The sign that was once mounted over the door of 341 State St. now hangs at the new location for Community Pharmacy, 130 S. Fair Oaks Ave.
Natalie Yahr | The Capital Times
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It’s one thing to be an employee at a business that’s moving.
It’s another thing to be an employee at a boss-free business that’s moving.
That’s the situation of the roughly 20 workers of Community Pharmacy, a downtown institution whose storefront at 341 W. Gorham St. is slated for redevelopment. Developer Core Spaces announced plans in January to build a 10-story apartment building on the site that the business had occupied for nearly four decades.
As a worker-managed cooperative, the pharmacy has no managers. Except for the four pharmacists, every member of the staff has the same job title (“Community Pharmacy co-op worker”) and is trained to do most store roles. All major decisions go to a staff vote.
They’d need to plan the move together.
Already, the workers had been considering leaving downtown. The rent was high, and few of their customers or staff lived downtown anymore. When news of the development plans made a move inevitable, they considered other State Street spaces but found them all too expensive.
Issy Bilek and Carly Quast install shelving at the new east side location for Community Pharmacy at 130 S. Fair Oaks Ave. It’s slated to open Aug. 9.
Issy Bilek had only been working at the pharmacy for a few months when the word came down that they’d need to move out by early August. Workers at the pharmacy typically get to choose the work that interests them most, and soon the 25-year-old was offering to lead the effort to find and set up a new home for the 48-year-old pharmacy.
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Bilek figured it would be a chance to use their prior experience in construction and labor organizing. “Because we make decisions collectively, you have to be the middleman between construction and staff, landlords and staff, and landlords and landlords,” Bilek said.
“I was like, ‘I want to try to push myself to be that person.’”
To avoid having to put every decision to an all-staff vote, the workers delegate some tasks to teams made up of those most interested in a given project. In this case, a handful of other employees worked closely with Bilek on the project, visiting possible locations and compiling spreadsheet after spreadsheet to compare them. When they eventually found a new spot — 130 S. Fair Oaks Ave., across from the Garver Feed Mill — the team worked together to design the layout of the new store and plan for the move.
The workers of Community Pharmacy, a worker-managed cooperative, have handled every part of the business’ upcoming move. The new location, 130 S. Fair Oaks, is scheduled to open Aug. 9.
But in many ways, the move has been an all-hands-on-deck affair, with employees scouting vacant retail spots on their days off and signing up for shifts to help with the cross-town move scheduled for next weekend.
Because customers depend on the pharmacy for their prescriptions, the staff plan to close the downtown location one afternoon and open the east side location the very next day; their pharmacy license won’t allow them to operate both shops at once. The new location is tentatively scheduled to open on Monday, Aug. 9.
“It takes a village to open up something like this,” Bilek said. “Literally all of my co-workers have been helping me oversee this store.”
Community Pharmacy staff members and an information technology team from Younger Enterprise Systems work to get the pharmacy’s new east side location set up for business.
The pharmacy has been getting work done through worker teams for more than 30 years, thanks to a suggestion from employee Jackie Nikolaus, now 60, who came the pharmacy in the 1980s after years of managing “trendy teen fashion stores” in malls.
At that time, the members of the pharmacy collective were mulling whether they’d like to take on a traditional management structure, become a worker-run cooperative or something else. Nikolaus began reading the theories of engineer and management consultant W. Edwards Deming, who argued that if management delegated responsibility to teams of employees, the employees would become more engaged and invested in their work.
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“I just sat down and drew out a diagram about what if it was just a team managed thing, not a hierarchical managing thing?” Nikolaus said. She proposed an initial set of five teams. “They said, ‘Let’s try it.’”
Issy Bilek, the point-person for Community Pharmacy’s move, installs shelving at the new location.
Today, she sees a new generation of workers stepping up to reshape the business. Last year, in part at Bilek’s prodding, they raised the lowest wage to $15 an hour, and others have pushed for more work-life balance.
“I totally am a baby boomer … so I had this really different sense of what work was supposed to be in my life,” Nikolaus said. “So it’s been really great to be like, ‘I have a lot to learn from you.’”
Six years ago, when the pharmacy formed a new team to establish its second location, Community Wellness Shop in Middleton, Nikolaus was among its leaders. She’s glad to participate in another big transition.
“We’re kind of in a new phase of being reborn, reinvented again,” Nikolaus said. “So it’s exciting to be part of that at this ripe old age of 60.”
Barb Brown, 63, has worked at the pharmacy for 37 of its 48 years. Originally trained as an auto mechanic, she came to the pharmacy after years at a car dealership.
“I was really unhappy,” Brown said, and she liked the idea of working in a co-op. “To be able to run a business without having the full responsibility of owning it is an amazing opportunity,” Brown said.
Now, nearly four decades in, she knows well the perks and drawbacks of being her own boss.
“I don’t have somebody telling me what to do. But that means I’m responsible, and it also means I take that home with me. I don’t usually take physical work home with me much, but mentally I do.”
In years when business is good, her fellow workers are happy. In other years, they aren’t. She’s seen the business weather some “pretty dire financial straits.”
At the new east side location for Community Pharmacy, a plan for the layout of the store is on the wall for easy reference as staff members move in.
The cost of running the business “skyrocketed,” she said, as more Americans got their prescriptions through health insurance and as insurers hired firms to manage their prescription drug benefits. Independent pharmacies across the country closed, though a handful have managed to hold on in Madison.
Now, she’s preparing to retire and looking forward to the pharmacy’s next chapters. “I’ve been here a long time. I’m old, and it’s time for the young folks to take over. I know that they’ve got ideas,” Brown said.
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Some of them might stay for only a few years, while others might stick around for decades like she did.
“Some people leave here and they realize they want a job where they’re just told what to do, and they just come in, do it, and go home,” Brown said. “And some people realize they’ll never be able to work in a traditional situation again.”
Some of those who leave opt to pursue other careers in the medical field. That’s the long-term plan for Brendan Schwaab, 26, who started working at the pharmacy about three years ago after regularly visiting for help with chronic health issues. Schwaab is currently taking prerequisite courses with the goal of eventually becoming a nurse practitioner or a doctor.
For now, though, Schwaab is excited to be part of the pharmacy’s big move. “It’s felt exciting and impactful, and also nerve wracking, because these are big decisions that we’re collectively making,” Schwaab said. “The agency you have here is incredible.”
Bilek agrees. “Having no boss is really hard, and it’s also so empowering … You have the ‘Wizard of Oz’ moment where you pull behind the curtain of what a boss actually does (and see that) it’s really difficult — and also you can do it.
“If you’ve got a good group of people, you can do it.”
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