Aspen Times Weekly: Why eclectic Carl’s Pharmacy is an Aspen icon
Where in Aspen, or the Roaring Fork Valley, for that matter, can you go on a one-stop shopping spree for cosmetics, fishing worms, greeting cards, sports cards, playing cards, prescription meds, cough syrup, souvenirs, toys, towels, camping gear, stationery, potato chips, magazines, books, energy drinks, diapers, whiskey and that last-minute birthday gift? Never mind everything else you might need.
This is an easy question, of course. And come fall, one that’s been getting the same answer for half a century.
Carl’s Pharmacy on Main Street, one of Aspen’s last winks to Norman Rockwell’s America — sans the soda fountain — turns 50 on Oct. 1. For the Bergman family, who bought the business when LBJ was president and Sandy Koufax was the best pitcher in baseball, it has simply been a way of their Aspen life.
“We don’t have a code of ethics where we leave the store and don’t talk about the store,” said Linda Bergman, daughter of Carl, who bought Matthew Drug in 1965 from Walt Matthew. Carl, 83, and his wife Katie, 81, still stay involved in the store’s daily affairs. “We talk about the store 24 hours a day because we love what we’re doing. And the reason we love what we’re doing is the people of Aspen.”
Not selling out
The 300 block of East Main Street, where Carl’s sits on the corner, has been one of Aspen’s more nostalgic blocks for decades. Until the old Aspen Times building sold in August 2012, Carl’s, the newspaper offices and the historic Hotel Jerome had anchored that side of the block. The then-owners of the Jerome bought the Times building so the hotel could be expanded, a project that remains in the works. The Bergmans, who also own the Miner’s Building across the street, said they routinely hear offers for the building. But they refuse to budge, even though they could make a tidy sum on an 8,656-square-foot building valued at $4.4 million by the Pitkin County Assessor’s Office.
“The bottom line is we really do love Aspen, and we don’t want to leave,” Carl said. “If we sell out, we’d have to leave town.”
Linda added, “I don’t think there’s a day that goes by that we don’t get an offer, but we love our job, we love our town and if we wanted to sit back and live in comfort, we’d be the first ones to sell out. The thing we’ve done is not leisurely, and we don’t make a boatload of money. But we love what we do, we love our town, and we love our employees, so it’s just not attractive.”
At 45 employees strong, Carl’s also has a board-type management structure at the top. Carl is the president, Katie secretary and treasurer, and Linda assistant. The store’s turnover rate is low.
Two of Carl’s employees, one of 17 years, the other 21, said they like the job security and the perks that come with the job.
“It’s really like working for your grandparents,” said one. “You don’t want to let them down.”
“Or even your parents,” the other said.
Maybe that’s because, as Carl noted, their employees are “part of our family.”
After three years on the job, employees are eligible for free ski passes. They also get bus passes, a pension plan after three years, and are entitled to health insurance, which the company used to entirely pay for until recently.
“We try to pay them as much as we can,” said Katie, who gives cakes to employees on their birthdays.
Diversity wins out
Originally from Indiana, the family moved to Denver and later learned there was a pharmacist’s opening at a Main Street drugstore. In 1963, they loaded up a U-Haul and moved to Aspen for not only the job, but the skiing as well.
Carl worked under Walt Matthew when the store was Matthew Drug. Matthew “excelled” in selling women’s cosmetics, Carl recalled, and he was a charmer as well.
Working at Matthew Drug, Carl, the son of a pharmacist and also the brother of one, was exposed to a greater variety of inventory than he’d seen while working for his father. Matthew Drug also had a soda fountain and the Sportman’s Lunch, a snack bar on the west side of the store. (See Legends & Legacies, page 11.)
In 1965, Carl bought the building and business, changing its name to Carl’s Pharmacy.
“Katie said that with our business knowledge, if we ever get in on the business we will own the land and the building,” Carl said.
But Carl said they didn’t get a good deal on the building or business, but bought them any way.
“He knew that he charged way too much, but we never missed a payment,” Carl said.
The business climate then wasn’t exactly thriving, the family recalled. The Hotel Jerome was temporarily closed, the Aspen Inn had closed, and the golf course wasn’t open.
“There wasn’t any question we had to work at it,” Katie said. They were even told by a business friend that Carl’s would lose money nine months a year, and “it was true,” Katie said.
But they kept plugging along, making additions and subtractions along the way. In 1967 they added a second floor, the source of newspaper headlines when an intruder got stuck in the chimney (which no longer is there). In 1976, the soda fountain was removed. The reason: They could never keep the entry-level position filled.
Covering about 1,500 square feet, the upstairs is a smörgåsbord of, well, stuff. Stuff you might actually need, stuff you might just want, and stuff you have no use for — until you do. It’s Halloween headquarters for the Aspen crowd, but it’s also the place you can score a deck of playing cards or box of nails. And if they don’t have it, they’ll send you across the street to the Miner’s Building, which the Bergmans opened in 1976.
Carl’s Pharmacy certainly wasn’t his father’s drugstore. Carl said his father, for whom he worked seven years, “was disgusted” with his wide-ranging inventory.
“My dad quickly saw my philosophy and didn’t like it,” he said. “He was not pleased. It veered from the traditional drugstore, and my dad told me, ‘If a salesman comes in sells you horse collars, would you buy them?’ My dad saw me in the wildness of an entrepreneurship veering from traditional.”
And it’s worked.
“The secret is we listen to what customers ask for,” Katie said. “And the reason for having all of those things up there and down there is because they heard those requests over and over, they have done a marvelous job in acquiring all of these products — and some work and some don’t.”
They’ve also seen the town change, a simple fact of life they understand. But when people leave Aspen, it’s difficult for Carl to digest.
“If there’s one thing, and I speak not for Linda or Katie, that hurts me deeply, it’s when people leave Aspen,” he said. “There’s a certain amount of hurt there. Sometimes they come back, sometimes we never see them. Many people come to Aspen for a short duration then leave. And it’s always hurt inside my guts. I accept it but it’s hard to understand.”