February 2018
Homeplace & Community

A Swift Hundred Years

Selma’s popular Swift Drug Co. is in its second century of serving the community.

 

Swift Drug Co. owner Buddy Swift takes a breather outside his business that dates back to 1916.

Surviving in any business for 100 years is remarkable and Buddy Swift has reason to smile as his little drugstore moves confidently into its second century in downtown Selma.

What makes Swift Drug Co. Inc.’s success story so amazing is the bloodline connection that began in 1916 when William P. "Will" Swift opened for business on Broad Street years before the Edmund Pettus Bridge was built.

Many new owners usually retain the name of founders on marquees even if they are long gone after selling it to those with no family connection.

Such is not the case at Swift Drugs because it has three generational links to relatives who created the business.

Swift family members have operated the same store across the street from Selma City Hall through the Depression, world wars and competitive businesses.

Some unable to weather business challenges go under, leaving only the name on front door signs to show that they once existed.

Others such as Swift Drugs just keep plugging along like the little engine that could and did.

Selma is home to seven other independent drugstores and they all share with Buddy’s business the same reason for their success – small town customer support.

Buddy majored in history and political science at the University of Alabama and wanted to be a lawyer, but shelved that plan and decided to stick to the family’s business.

Cindy Bannister, left, and Libby Welch greet customers at Swift Drugs in downtown Selma.

 

He said his father bought out his uncle’s share of the business and, one day, asked him if he could come down "and work a little while to see what you think about maybe joining us."

"I really wanted to go to law school, but I went to the store just like Daddy suggested and here I am 44 years later," said Buddy, who smiled and added, "I think I’ll just stay a little longer now."

Selma is unique when it comes to locally owned drugstores. There are of eight of them –all independent businesses either within walking distance or easy drives for their customers.

"The main reason we all continue to do well against the big chain operations is the excellent relationship we have with our customers and the fact that we all go the extra mile to make them happy," said Buddy, 66.

As far as he is concerned, he and the owners and operators at the seven other drugstores are "colleagues, not competitors."

He said Selma’s drugstores have managed to stay afloat and haven’t been cowed by big chains with ownerships and headquarters far from Dallas County.

"We’ve seen the big chains come and go, but we’re still in business," he said. "A lot of it has to do with the fact that our customers come from throughout the area where we all live."

Mike Reynolds, who owns radio stations in Dallas County, said he and Buddy have been good friends for years and it eventually led to their supportive relationship. These things happen in small towns.

"Buddy may be owner and president of the drugstore, but he’s never had a business card," Reynolds said. "There’s really no need for it because we all know one another."

When it comes to business reputations, Buddy has one of the best in the state and it’s not by accident. His drugstore has been honored by the Alabama Retail Association and that’s quite an honor.

"For a business to survive the dramatic changes of the past century is a remarkable achievement," said ARA President Rick Brown, who commended Swift Drugs for its "enduring first century contributions."

Buddy never went to a pharmacy school, but is a certified pharmacy technician licensed to assist in the business.

"This is a dangerous job and you must keep your mind on what you’re doing," he said, no doubt mindful of the scene in the popular Christmas movie, "It’s A Wonderful Life." In it, a near-fatal mistake by a fictional pharmacist in the filling of a prescription was luckily averted at the last minute.

In addition to his business enterprises, Buddy has been a key player in numerous civic programs, including his direction of the annual Battle of Selma Civil War re-enactment each April.

 

Kay Swift holds up candy creations sold to help raise funds for a cystic fibrosis program in Selma.

He’s been chairman since 1987 and said over $400,000 has been raised through the years to assist local charities.

Unfortunately, the re-enactment was canceled last year and it doesn’t appear there will be one this year.

Money or the lack of it contributed to the anticipated demise of what once was one of Alabama’s top tourist attractions in the month of April.

Some city leaders have pointed to a "calculated cost" factor, saying over $22,000 would have to be paid back to the municipal government that, for many years, had covered expenses.

Buddy’s no slouch when it comes to politics, once having served as an important member of the Alabama Democratic Executive Committee.

Agriculture is also important to Buddy, who is also a prominent landowner and farmer in Dallas County.

Family ownership and management of Swift Drug Co. is likely to end one day because no one has appeared on the horizon to succeed Buddy when he finally hangs it up.

There is, however, every day an optimistic sign that a Swift name will continue to be part of the business, a least for a while.

Kay Swift may not be a blood relative but she’s been chief pharmacist for nearly 40 years and that ought to make her at least an honorary member of the family.

Buddy is the first to acknowledge her importance to the company and likes to say, "She’s a keeper."

That’s high praise for anybody who has worked for the same business as long as Kay has and she’s a fixture at the pharmacy.

Fond memories of downtown drugstores included soda fountains where root beer floats and tuna sandwiches were popular until changing times eliminated them.

Space is expensive, so every inch is used today to sell magazines, birthday cards, candy and T-shirts promoting football teams.

It’s a comforting feeling to know that Swift Drug Co. and the seven other drugstores in Selma continue to exist and prosper.

 

Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.