FORT VALLEY -- It was quitting time on a Wednesday evening. Gary Sheffield shut down the cash register, turned the key and locked the door.
This could have been like any other Wednesday, but it wasn’t. He placed some signs in the window of the front doors.
Avera Drugs was closed. But not just for the night. Or for the rest of the week. No, he wasn’t going fishing and would be back at the office on Monday.
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The announcement came without fanfare or forewarning. It was sudden and unexpected, a blindside along East Main Street.
Avera Drugs had been in almost the same spot on the sidewalk since 1870. (Until the 1920s, it was located in the building next door.) It was the oldest business in Fort Valley and one of the oldest pharmacies in continuous operation in Georgia. (Only Thomas Drugs in Thomasville, which opened in 1869, has been around longer.)
It has been said when a person dies, a library is lost. Gone is that repository of history and personal experiences.
The same can be said about an institution, a place where loyal customers would go to buy aspirin, foot powder, lipstick, birthday cards and line up for Russell Stover chocolates every Valentine’s Day. Time can chip away at the inventory of those memories, too. Soon, they are layered by dust and dog-eared by the years.
I knew all my customers,’’ said Sheffield. “I knew their parents and their children. I went to their weddings. I attended their funerals.’’
Word travels fast in a small town, even without texts and tweets. On the night of Sept. 21, folks in Fort Valley turned off Camellia Boulevard and noticed the bold letters on the door at 111 East Main St. Within a few hours, the news had raced from Blue Bird to Camp John Hope and had been passed down the tables at Wednesday night church suppers all over town.
When Sheffield answered his phone that evening, some of his customers were upset and crying. He fought back the tears, too. He had been a pharmacist at Avera since 1974 and had owned the drug store since 1996.
Only a handful of people had known ahead of time about his difficult decision to close. There was no advance notification under the terms of the contract Sheffield had signed with CVS, where the pharmacy’s accounts were transferred. He has spent the past 11 days transitioning those records.
In another few weeks, he and his wife might get to take their first full-fledged vacation in 10 years. (He remembers when he was able to break free of those six-day work weeks a few years back, and called to make reservations in Hilton Head. They rolled out the red carpet for him, only to be disappointed when they found out he wasn’t Gary Sheffield, the baseball player.)
For now, though, there is nothing in the medicine cabinet that will make the lump in his throat go away. It’s heartbreaking to see any small business close up shop and be swallowed by the chains that seem to have a presence on every corner.
Avera started out as an apothecary in 1870 as Mathews & Green. It opened nearly three decades before the invention of aspirin and more than a half a century before penicillin, the world’s first antibiotic, was discovered.
The store was later bought by W.C. Wright, whose pharmacy license is still in the store’s archives. The diploma was signed by John Pemberton, a pharmacist from Atlanta who later created the formula for Coca-Cola in a three-legged brass kettle in his back yard.
Homer Avera and Ben Anderson bought the pharmacy in 1924, and it began operating as Avera Drug Company in 1941. Avera’s son-in-law, Pete Peterson, took over as the pharmacist when he returned from World War II, where he served in the Army Air Force and spent 13 months as a prisoner of war in Germany. Peterson later became mayor of Fort Valley. He sold it to his partner, Bill Hopkins. who sold it to Sheffield 15 years ago.
The drugstore was steeped in history. For years, there was a doctor’s office upstairs and a hospital was located next door. There were once three pharmacies located in the same downtown block. Now there are only two left in the city limits -- the CVS and U-Sav-It Pharmacy near the Peach Regional Medical Center.
For years, nearly every Georgia governor through Ernest Vandiver was initiated by the Yellow Dog Democrats Society on the second floor above the drugstore. (Yellow Dogs was a term applied to Southerners who voted a straight-party Democratic ticket.)
Had there been any farewells at Avera Drugs -- an opportunity for hugs and good-byes in the store’s final days and hours -- a sale on Kleenex and handkerchiefs might have been necessary.
“I knew it was going to be emotional,’’ said Sheffield. “I just didn’t realize how emotional.’’
Reach Gris at 744-4275 or firstname.lastname@example.org.