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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Saturday, Oct. 25, 2014

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"Death of a Corner Drugstore" tells a bigger story


For 29 years the East Side was home to the Oriental Pharmacy. In some ways, the Oriental was the epicenter of the East Side. So when it closed its doors forever in 1995, many Milwaukee residents felt the loss. Upset by the demise of yet another independent business, local filmmaker Brooke Maroldi immortalized the Oriental Pharmacy with an outstanding documentary called "Death of a Corner Drugstore."

Maroldi was kind enough to talk to us about the Oriental Pharmacy, the disappearance of independent businesses, what she loves and hates about Milwaukee and much more.

OnMilwaukee.com: Why did you make "Death of a Corner Drugstore?"

Maroldi: The closing (of the Oriental Pharmacy) made me angry and frustrated. But it also deals with the homogenous globalization that's going on all over the world. I'm tired of seeing every city and town look the same. McDonald's and Starbucks and all those chain stores are changing the faces of little towns and that adds up after awhile. I see less individuality everywhere and I think that's dangerous. If all people see and go to and participate in is what's familiar to them, then they're going to get too comfortable with that and not take chances.

OMC: Did you go to the Oriental Pharmacy a lot?

BM: Not frequently, but I went there. I didn't go there every day like a lot of people did. Maybe once or twice a week. And I was just a stop-in person. I didn't hang out for hours and hours.

OMC: Do you think the East Side still feels the loss of the Oriental Pharmacy?

BM: When I look around at the East Side I feel like it still feels it, even in a visual sense. That place there now seems to be kind of lifeless. And I'm always running into people that tell me they still miss it and haven't been able to find anyplace to replace it.

OMC: Why wasn't there more of an effort to save it?

BM: It was a private businessperson's decision to get out of his business before it went down the drain. I think there was an effort, but the closing really came as a surprise. It was a done deal before people could do anything about saving it. There were protests but they weren't being listened to by the powers that be in the city. I am disappointed that the city didn't listen to people.

OMC: Could it have been saved or was it hopeless?

BM: I don't think it was going to work as a drugstore anymore. There's so much going with health care now and the way insurance companies work, independent pharmacies are having a hard time surviving. They're really dinosaurs right now. But it could have worked without the pharmacy as a variety store and lunch counter. There was a lot of walk-in traffic for those things.

OMC: Are things getting better or worse for independent businesses? Would there be any hope today for a place like the Oriental Pharmacy?

BM: It seems to be getting worse. Look at the Downer Avenue stores. It feels almost like a ghost town there. Osco got into Sentry and then the Coffee Trader and all those other little shops that were there closed down. They can't afford the high rent. It's getting tougher for neighborhoods to sustain themselves with independent businesses. There's such a high turnover rate. Every time I turn around there's a new business somewhere. I can't even keep track of what was there before it. The economic climate is rough for independent businesses of all kinds. Clothing stores and coffee shops everything.

OMC: How can independent businesses survive then?

BM: They need a customer base but they also need a decent amount of support from the city government. They have to try and fill a niche that the chains can't. They have to find something to do for a customer that a chain won't. Getting involved in the community, building a sense of trust and giving personal attention are vital. The problem is that these things take years to develop and people want to make their investments back. What's the motivation? I do admire the Brady Street area. All the individual shops and little coffee houses. It's really popular and has a lot of public support.

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