Bartell's Store #1, which, for me, was a hop, skip, and a jump from Link's Westlake Station, closed its doors for good on Thursday, December 14. I spent a few minutes in the drug store's final hours. And, apparently, so did Seattle Time's business reporter Paul Roberts. What he saw, I saw. It was a dreary scene, and the cashiers clearly wanted the whole bad business to be over and done with. "How do you feel about all this?" I asked one cashier. "Don't you read the newspapers?" they said. The answer baffled me cause almost all of the news stories about the present Bartell's apocalypse almost never mention its impact on workers. When the closures were blamed on criminals nourished (suckled) by a progressive city council, however, there was great concern about the safety of workers. Indeed, stores were even closed for no other reason than to keep workers out of harm's way. Now that the explanatory power of crime and socialists has been clearly overwhelmed by the seemingly endless store closures, what happens to workers is of little importance for Seattle's right.

The workers also had no say in the sale that plunged Bartell Drugs into the black hole of Rite Aid, a corporation based near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. That catastrophe can be entirely blamed on Bartell Drugs' former CEO, Kathi Lentzsch, and chairman, George D. Bartell. They sold a company that "generates more than $550 million in annual revenue" to the former drugstore giant for a measly $95 million in late 2020. “It’s likely the price would have been higher a few years ago... But we feel this is a pretty good price,” Lentzsch told the Puget Sound Business Journal. But why was the sale such a bad idea to begin with? What went wrong? And how did Rite Aid become the black hole that's presently sucking into its seemingly inescapable void a considerable part of a Seattle-born drug company? A company that, before 2020, had 61 stores (it's down to 45, and downtown has, for the first time since 1890, no Bartell Drugs location). 

Because the main players in this unprecedented destruction of value are not talking to the press, one has to dig into the past to find the answer. This post will provide that answer. Expect to be equally amazed and appalled.

Ari Hoffman was not the first to mindlessly connect the demise of Bartell's with the crime and homeless crisis. It began soon after Lentzsch became the company's CEO in 2018. In 2019, she said the downtown Bartell's stores were closing because "the cost of stolen items is too high." She made this a key part of her leadership. The city had to do something about all of this crime, and, as always, it had to become more business-friendly.

In her long interview with Puget Sound Business Journal, which praised Lentzsch's innovative modernization of the old family-owned company, she made this point, when asked, "What other issues need the business community’s attention?"

I hope that businesses can work together with the public sector to ensure our community, our employees and our customers are safe as they go about their day. Crime accompanied by violence has increased at retail to the point that doing a mundane task like shopping is taking a risk that may not be worth it to a customer. This challenge and the increasing costs of doing business in Seattle have negatively impacted retail businesses leading to store closures. If and when a retailer closes due to these issues, jobs are lost. This situation will improve only if we all come together to tackle the problem with honest and direct conversations, a sense of urgency and a real desire to find solutions.

Around the same time, Lentzsch said this to a KIRO 7 reporter: "[Crime is] a concern. I think we’re sweeping it under the rug. The city council, the mayor, the state, the judicial system, the community—we all have to come together to figure this out."

This was before the pandemic. Crime, crime, crime. But in 2020, her tune changed. It became, on the one hand, the city's many and too-high taxes ("...[w]e, of course, have seen business taxes rise in, you know, various taxes rise in Seattle"); and, on the other hand, the lockdown. The company needed to find a buyer if it was going to survive the plague. This was for the benefit of the customers and, once again, the workers. The CEO was doing everything she could to keep the 130-year-old dream alive for the little people. At this point, the crime story was pretty much dropped. But the damage was done. Seattle Is Dying was hard on that crime like a dog biting a rock.  

Lentzsch—whose time with Bartell ended right after the sale (though she had hoped Rite Aid would give her a chance at the big time), and, according to her posts on LinkedIn, is now on the Board of Directors for Skagit Valley Malting—set into motion the destruction of a third of a mid-sized company that had 1,600 wage earners in the region. ("The average employee at Bartell Drugs makes $41,196 per year, which is competitive for its industry and location. Some of its highest paying competitors, Vudu, Rite Aid, and Navarro Discount Pharmacy, pay $67,887, $37,918, and $37,450, respectively.") 

Utterly nothing good has come out of the decision made by her and the chairman of Bartells' board. They sold the company for a song. And, by appearances, didn't bother to look into Rite Aid's situation, which was pretty bad even before 2020.

In 2017, the agreement to merge Walgreens with Rite Aid ended in a fiasco: The FTC permitted the sale only if it was "downsized... to the sale of 1,932 Rite Aid stores to Walgreens." (Pay attention because we are now entering the event horizon of a black hole that recently turned off the lights at "Store #1.") The deal that resulted cost Rite Aid more than 40% of its business and made it less competitive with CVS Health and Walgreens. This is the corporation that bought Bartell Drugs. "They were for sale. So…their bankers or whatever approached us," said Rite Aid's former CEO to KING 5. (Heyward Donigan stepped down from the top position a few months before the corporation filed for protection from its creditors.) 

“Looking forward to the future with Rite Aid,” George D. Bartell, chairman of Bartell Drugs, said in a press release regurgitated by the Trump-loving KOMO. “[W]e are excited about the opportunity to expand upon our mission to be the best neighborhood drug store in the Pacific Northwest. Rite Aid’s vision fits well with what we think will best serve the needs of our customers. This is a day to celebrate the 130-year success story of Bartell Drugs, while eagerly anticipating the future.”

Rite Aid on Broadway closed earlier this month. CHARLES MUDEDE

But there was no basis in reality for George's optimism. He was either ignorant about the root of Rite Aid's decades-long woes or was lying through his teeth. We may never know. But the fall of Rite Aid began right around the time, 1996, it transformed the Thrifty PayLess on Broadway into a copy of itself, the Rite Aid whose locally famous marquee went dark earlier this month. To understand what happened, and why the corporation was forced to sell, in 2018 1,932 stores to Walgreens for "nearly $4.4 billion in cash," we have to go into the black hole. (Sorry for stretching this galactic metaphor so much, but it makes sense when I show the sun in it.)

To see exactly where Bartell Drugs is today, one only has read an excellent 2015 article by The Patriot-News: "Rite Aid's troubled history of family drama, high debt and mismanagement." It's all there. And it goes something like this: The company was started just over 60 years ago in Scranton, Pennsylvania, a town idealized by the present president of the United States, Joe Biden. Like all of the people in Biden's fantasy, the founder of Ride Aid, Alex Grass, believed in hard work and was frugal. From these principles, he built a drug store empire that, in "the go-go 1990s" found Grass's son, Martin Grass, as its leader. This is where the trouble begins. 

The Patriot-News:

The company was the nation's No. 1 drugstore chain in store numbers and the No. 2 chain in sales when Alex handed off the reins to Martin... But that wasn't nearly good enough for Martin Grass... Upon his takeover, Martin pursued a strategy of building bigger, more expensive free-standing stores while completing a series of corporate acquisitions to grow Rite Aid and push it into new regions of the country.

Martin Grass borrowed billions to pay for this vast expansion. And when, in the late 90s, the size of the corporation was not justified by its revenue, the son began cooking the books to keep its value on Wall Street high. When the father learned of the true state of Rite Aid, he tried to take the company back. 

 The Patriot-News:

According to a January 2000 account in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Alex Grass went to New York on Sept. 7, 1999 to warn two members of the company's board of directors that its debt was out of control and Rite Aid was "bleeding cash." Alex Grass's dire message, according to the newspaper account: "Rite Aid was heading for bankruptcy if it kept spending more money than it was taking in." When Martin Grass learned what his father had done, he was so livid that he stripped the walls of Rite Aid's headquarters of all his father's memorabilia, the Inquirer writes.

This, as you can see, is the stuff of Succession. After Martin Grass's book cooking was exposed, he was tried, convicted, and sent to a federal prison for an impressive seven years (the stuff of Arrested Development). The corporation did its best to remove all memory of a catastrophe that crashed the value of its stock from the region of $50 to mere pennies, and permanently saddled it with the mother of all debts. To make matters worse, Rite Aid could only borrow dear (expensive) money because its credit rating was, thanks to Martin Grass, in the toilet. 

 The Patriot-News:

Within months, Rite Aid would [remove] all traces of Martin Grass, most notably dismantling that ostentatious helipad. Today, the Grass name doesn't appear on the company's website; there's no mention of father or son.

When Rite Aid sold nearly half of its stores to Walgreens in 2018, it spent almost all of the cash servicing debts that, for the most part, can be traced all the way back to the ex-convict (he was released from prison a few months after his father died in 2009). The same goes for its declaration of bankruptcy in October. So when you see another Bartell go under, know it's from a nothingness opened by the heydays of an ambitious and high-helicopter-flying Martin Grass. Bartell's leaders either did not do their homework on this matter or just did not fucking care. You can guess which it is. But you should know by now crime and homeless people had nothing to do with all of these closures. When will they end?