Self-employment and its consequences (1953)

It is my impression that everyone likes to feel that he is master of his own destiny, and so, at the age of 47, with a background of self-dependence since my teenage years, when I was completely on my own, without parents to guide or advise me, I found myself with a challenge that I knew, both by virtue of qualification and business temperament, I was prepared to accept.

As was my habit, I started off my making certain improvements to the building, and finally finished un by installing an open grill type of sliding front entrance which transformed the entire shop into an all-day, all-night show window. It was one of the first of its kind for drug business. I also had the able assistance of my friend Denver Williams the man from Boots the Chemists, already mentioned by me, in laying out the shop in semi self-service, and erecting three neat show windows facing the two streets on which the building was fortunately situated.

Apart from a regular and comprehensive drug stock, and a rather reputable dispensing and compounding department, (I was also listed as an accredited pharmacy for training students), I stocked and sold most grocery items, especially canned foodstuffs, in which respect I was somewhat like the American type Drug Store. I also installed a huge freezer, and was thus able to offer for sale products like ice cream, Popsicles and frozen foods.

In a short while the business was quite a going concern, and my records showed steady improvement. My son, Michael, decided to throw in his lot and join me in the business, taking over the entire bookkeeping, understudying me, and at the same time preparing to take the necessary examinations to qualify him as a pharmacist.

However, about one year later, my brother and partner Jack, who had now retired from the government service of Trinidad, and was living in Parimaribo, Dutch Guiana, died, and I, along with my sister Edna, travelled over to be with his widow for a few days. Thus ended the brief partnership into which we had entered.

Maggie, his widow, decided she wanted the money her late husband had invested in the pharmacy, so, between Barclay’s Bank and an insurance company - the Demerara Life, I was able to procure the requisite funds and pay her off. The partnership entered into with my late brother Jack in respect of the purchase of the pharmacy was one of absolute trust between us. When I approached him by transatlantic telephone about the deal, pointing out that I had nothing approaching the sum required to buy the business, (and the vendors, Bookers, wanted cash) he promptly cabled me all the purchase money without any stipulations or collateral. This was the most money I had ever possessed in all my life, and his apparent utter confidence in me really touched me. Jack was, as I have said earlier, the really brainy one of our family, extremely clever. He was also endowed with a magnificent physique, 6’4”, and was quite good looking and of a cheerful and likeable disposition….

Not only I, but my sister Edna, and brother Frankie regarded him in the light of “In Loco Parentis”. Jack inspired so much confidence in me that at no time did I believe he would do anything to hurt me.  When he retired from his job in Trinidad, he came over to finalize the partnership agreement between us, and I had no hesitation in signing the agreement which he had drawn up, only after reading through it once and without careful analysis of each clause. It was not until after his death and his widow’s demand that she be paid off according to the terms of the agreement did the full implication of all the various requirements truly become evident. Whereas the money Jack supplied served only to purchase the property, the terms of any dissolution of the partnership called not only for a return of the purchase money, but also for one half the stock of the business. This one-half of entire stock was very subtly incorporated, and on looking back at the way in which I was hustled into signing this agreement, I can now say that my brother was really disappointing in purporting to be one to take the place of a loving parent. Jack also received a fixed three-figure salary every month, even though he was an absentee and non-working partner.

My attorney, however, advised me that rather than conduct what may have become a costly legal battle, to accede to the terms of the agreement and have a speedy dissolution. So with the assistance of the bank and the Insurance company, I paid off my sister-in-law.

Some time previous to Jack’s death, Gordon, our eldest child, decided to pursue medical studies in the U.S.A. and he was accepted by La Sierra College in Riverside, California, to do his Liberal Arts course. The family was now reduced by one, but very soon after there was a further reduction, as Michael, our second son, who was engaged to Joan McDavid, decided to get married, and so there were just the two girls left at home. Both girls were now attending Bishops High School, and as mentioned earlier,

Michael and Joan set up house in the cottage next door. What a happy co-incidence that this very house in which, twenty-one years ago, he was born, should be the same one, over the threshold of which he was to carry his bride, and to afterwards live in as his home. In due course, Michael qualified as a pharmacist, and our older daughter, Maureen, who had now finished school, joined the staff, and now there were three Gilkes’ in full time employment in the business.

Across in California at about this time, Gordon became engaged to Arna Robinson, and shortly afterwards they were married there. Unfortunately, neither Emma nor I could attend the wedding so far away, as we were all tied up with our respective jobs.

Politically, British Guiana was undergoing rapid changes. A new and more liberal constitution was now in force, and a greater measure of authority was placed in the hands of the local people.

So far as it affected the profession of pharmacy, there were some good as well as some very bad innovations. Among the good things introduced were:

  1. the licensing of all pharmacies and inspection of them
  2. a requirement that importers of certain classes of pharmacy items should have such items under the control of a registered pharmacist.

As a result of this latter requirement, Michael was re-employed by his former firm, C.A. Phillips Ltd. to be in charge of the various drug houses they dealt with, e.g. Wyeth, British Drug Houses, etc., and since it was all in Michael’s interest to accept the job, I was willing to release him.

One very bad decision made a couple of years later by the political party then in power, was the granting to all shops the right to sell many of the items, including patent and proprietary medicines containing poisonous substances, which pharmacies only sold. This was obviously a great hardship to the pharmacy profession, since the preparation and training necessary for staff intelligently to handle this type of merchandise was not required by the other shops. As a result, these non-pharmacy businesses became cut-rate stores and many legitimate pharmacists were hard pressed to make a success of their operations. We were quite aware that this opening up of the drug trade to the other merchants was a political dodge, to try to capture votes for the party which introduced it. But it certainly hurt the orthodox pharmacist.

The main reason “Gilkes’ Bourda Pharmacy” weathered this storm of unfair competition was due to the fact that we ran a multi purpose business, and as I explained before, somewhat like the American type Drug Store. We developed the type of customer who would order all his home requirements from us.

What we did not stock, we would buy from outside sources at wholesale prices so as to supply his complete needs.

Another factor that helped to protect our business was my inducing self-employed pharmacist friends of mine to join with me in importing many of the fast selling lines rather than buying them from the wholesalers. In this way, we saved that middle-man’s profit and were able to pass it on to the customer. 

In 1959, Gordon and Arna presented us with our first grandchild Lucia, and in May of that year Emma and I made our first trip to the U.S.A. in order to visit them. Gordon was also graduating from La Sierra College with a B.A. degree in June, so it was a very special visit indeed, for us.

Before leaving Georgetown, I employed an old retired friend of mine to act as locum for me. His name was Randolf Ellis, and he was one of the old “reliables”. Michael was also willing to help out after his substantive duties at C.A. Phillips, and we were fortunate in having Emma’s best friend, Marie Lewis and her husband Liddon move over to our flat to keep house and also to chaperone our two daughters.

We then took off for California for two months, with plans to spend a couple of weeks in New York with friends of ours, the Stoby‘s.

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