Ric and Jill McGaughey

Hays Drug and Variety Store owners Ric and Jill McGaughey will close their store forever on May 7. The Hays Pharmacy closed April 14. Ric McGaughey’s father purchased the pharmacy in 1966.

One of Paonia’s longest running businesses will soon be gone.

Hays Drug Store Pharmacist Ric McGaughey filled the last prescriptions April 14, the same day he and wife Jill announced that the store will close its doors forever on Friday, May 7.

Hays is Paonia’s only pharmacy. The McGaugheys see the closing as more than just the loss of a full-line, full-service pharmacy and variety store. Hays has always been a first stop in healthcare for locals, especially for seniors.

It’s been 114-115 years since Paonia has been without a pharmacy, said Ric McGaughey, whose parents, Richard “Dick” and Betty McGaughey, bought the pharmacy and leased the building from Wally and Helen White in January, 1966. The 113-year-old building “has always been a pharmacy, and there was a pharmacy here before that.”

Other names — Paonia Drug, Dunbar Drug, came and went, but the Hays name stuck. It’s easy to spell and pronounce, said Ric in considering why his parents didn’t change the name to McGaugheys.

A true family operation, Rick was 6 when the McGaugheys moved from Grand Junction where Dick was a pharmacist, and into the small apartment at the back of Hays. “It had a soda fountain and everything,” and the basement was stocked with gifts, toys and other items, he recalled.

It was also a different time. In the 1960s-1970s, Paonia’s clientele reached to Lazear and Crawford, and he and his brother played in the alley with the other kids living in their parents’ stores, he said. “Grand Avenue was a hopping place. Paonia was, at that point, the center of the North Fork.” A family could make a living running a small business, and stores like Howard’s Hardware, Gambles, DC Hawkins, and Pete’s Barbershop thrived. “They came and went, but they were strong businesses.”

In 1976, the McGaugheys purchased the Ben Franklin variety store at 230 Grand Ave. After purchasing the Hays building in 1978, Dick relocated Ben Franklin to Hays. It subsequently closed, “So we just continued buying variety merchandise from wherever we could find it to keep it going,” said Ric.

After graduating from the University of Colorado Boulder in 1982, Ric returned to Paonia to work at Hays. He and Jill married in 1992, and they commuted to the Front Range while she completed her master’s degree at the University of Denver.

In 1999, Ric’s dad retired at age 70 and Jill and Ric purchased the store. His dad continued working part time, “mostly to get out of my mother’s hair,” he said. Since then, Jill and Ric have worked six days a week and a few hours on Sundays. They never closed or took a vacation. “We could only go as far as we could drive in a day, pretty much,” said Ric.

The closure and sale of the building “came together quickly,” said Ric. “The stars aligned and we decided it was time.”

It was a business decision, said Ric, but it’s also part of a larger trend. Rural stores like Hays have struggled to survive for many years. Beginning in the 1990s, hundreds of mom-and-pop stores and five-and-dime stores across the country closed.

The Colorado Sun (coloradosun.com) reported in 2020 that 1,230 independently-owned rural pharmacies in America closed between 2003-2018, 45 of them in Colorado. Ric said changes — competition from big-box chains, changes to Medicare Part D and the advent of mail order pharmaceutical services — have led to more closings, as have prescription benefit managers (third-party administrators of prescription drug plans). “You can’t just point to one,” he said. “Unfortunately, those that are hanging on, are just hanging on. It is not a strong business any longer.”

The community has also changed, said Ric, especially in the last decade. Few longstanding businesses remain, most of the coal mines are closed, and Paonia High School will close in May. “This is not the place I grew up,” he said. “The joke was, driving into town you keep your hand in the air, waving to everyone you knew. But not anymore.”

People don’t support local businesses like they used to, he said. “Look up and down the street, there aren’t many left.”

Many of their customers have moved or passed on, and newcomers rarely come in the door. “I feel that we have moved into a realm that we have a lot individuals and small groups of individuals... that have personal agendas and goals. So we have a lot of fragmented groups, and those groups don’t work toward the common good. Sure, there were the coal miners and anti-coal miners, but at the end of the day they all went to their kids’ games and they all talked to each other.”

All merchandise is marked half off. Prescription information was transferred to the Hotchkiss City Market Pharmacy. “They can give their name, birthday and the prescription they need and they should have all the information on file,” said Ric.

The McGaugheys said the emotional side of closing has been the hardest. They are relieved that Ric’s dad, who died in 2018, isn’t here to see Hays close. “But he would understand,” said Ric. “It’s such a big part of your life, but you have to remember it is not your life. It’s a business, and keeping it going with savings is just not good business.”

Many customers and friends have stopped in to wish them well and lament the closing. “We have some more upset than others,” said Ric. “Those that are the most upset are probably our best customers.”

“I’ve shed a lot of tears along with them,” said Jill. “I tear up even right now. There have been so many people over the years that have given back to us through gestures throughout the years.” They’ve delivered cookies or dinner after a particularly long day, or shared condolences, like when Ric’s dad passed away. “You know their families, they know yours,” she said.

After the doors close, the real work begins, said Ric as Jill greeted another customer. “This building, being over 100 years old, has 100 years of stuff.”

The McGaugheys said they aren’t sure what’s next for them. They hope to be out of the building by the end of June, then take a few months to decide what’s next. “This has been our life for so long that we need to learn how to live a normal life, how to eat normally,” said Ric. “We’ve been eating one meal a day for, you know, 25 years.”

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