Albert Einstein is quoted as saying, “in the midst of every crisis lies great opportunity.” This is something Julie Priestley can relate to, having seen her small town pharmacy suffer extensive smoke damage from a neighboring apartment fire in June 2020. We recently spoke to Priestley about being displaced during a pandemic, how family rallied to help relocate and remodel, and how Dowd Drug is thriving post-fire.
The Family Business
From an early age, Julie Priestley (formerly Vandevanter) knew she wanted to be a pharmacist. She was inspired by her father, Jim, who was a community pharmacist in their hometown of Guthrie Center, IA, located about one hour west of Des Moines. Julie’s mother, Janice, did the accounting. The couple purchased Dowd Drug, the store Julie now owns, in 1981 from the Dowd Brothers. Dowd Drug had been a fixture in Guthrie Center since 1906, so they decided not to change the name.
“They kept the name instead of going with Vandevanter Drug,” Julie laughed.
After graduating from pharmacy school at Drake University in 2003, Julie returned home to work for her father as a staff pharmacist, a role she kept for 15 years. When her father decided to retire in 2018, Julie bought the business. At the same time, Julie’s sister, Jane, purchased their parents’ other pharmacy in nearby Adel.
“It’s what we’ve always wanted to do,” Julie said, referring to being second-generation pharmacists and advancing the family business. “It’s a blessing to be here.”
But it hasn’t been easy, especially recently. Julie received a call she’ll never forget in the late evening of June 25, 2020. The voice on the other end said the building attached to Dowd Drug was on fire.
While Julie’s store was able to avoid structural damage, it suffered complete smoke damage and some water damage. Her entire store was caked in soot.
“If you picked up a pen off the counter, you could tell where it was sitting,” Julie said. “If you picked something off the floor, you could tell where it was sitting.”
Julie and family were able save some computer equipment by quickly grabbing it while the fire was still being fought next door. Her drug inventory, however, could not be salvaged. The Board of Pharmacy determined all of the pharmacy’s drugs were ruined, meaning she would have to restock her entire inventory.
The Crisis Response
Amazingly, Dowd Drug was back up and running in a limited capacity 24 hours later, thanks to an available vacant building across the street. After contacting the building’s owner, Julie was able to start moving things in one day after the fire. Once the computers were hooked up and phones lines were restored, Julie and her staff began taking and making calls.
The family’s other store in Adel, about 30 minutes away, played a crucial role in allowing Dowd Drug to continue serving patients in the early days after the fire.
“We could transfer prescriptions over there if we needed to or bring drugs in until we could replenish our supply,” Julie said. “We didn’t have many people move on to other pharmacies. Because of the situation we were in, they tried to work with us in any way they could and stay with us.”
In addition to dealing with the logistics of sorting through inventory and expediting a license transfer, Julie also had to figure out what to do with the store’s robust gift section. The temporary building didn’t have enough room, so Julie used another vacant building on the same block to serve as Dowd Drug’s gift shop. Ironically, her grandfather ran a shoe store in the same building decades ago.
Dowd Drug operated out of the two temporary locations for eight months while remodeling took place across the street. During flu season, Julie and her staff administered flu shots both curbside and in a makeshift consultation room. Additionally, the store satisfied the high demand for curbside pickup due to the pandemic.
“There was a lot of running back and forth,” Julie said.
Not surprisingly, her experienced father was there to help during this challenging time.
“He was kind of like my project manager,” Julie said. “He was here almost every day overseeing the construction company and helping me with anything I needed.”
With the help of close and extended family, Dowd Drug returned to its original location in February 2021, on the coldest day of the year (of course). Being forced to remodel allowed for a total redesign, including doubling the size of the pharmacy’s consultation room. This allowed for efficient delivery of the COVID-19 vaccine, which the store gained access to just two days after reopening.
“Our consultation room was small and cramped,” Julie said. “Now we can do multiple shots if we need to.”
A conference room was also included in the redesign. They used it as second location for administering the COVID-19 vaccine when demand was highest.
“When you look back at everything, it was a blessing because I never would’ve been able to do this remodel and better serve our customers.”
Julie’s story serves as proof that every crisis has a silver lining.