Whitefish Bay - Competing against the Walgreens and Walmarts of this world is not an easy task. Just ask Ed Capper.
The veteran pharmacist has worked behind the counter of a drug store for 70 years, initially as a delivery boy before delving into a career that spanned 60 years and insurmountable changes. Last week, he hung up his pharmacy coat for good, deciding to officially retire at age 86.
When he first entered the field, Capper - better known as "Mr. Ed" or "Fast Eddie" to locals - said the Milwaukee area was dotted with a variety of independently owned drug stores. Each carved out its own niche and emphasized personal customer relationships in an effort to build the list of clientele.
"When I started, I had no one," Capper said of his 46-year business, the Capper-Wendland Pharmacy, he ran with a partner. "I would go out of my way, and that included taking vaporizers to people's homes sometimes at night."
As time went on, the retail climate began to change, and the corner mom-and-pop drug stores nearly evaporated from the Milwaukee area. Three locally run stores endure in the North Shore - two in Shorewood (Hayek's Pharmacy and Thompson's Serv-U Pharmacy) and one in Whitefish Bay (Fitzgerald's Pharmacy).
When he decided to end his nearly half-century stint as a local business owner in 1998, Capper contemplated selling his business to Aurora, a company that was looking to enter the local pharmacy business at the time. Aurora was interested in Capper's business because he specialized in selling so-called durable medical equipment - an industry category that includes back braces and surgical stockings.
But instead of handing the keys over to Aurora, Capper decided to sell his customer list and inventory to a "friendly competitor" across the street from his Whitefish Bay store. Capper and his small staff made the leap over to Fitzgerald's, and Capper continued working part-time at the store until May 25.
The encroachment of large-scale drug store chains is not the only change Capper witnessed over the years. Some changes, he said, have been positive. Technology has made the pharmacy business a far smoother operation, but that is negated by growing federal regulations and what Capper considers some unnecessary paperwork.
When he first entered the field, Capper said doctors were heavily involved in the prescription-filling process. Today, insurance companies tend to call more of the shots.
"There's also been a growing use of mail-order prescriptions," Capper said. "That's really put a crimp in the business, whether it's a local store, Walgreens or CVS. There isn't patient loyalty like there was in the old days, but with the economy the way it is, people have to look for savings any way they can."
Drug stores were once community gathering places - complete with soda fountains and a full line of products. Growing competition has hurt "the front of the store" as well, Capper said, as customers seek out convenience.
"It's definitely a changing world," he said.
Although competition is at an all-time high, Capper said stores such as Fitzgerald's are able to remain in business because they offer such niche services as the sale of the durable medical equipment.
"The small independent cannot truly survive without some kind of specialty these days," he said.
Capper said his keen instinct in business led to his decision to retire last week.
"I just didn't think it was profitable (to Fitzgerald's) to have me there; it's all about their economic position," he said. "I just figured it was about time. They've been very good to me these past 13 years. They've allowed me all the privileges."
Capper's business sense has been passed down to his children, including son, Tim, who ran a bar and restaurant in Wauwatosa for 20 years.
"He always was his own boss and a rather independent person," Tim said of his father. "Although I saw how much work it was, the idea of going into business for myself appealed to me."
Along the way, Tim said his father instilled numerous nuggets of wisdom.
"There was one thing he told me that always stuck with me," Tim said. "Friends and family alone won't support you in any kind of business venture. You have to have something that's going to serve the greater community and meet everybody's needs."
While Capper is looking forward to the future, he also is reflective of a career he considered "a great joy."
"What I'll miss most is the contact with all of the regular customers; there are people who still enjoy that face-to-face interaction," Capper said. "I'll also miss all of the people I worked with. They're wonderful."
Capper said he plans to spend his retirement enjoying family and friends and volunteering.
"Between my 34 grandchildren, I'll find something to do," he said. "Beyond that, I'm sure I'll find other activities that will keep me busy."
1941 - Eddie works at a pharmacy as a delivery boy.
1951 - Eddie begins his 60-year career as a pharmacist.
1952 - Eddie meets his wife of 55 years, Dorothy, at Hoffman's Pharmacy on Milwaukee's east side at the store's soda fountain.
1956 - Eddie co-founds the Capper-Wendland Pharmacy.
1998 - Eddie sells Capper-Wendland Pharmacy to Fitzgerald's, a "friendly competitor" across the street; he remains on staff at Fitzgerald's.
2011 - Eddie retires May 25 as a pharmacist at age 86 after 70 years in the business.
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