gone, gobbled up by the voracious Walgreens. Cal-Med customers' prescriptions have been transferred to that juggernaut's new La Crescenta store.

Don't get me wrong. I don't dislike chain stores. I'm a Walgreens shareholder. My best friend works for that company. And were it not for the generosity of another chain, Ralphs, Flintridge Pharmacy would not be ensconced in our beautiful new store. But the charm and distinctiveness of La Cañada does not emanate from its chain stores.

A very successful TV producer told me a few weeks back that he and his wife were considering moving out of town. They decided to list the pros and cons, and Flintridge Pharmacy was one of their top-ranked reasons for staying. Wow!

I understand why small towns like La Cañada are losing their distinctive charm as they morph into just another homogenized collection of chain stores. Commercial landlords prefer the financial security of renting to national chains. Small-business owners are increasingly overwhelmed by too-long hours with too-little pay. So they pack it in. Go work for the chains. Starting this week Cal-Med's owner will be wearing a Walgreens smock in La Crescenta.

As for me, I'm still standing tall. With Cal-Med's death, Flintridge Pharmacy is one of La Cañada's oldest surviving businesses. That's not important, though. What is important is that La Cañada retains its distinctive charm.

Michael Stremfel

La Cañada

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