The last locally-owned drugstore in Eugene, Oregon, is working hard to survive COVID-19, and to provide an escape for its customers and employees.
Hirons Drug is the ultimate one-stop-shop. The Eugene staple carries essentials, like toilet paper and shampoo, but is better known for its vast array of zany items, such as pickle band-aids and squirrel-shaped tweezers. Self-titled as “Eugene’s most unique store,” Hirons serves as a gift shop, a post-office, a photo kiosk, an ATM, and, of course, a pharmacy, for local customers.
“My grandfather said a long time ago, ‘If we don’t have it, you don’t need it.’ It’s a fun saying because we have such a wide variety of things that you can almost get by with that,” said the 52-year-old owner, Steve Hirons.
Anyone who walks into Hirons will quickly discover that they sell a lot of stuff (they even display on the ceiling!), but what many people don’t realize upon first glance is that Hirons has faced a lot of hardships prior to COVID-19.
In 1966, the store’s founder, Jack Hirons, and his wife, Esther, were tragically killed on West Coast Airlines Flight 956. According to The Register-Guard, the plane crash “stunned” the Eugene community and “remains the worst aviation accident in Oregon history.”
Thankfully, their son, John Hirons, stepped up and took over the shop. He, and his wife, Phyllis (Steve’s parents), worked together to make Hirons the unique store that it is today. Phyllis passed away in 2015. Meanwhile, John, who’s now in his seventies, works on the sales floor and “puts his stamp on store displays, buying of product, and advertising,” according to Hirons’ website.
“We want to be different than the Walgreens of the world. It can be cold in there. We want to have a warm, welcoming feeling when people walk in,” said Steve.
But not too warm. Just twenty years after the sudden death of the founding couple, disaster struck again. A destructive fire burned the 18th Avenue location to the ground.
Fortunately, Hirons was able to rebuild the store that stands tall today. They even expanded their business, opening up another location near the University of Oregon campus on Franklin Boulevard.
Now, however, Hirons is in the midst of fighting yet another battle: the COVID-19 pandemic. Sadly, as for many other local businesses in Oregon, it’s been a struggle.
Just last month, numerous areas of commerce, including Springfield and Eugene, wrote an open letter to Governor Kate Brown. In it, they expressed legitimate concern for their cities’ small businesses, like Hirons, as they neared the end of 2020.
“Our small businesses have demonstrated exceptional resiliency under the most extraordinary of circumstances,” the letter explained,” but too many of our small businesses will not survive the winter, and the health and welfare of our families and communities cannot thrive without them.”
To illustrate the seriousness of the situation to Governor Brown, the letter included brutal statistics, such as, “Nearly 43% of Oregon small businesses saw a drop in revenue last month.”
Indeed, Hirons has not had it easy this past year. In fact, Steve said that 2020 was “extremely challenging” due to “horrible” sales.
“We’ve missed out on a ton of stuff” explained Steve. “We would’ve had the Olympic Trials, the NCAA Championships for Track and Field, and a huge football game against Ohio State. All of those things were cancelled, so that hit us really hard.”
Not having as many students in town has also hurt Hirons’ sales, since they typically sell a lot of Duck gear, school supplies, and Halloween costumes. On the bright side, the store saw an uptick around Christmas, as they sell a large amount of Hallmark cards and ornaments.
“Being able to still come in and shop for Christmas was a sense of normalcy for people. Looking at all the doo-dads, having fun in their lives, and mailing out presents and cards to family members they didn’t get to see this year took their minds off of things,” said store manager, Nicole Allred, who’s been on the Hirons team for almost fourteen years.
Although the store has gone back to being pretty quiet, the staff feels hopeful that Valentine’s Day will boost their sales.
“We do a lot of business around the holidays, so the more holidays we can create, the better,” said Steve Hirons.
Although the pandemic has brought forth unexpected challenges, it has also reminded Steve and his employees just how blessed they are to have a job to leave the house for.
“To have work from 8:30 to 5:30 — it’s something that’s consistent when things are not consistent,” said buyer, Katie Southwick, who has worked for Hirons since 2013.
Hirons employees have noticed that they’re not the only ones that are thankful that the store’s open. They’ve noticed that customers have embraced the store as a distraction from the chaos of this past year.
“They call it ‘shopping therapy.’ They can just check out, get away from some of the issues that they deal with, come look at different things, and lighten their mood,” said Steve.
COVID-19 has reminded us to shop small and to practice self-care. Hirons is a safe space for its employees and customers alike, supplying essentials to get people through every day life. On top of that, the store carries small, quirky items, which are meant to encourage individuality. Hirons appears to have it all, but the business, similarly to other family-owned shops, has been put through the ringer. Just as the Eugene community has depended on Hirons for decades, the store needs the support of locals more than ever before.
On my first day in Eugene, I stepped into Hirons and instantly felt at home. I had never shopped in a store that carried necessities, as well as so many oddities. Therefore, when I was assigned to write a story about a place, I wanted to shed light on how Hirons is working its way through COVID-19. Also, my goal was to highlight the store’s ability to allow customers & employees forget the chaos of the outside world and just browse around. We all need some fun in our lives these days, whether it be from buying a mood ring or a Jane Austen candle at Hirons. COVID-19 has reminded me, just as Hirons has, to find joy in the little things. All interviews for this story were conducted in-person (with safe social-distancing and masks, of course).
If you’d like to visit Hirons, there are two locations in Eugene, Oregon: 185 E 18th Ave. and 1950 Franklin Blvd.
Steve Hirons (owner): email@example.com
Nicole Allred (manager): 541–344–4832
Katie Southwick (buyer): 541–344–4832