Founder of Tamblyn Drug chain grew up at Belwood

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the death of Gordon Tamblyn.

Today the Tamblyn name is well known only to people in their 60s or older, but it once was displayed over the doors of a chain of drug stores. The founder of the chain was a local boy, and the son of a doctor who practiced at Belwood.

Gordon Tamblyn was born in Belwood in 1878, when the hamlet was still known as Gara­fraxa Village and the post office there operated as Doug­las. Gordon’s father, Dr. T.J. Tamblyn, was a country physi­cian, with a practice that ranged over a large farming district.

Gordon’s mother died when he was a young child. His father remarried, to Catharine Quarrie, but he died a few years later when Gordon was only 15. Young Gordon attended the local school, and then went to Guelph Collegiate and Voca­tional Institute, and later to the high school in Markham.

While in his teens he decid­ed that he wanted to work as a druggist. His first employment was as an apprentice to a druggist in Whitby, but after a few months he realized that he should have a proper education. He enrolled in the Ontario College of Pharmacy where he did well, earning a gold medal for his proficiency. After gradu­ation in 1901 he found a posi­tion with the Burgess-Powell Pharmacy, on Yonge Street in Toronto.

Frugal and hard working, Tamblyn scraped together $500 by 1904. That was sufficient to finance his own store, which he opened on Queen Street East at the corner of Lee Avenue, in the what would become Toron­to’s fashionable Beaches neigh­bourhood.

In 1904, that part of Toronto was on the city’s fringes. A good proportion of the build­ings were cottages, and busi­ness was strongest during the summer, when streetcars brought throngs of people from downtown. Tamblyn, like many druggists of that period, installed a soda fountain, and did a solid business selling ice cream and cold beverages.

Another of his marketing ploys was a delivery service, done by bicycle in good weather. Often Tamblyn him­self was the delivery boy. In­side the store, everything was neat and tidy, particularly the soda fountain. In other drug stores, the soda fountain area was often filthy, with spilled bever­ages and melting ice cream attracting scores of flies.

Gord Tamblyn was, in mod­ern parlance, a “neatness freak.” He and his staff were fastidious in keeping the foun­tain pristine. The rest of the store followed the same pat­tern. Shelves were white and dusted twice daily. Merch­an­dise was arranged in orderly rows, even though this was years before the self-service concept took over the drug business.   

The sign out front said Tamblyn’s Cut Rate Drugs. That was, perhaps, the key to his success as a retailer. Tam­blyn saw that it was more profitable in the long run to sell at low mark-ups and high vol­umes. He used the concept of the loss-leader, selling a feat­ured item below his cost to at­tract customers, who would pur­chase other items at his regular prices.

Altogether, Tamblyn’s store and merchandising ideas were sufficiently different and attrac­tive to obtain business from the numerous competitors in the area. His business was suffici­ently strong that he opened a second store in 1907, and three years after that he took over another store from a retiring pharmacist.

In 1911, Tamblyn incor­porat­ed his business, and began a systematic expansion pro­gram that added new locations almost every year. He wisely realized that self-generated capi­tal would not permit a major program of expansion, and that he needed outside in­ves­tors. Initially he concen­trated on Toronto, but soon he expanded into outlying areas of Ontario.

In later years, Gord Tam­blyn liked to characterize him­self as a marketing pioneer with innovative ideas. At best, he was stretching the truth. He employed no techniques that had not been pioneered by pharmacists and other retailers elsewhere in North America. Tamblyn had embarked on building a chain of stores when that marketing technique was the coming trend. Many of the chains so familiar in the late 20th century had their begin­nings in the period when he was establishing his chain.

During the 1920s, Tamblyn built his chain to include about 60 stores. Most were in Toronto or the immediate vicinity. The closest he got to his old home was a Guelph store. The vol­ume of sales he generated al­lowed him some influence with suppliers, and he leveraged his position as a buyer with a large warehouse to take advantage of market conditions and to by­pass wholesalers, dealing dir­ectly with manufacturers.

As a manager, Gord Tam­blyn was a micro-manager. He seemed to have few interests outside the stores, and devoted most of his waking time to them, planning new locations and making sure all locations adhered to his own meticulous standards of store layout, pro­duct display, and absolute clean­liness.

Interiors, featuring the cor­porate green-and-orange colour scheme, varied as little as possible from one location to another. Even employees were expected to adhere to a stand­ard an appearance as possible, from the dispensing pharmacist to the bicycle delivery boy. The cleanliness even made some cus­tomers uncomfortable: they felt as though they were in a hospital operating room.

By 1930, still in his early 50s, Gordon Tamblyn enjoyed being considered a major figure in Canadian merchandising, happy to dispense his wisdom to any reporter seeking an interview. He especially enjoy­ed being described as the man who first developed the chain store concept. His claim had some substance in the field of drug stores, but there were others in the drug field, and many more in the grocery and dry goods fields.

On Aug. 17, 1933, Gordon Tamblyn took a rare few hours off work to enjoy a round of golf with his neighbour, Harry Slemin, at the Rosedale Golf Course. Tamblyn complained of severe pains in his head and back on the seventh hole of the game, but insisted on complet­ing the game. He collapsed on the green a few minutes later, and a caddy rushed to get a car to retrieve him. Tamblyn man­aged to walk into the club­house, where a couple of doc­tors attended to him. It was use­less: Gordon Tamblyn was dead 10 minutes later, at the age of 55.

Tamblyn was married and had a family of four children. None of them played a major role in managing the company, which survived the depression and continued to prosper in the immediate post World War II era.

Westons Limited purchased the chain in 1960, but failed to maintain its market share. The British Boots chain purchased what was left of the chain, and later it changed hands again when it the Pharma Plus com­plex bought the store from Boots.

It is unfortunate that Gor­don Tamblyn’s importance as a retailing innovator and busi­ness­man is unrecognized today in Wellington County.


Stephen Thorning