Gerache family sells after three generations

Published 11:35 pm Saturday, April 28, 2012

Back in 1959, Joseph A. Gerache Sr. owned Delta Drug Store and was given the chance to purchase Corner Drug Store, directly across Washington Street.

He wasn’t sure how it would go, owning, managing and being pharmacist in two businesses so close to each other, but he didn’t turn down the opportunity.

“I was in the middle of the street most of the time,” he said, laughing in the store last week. “It was back and forth, back and forth all day. It almost drove me crazy.”

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Delta Drug has long since closed, its building demolished, but Corner Drug’s been open ever since.

Its sale last week, however, along with sister store, Colonial Discount Drug, to a Meridian family that owns 13 Fred’s Super Dollar franchise stores, brings to a close a three-generation tradition dating to 1920 of Gerache family pharmacies.

Gerache, 86 and known to family and friends as “Papa Joe,” said the “bittersweet” change is inevitable.

“Pharmacy was my vocation and it’s my avocation,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed my time in pharmacy. If I didn’t, I never would have been able to put in the years I did.”

Gerache said he started working in People’s Drug Store, owned by his father, Joseph J. Gerache, when he was 10 years old. His son, Joseph A. “Bubba” Gerache Jr., also grew up in the family business, joining Papa Joe at Corner Drug Store in 1975 and, with his wife, Linda, taking over the operation in 1995.

Bubba Gerache, 60, suffered a stroke in December and though his health is improving, he has been unable to work.

“This is the main reason we are doing this,” the elder Gerache said.

Colonial, on Grove Street at Mission 66, has been closed and its customer records and prescription files merged with Corner’s.

Linda Gerache and other family members will continue to work in the downtown store under the new ownership, which has renamed it Fred’s Pharmacy at The Corner — “The” capitalized to honor the business, for so many years a downtown fixture.

“There’s no such thing as taking over Corner Drug,” said David Majure II, president of the Fred’s Franchise Group. “It takes you over.”

His family, which has owned Fred’s stores in Vicksburg since 1980 and pharmacies in other cities for about 15 years, jumped at the chance to acquire the Gerache stores, Majure said.

“We’re very honored to be affiliated with the Gerache family. They have been synonymous with ‘pharmacy’ in Vicksburg for more than 90 years,” he said.

In 1920, Joseph J. Gerache and his business partner, Charles C. Kette, purchased Jones Drug Store, which was in the lobby of the old National Park Hotel on the west side of Washington at Veto Street.

They renamed the business People’s Drug Store, and Joseph J. Gerache operated it in the same spot for more than 30 years, assisted by his daughters, Rosalie Ford and Mercedes Reeder, and the young Joe Gerache.

Urban renewal resulted in the demolition of the National Park Hotel, and People’s Drug Store was moved across Washington Street to the building near the northeast corner of Veto. Though the Gerache family eventually sold its ownership, the store continues to operate in that location.

In 1950, the Geraches purchased Delta Drug Store, which operated in the lobby of the old Washington Hotel — “right below the room where Gen. Grant had stayed when he was in Vicksburg after the cessation of hostilities,” Gerache said. The store was closed a short time later and the Washington Hotel also was lost to urban renewal in the 1960s.

Joe Gerache later acquired a cannon believed used in the 1863 Vicksburg Campaign and placed it on the site.

It’s one of many historical artifacts Gerache has bought or been given over the years. Many, which he’s displayed on shelves, walls and countertops at Corner Drug, have made the store not just a business but an attraction.

“Six busloads of tourists pulled up here and unloaded Monday,” Majure said, referring to American Queen steamboat passengers docking in Vicksburg for a daylong excursion. “This is known as the best free museum in Vicksburg.”

The array includes bottles of medicines referenced in the Bible — manna, ginger, mustard seeds and olives among them — such old-time pharmacy tools as the cork press a pharmacist would use to get an airtight fit for stoppers in prescription bottles and a collection of early sugar-coated pills manufactured by Upjohn.

“Mr. Joe’s collection is staying,” Majure said. “We’re going to keep this museum, as much as he will let us keep these things on loan. We’re going to keep the flavor of Corner Drug.”

There are apothecary bottles, signs with alchemy symbols, cannon balls and the muskets and muzzle-loaders high-up on the walls.

“He knows the story of every one of them,” said Gerache’s friend, Don Neumann.

“People started giving me guns,” Gerache said. “Vicksburg was occupied for 10 years after the cessation of hostilities and the civilians had guns they stowed away in their attics, basements, woodsheds, under the floorboards.”

There also are medical and surgical implements and preparations of the Civil War era.

Gerache, a medical historian, often portrays a Confederate major and surgeon, “Dr. Joe the Medicine Man,” in historical re-enactments, such as a recent candlelight tour of the Vicksburg National Military Park. He fills his talks with the gory details of battlefield surgery — arms and legs piled up following amputations, bloody bandages re-used after a wounded soldier’s death — and he’s taken to carrying smelling salts for listeners who faint, he said.

With ownership of the stores passed along, Gerache said he plans to continue giving demonstrations. He also plays “Taps” on the trumpet when called upon by the Sons of Confederate Veterans and other groups and he volunteers with the city’s two free health clinics, Good Shepherd and the First Baptist Church medical ministry.

The family has rebuilt a Lake Bruin get-away home destroyed by a tornado in April 2011, and Neumann said he’ll try to get Gerache out on the golf course.

And Gerache family members will still be around at Fred’s Pharmacy at The Corner, Majure said.

“Joe Jr. will come back if he continues to improve. He’ll be back down here filling prescriptions,” Majure said. “And hopefully Papa Joe will continue to give his historical tours, which he is known for.”