Thursday, November 27, 2014

Dr. Charles A. Champion: ‘A Pill-er in the Community’

     After the doors to Champion’s Pharmacy and Herb Store swing open, the voice of Dr. Charles A. Champion is activated and beckons customers into a nostalgic world that is replete with both medicinal drugs and herbal remedies.
     While herbs, tonics and vitamins are juxtaposed on shelves upfront, drugs requiring a prescription are filled behind the counter. It is a fusion of two worlds – one, a portal to yesteryear, or rather a makeshift museum, where the photos of pioneers and other artifacts are displayed; and the other, where customers can tarry until their prescriptions are filled.
     Longtime customers and others familiar with Dr. Champion’s reputation look to him to fill their prescription or remedy simple ailments with an herbal mix that don’t require a doctor’s prescription. Got a cough or cold, try the Cod Liver Oil Liquid Emulsion; for skin and hair care, try the Corn Huskers Hand Lotion or the Pine Tar Shampoo. 
     “If you come in and have high blood pressure, and buy high blood pressure herbal medicine, I’m going to give you a brochure,” said Dr. Champion. “If you come in with high cholesterol or diabetes – whatever you come in with – I try to have a brochure to accompany the medicine so you can get a better understanding of what is going on.”  
Dr. Charles A. Champion is an integral part of Memphis'
medical history. (Photos by Wiley Henry)
     Some medical doctors in Memphis who may find themselves baffled by a patient’s ailment, he added, “say go and see Dr. Champion and see what he has to say.” This is an honor that extends his reach in the community.
     Dr. Champion is a first-rate pharmacist with a thorough understanding of pharmacy. However, after 33 years in business – a total of nearly 60 years in pharmacy altogether – changes in the pharmaceutical industry have become increasingly evident.
     Insurance, low cost prescriptions and convenience often drive customers to the chain pharmacies. But Dr. Champion is not be deterred, owing longevity to his ingenuity, inventiveness, adaptability, and, most importantly, his willingness to serve the community.
     Service is the hallmark that keeps Champion’s Pharmacy flourishing, even though economic downturns and the rising tide of chain pharmacies have swept independent pharmacies like Dr. Champion’s to the wayside and, in some cases, out of business.
     Walgreens, for example, is the largest drug retailing chain in all 50 states. It has 17,935 pharmacists working in 7,694 stores. CVS Corp. follows with 7,288 pharmacies and 15,064 pharmacists; Walmart Stores Inc., with 4,242 pharmacies and 10,273 pharmacists; Rite Aid Corp., with 4,531 pharmacies and 8,769 pharmacists; and Kroger, with 1,876 pharmacies and 4,508 pharmacists.
Dr. Champion mixes a gel-based ointment with a spatula.
     The top five chain pharmacies, ranked this year by the number of pharmacists by the National Pharmacy Market Summary, could be the death knell of fledgling independent pharmacies. Still, there are other chains encroaching on the independents. But Dr. Champion is making headway in spite of stiff competition.  
     In the state of Tennessee, there are 418 chain pharmacies, 555 independent pharmacies, 222 supermarket pharmacies, and 244 mass merchant pharmacies, according to the National Community Pharmacists Association.
     “When I started in pharmacy in 1955…there were 154 independent, community-type drug stores,” said Dr. Champion, making note of his research. “There were two Walgreens…two Rexall’s…and six Pantaze Drug Stores that were owned by Mr. (Abe) Plough, who owned the Plough company.”  
     In 2014, Dr. Champion continued, “We have on record 128 chain drug stores (in the U.S.). We have in the city now four, or possibly five, independent community drug stores and about 14 hospital pharmacies. That is a complete turnaround of the number of private stores verses chain stores.”
     The independents include the minuscule number of African-American pharmacies here and across the country, said Dr. Champion, pointing to the only other African-American pharmacy in Memphis besides his own, Taylor Brown Apothecary.
     “Through all of this I’ve been able to survive,” the 84-year-old pharmacist said. “I feel that the reason for our survival is that we have been able to embrace the past, sustain the present, and always set goals for our future.”
The tools for survival…

     Despite the overwhelming odds against independent pharmacies and their unwillingness to yield to the conglomerates, Dr. Champion is not planning on yielding one iota. In fact, he is deeply rooted in Memphis and Shelby County, and his reputation for providing good service is stellar, widespread.
     “Serving people has been one of the survival tools of my business,” he said. “I’ve taught my employees and my family members…when serving a person, get their attention. Don’t do all the talking. Look them in their eyes.”
     Although Dr. Champion is African-American, he is not pigeonholed. His customers come from various communities, some faraway – Chinese, Hispanic, White, and Indian, for example – to see the pharmacist who bills himself as “the herbal pharmacist” and “the Pill-er in the community.”
      Dr. Champion didn’t get to where he is today overnight. After graduating from Xavier University College of Pharmacy in New Orleans in 1955, he spent two years in Germany in the United States Army as a pharmacist. Afterward, he worked 12 years at the former John Gaston Hospital as a pharmacist and 12 additional years as a pharmacist at a chain drug store.
     “I was the first African-American pharmacist to ever work in a hospital system in Memphis,” said Dr. Champion, noting as well his stint as the first African-American pharmacist at a drug chain, also in Memphis.
     Those honors are a few of several that were heaped upon Dr. Champion, whose claim to fame initially began after launching Champion’s Pharmacy and Herb Store in 1981 at 1925 Third Street. Ten years later the pharmacy would move to its current location at 2369 Elvis Presley Blvd.
     The focus and centerpiece of the business has always been on the application of pharmacognosy (the study of herbal medicine) and compounding medicine, said Dr. Champion, which he’d studied extensively in pharmacy school.
     The study of pharmacognosy and pharmaceuticals didn’t end after Dr. Champion graduated pharmacy school. “I have all kinds of books on compounding, on herbal medicine, on pharmacy,” he said. “I read all the journals that come across my desk. I know what’s in them. I know what’s going on in the field of pharmacy today.”
     Dr. Champion also has an extensive library at home, and reads the books and medical journals when he needs to research something. “So if something comes to mind when I need to look for something, I can do it right at home,” he said.

Continuing the legacy…

     Champion’s Pharmacy and Herb Store is a family business owned by Dr. Champion and his wife Carolyn Bailey Champion, who were married May 18, 1958. The couple has three daughters: Dr. Carol “Cookie” Champion and Dr. Charita Champion Brookins are pharmacists. Chandra Diane Champion-Walker, who died in March, was a certified pharmacist technician.
     Dr. Champion also has a grandson, Charles Edwin Champion, who is a chemist working in Nashville testing drugs in a lab. “I also have a granddaughter who is a financial advisor,” he said. “She has a degree from Christian Brothers University and she’s part of the business.”
     Longevity has kept Dr. Champion at the forefront in pharmacy. In retrospect, he’s made his mark in the community and beyond, doing what he does best – serving his customers. His knack for service started when he was 15 years old, assisting his grandmother who worked for a Jewish family in Greenfield, Tenn., his hometown.
     “It was my duty, with my little black bowtie on, to go out and announce to the Jewish host that dinner is served,” he recalls.
     Now Dr. Champion is serving people a prescription for wellness. The legacy is assured, he said, even as age slows his stride and renders him powerless to operate Champion’s Pharmacy and Herb Store. “Champion Pharmacy will live on,” he said. “ I hope I’ve been able to part some information and some skills so they (family) can carry this business on.”

     (For more information about Champion’s Pharmacy and Herb Store, contact Dr. Charles A. Champion at (901) 948-6622 or email him at The website address is