Rick Erickson and Halpins

For several years there were as many as six independent pharmacies in the Valley. Today only The Halpin’s Pharmacy and Treasure Room remains, craftily thriving in a market vastly different from when J.E. Halpin bought the Opportunity Drug Store in 1936 at the corner of Sprague and Pines.
Things had not changed much by 1949 when he sold that location to an employee,Vern Bromling, and moved down Sprague west of Bowdish. The original building was about one eighth the size of the current 20,000 square foot building. It was a typical old fashioned corner drug store with a soda fountain and all. The Halpins lived in the apartment above.
Though the fountain had gone away with the times, Halpin’s was largely the same when J.E. sold the store to two long time employees, Frank Terhaar and Gary Christiansen, in 1969. But change was coming fast and Rick Erickson, one of the current owners, has been a key player in the store’s adaptation.
“I actually worked for Mr.Halpin for 3 years,” Rick said in a recent interview conducted at his small cubbyhole office, hidden just behind the gift wrapping area. “I started out as a janitor in 1966.” Rick was then a sophomore at University High.
“Back then we were open until 10 pm, 365 days a year. That’s the way Halpin was,” he said, adding that the new partners closed on Christmas and July 4th. Today they close at  8 and take all major holidays and Sundays off. Back then however, they needed to be open more.
“We had all the hospital business,” he said, describing how people only had the  independent pharmacies to choose from up until the late 60’s. “Then all the grocery stores and big box stores came in with pharmacies. It was a huge change.”
By 1993, when Rick and partner Ron Gill purchased the store, things were only getting worse for the independents. “There used to be a lot of money in the pharmacy business but the insurance companies and the government changed that,” he said, adding that it is not unusual for a customer to have a monthly prescription bill of $3,000 and for Halpin’s to make a profit of $6.
While most of the other independents fell by the wayside during the first onslaught of corporate competition, Halpin’s quietly grew, withstanding the arrival of the really big players like Costco, Wal-mart, Rite-Aid and Walgreens. They did it by following the strategy of baseball great Wee Willie Keeler, who said ” hit ’em where they ain’t.”
“We can’t compete with Walgreens. If the big stores have an item on the shelf they are going to be able to sell it cheaper,” Rick said, “Long ago we moved from a drug store atmosphere to a gift store atmosphere. We had to in order to survive.”

It turns out that many manufacturers do not want to sell their products at Wal-Mart or just any where. They want their products to be sold at more refined specialty stores and thus create a sense of authenticity. Beanie Babies, for example, avoided the chain stores as a part of their hugely popular marketing strategy.

“Nothing will ever be as big as Beanie Babies. That was scary. People would line up way out the store waiting for the new shipment,” he said. Up until this year, Rick put in monthly orders for the dolls and people still go there and buy them.
For many years Rick has been the store’s purchasing agent, attending gift shows across the nation in search of plunder for the Treasure Room. “Remember the Trolls?” he asked. “I saw those come and go twice. At one time our whole center aisle was full of those things.”
Their longest lasting line is Precious Moments which have held a prominent display at the store since the early 70’s. The ChristmasIcicle Village is another long time favorite. The Gallery, a small tucked away section of the store which was once the entire original building, is the only place the Thomas Kinkade Collection is available in Spokane.
“We used to sell about 150 grandfather clocks a year, but that is down the last three years to 60 to 75,” said Rick, who up until recently delivered and set up the clocks himself. “I think the new generation is not as interested in grandfather clocks.”
It is Rick’s job to stay on top of what the public is looking for and can’t find just anywhere. The Vera Bradley line of purses, for example, is in high demand right now but  only sold at three locations in Spokane. Webkinz, a line of pet dolls that kids can play with on line, has taken off after sitting quietly on display at Halpin’s for a year before the Valley got up to speed.
“Spokane is a little behind the national trends,” Rick said, adding that he recognized a winner when they first came out three years ago. “I just knew they would be big and now they are very popular.”
While his wife,Nyla , and his partner,Ron, keep the pharmacy up to speed in the ever changing world of pharmaceuticals, making sure their customers’ health needs are met, Rick continues to make sure their wants and desires and small indulgences are satisfied. Whether searching for a special present for themselves or someone else, treasure hunters can continue to rely on  Halpin’s, the store with a gift for gifts.

 

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