The Entire Selby Clan, Phoenix Pharmacy and Fountain, 418 South Gay Street, Knoxville, July 2023
Downtown Knoxville has been fortunate to have a working pharmacy, along with a great fountain, for the last seven years at Phoenix Pharmacy and Fountain. Thanks to pharmacy original owner Ron Sherrill, who also owns that floor of the building, along with the basement and second floor, and Nolan Sherrill, original owner of the fountain, the Phoenix Building at 418 South Gay Street has offered an essential service to residents and workers and great confections to locals and tourists. The two have literally made living downtown a better experience.
But a time comes for change, and when Ron and Nolan each decided to sell their businesses, a perfect candidate for the purchase was nearby. Caleb Selby has worked as head pharmacist and manager there for the last five years. During that time, he has become part of the downtown community, learning the names of his customers, helping find medications from other pharmacies if he didn’t have access, and providing important information to everyone who asked. Along the way he grew to understand how the business works, thanks in part he said to great mentorship from Ron. A year ago he and his wife, Christine, purchased the pharmacy and this spring, purchased the fountain.
I sat for a conversation with the couple as children searching for Waldo, customers coming in for ice cream, and general bedlam sometimes surrounded us, and three of their children largely took care of it all. As long as Caleb has helped my family with medications and more, and as much as I appreciate him, I didn’t really know much about him or his family. I was curious what made him want to take the step from pharmacist to business owner.
The family is from Rochester, New York, where Caleb and Christine grew up. The met each other around age eight, attended the same church, and started dating in High School. She said he fell for her, but she wasn’t so sure. He eventually persuaded her and the two married in his third year of college, in 2005. He attended college in Albany, at the Albany College of Pharmacy while she trained to become a pharmacy tech. After college, they returned to Rochester at the beginning of 2008. He got a job as a pharmacist, children followed, and she began to homeschool them, something she has continued.
The path from Rochester to Knoxville started the same year they met. At age eight, Christine’s family stopped off to visit a family friend in Knoxville, while on their way to Florida. She determined she would live in this part of the country. “I remember being up on a hill and he had animals and I remember thinking ‘I have to live in Tennessee.'” After the birth of all their children in Rochester, Caleb accepted her continued determination, applied for, and accepted a job in the area. They sold their home, he quit his job, and they prepared to move, only to see the job offer rescinded two weeks before the moving date.
Referencing his faith, he simply had a feeling they should persist in the move, that it was the right thing to do. “I didn’t know why, but it felt like the right thing to do.” They packed up everything, including the five children (now ages 16, 14, 12, 10, and 8) and headed south. Their families weren’t crazy about the move at first, but Christine says, “Now we’re the destination spot.”
He applied for jobs at various independent pharmacies, but he wasn’t so sure about this one. “I’m a country boy at heart and cities made me nervous.” When he walked in he was struck with the beauty of the place and thought “this can’t be real.” He met the interim pharmacist and filled out an application, immediately feeling at home and as if this is where he was meant to be. Ron got his application that day and also heard of Caleb from a colleague. He was hired immediately. He’s loved working in a beautiful environment. “It’s like stepping back in time or a through a portal. I walked in and knew I wanted to be here.”
They purchased “a small hobby farm” with a farm house from the 1800s near Strawberry Plains. They’d had something similar in New York, raising a few cows and chickens. Caleb grew up on a small farm and feels it helps teach a work ethic and responsibility. They don’t have cows here, but do have chickens, dairy goats, and rabbits, along with dogs and cats. Caleb said, “All the children get up around seven, my son takes care of the goats, my daughter takes care of the rabbits, another takes care of the chickens.” They feel it’s important to children to understand where food comes from and to learn to take care of animals.
Of the last six years, Caleb said modestly, “I didn’t do anything special, I just worked.” What he did do was bring stability to a pharmacy that truly needed it after several pharmacists came and went. He also made personal connections that make a difference in a hometown business. He said, “That’s the magic and fun part of working in an independent and locally owned retail pharmacy . . . I strive to know their name. I like it and enjoy it. It’s personalized care . . . It’s a relationship.”
Feeling that the pharmacy would eventually be sold, Caleb became convinced he should be the one to purchase it. He’s learned to love everything about it, including being downtown. “It’s very unique and special.” He said he hears that from customers, particular visitors.” When he told Christine he felt they should purchase, she readily agreed. She’d seen how much he had poured himself into the job and said simply, “I knew it was important to him. Ron would not have offered it to him if he didn’t see it as a good fit. It’s his baby.”
Caleb says he takes the opportunity very seriously, seeing himself as the current guardian of a legacy. Of Ron, he said, “He’s been good to me. He gave some Yankee an opportunity . . . He taught me and guided me into a dream set up. I don’t know how I would have ever owned something like this without someone like him.”
The Fountain portion of the business wasn’t something they naturally saw coming this soon. When he purchased the pharmacy, he knew that should the fountain ever be sold, he wanted to be first in line, assuming that might be years away. When Nolan approached him about the possibility, he felt he needed to take the leap. He felt it all ultimately had to be a joint business.
Christine supported the decision, but made clear that the family would own the business, not the other way around. It was a point important to both of them and they knew they wanted it to enhance family time rather than loose it. As a result, you’ll likely meet the family when you visit the fountain. The three older children work there after school, along with their Mom, while Caleb works at the pharmacy.
Even the younger ones occasionally do simple tasks, in order to feel like part of the team. It’s consistent with wanting to teach the children the value of work. “It’s rewarding and gratifying. I love being with them and watching them learn things.” He said they are good with making the desserts, as well as interacting with customers.
He said it is going well so far, though the scaffolding in front of the building has cost them business. In another way, however, he said that has given them time to get the business down to a greater degree without being overrun. The scaffolding should be removed around the end of July and Caleb said, “I’m optimistic about the fall. I’m looking at it as a positive thing.”
While the menu has been shortened a bit, with more of a focus on the best selling items, what you’ll find at the fountain is the same as what you’ve come to expect. They’ve also added a couple of items that customers have asked for. The ice cream is made with great care in the basement by Nolan (who is now distributing his ice cream and growing the business that way). They continue to collaborate with Nolan on flavors which may change slightly each season. Other menu changes are possible for the future.
Caleb said, “I view this as an opportunity to work with my family in a fantastic community . . . I treat front and back of the store with a great stewardship. I’ve been entrusted to take care of this place and to grow it by Ron and Nolan. I don’t take that trust lightly . . . I have an extra responsibility to care for their legacy.” Christine added, “It started as a family business. Family is important to Ron and Nolan” and they brought their children here. “Family is important to us and we want family’s to come here and feel comfortable.” And, Caleb added, “To feel like they’ve stepped back in time.”
They are closed on Sunday and Monday. The pharmacy was already closed on Sunday, they go to church that day, and it just made sense. They are also closed on Monday to complete their “weekend.” For the other days they’ve shifted the hours to 3:00 pm – 9:00 pm Tuesday through Thursday, and 1:00 pm to 10:00 pm Friday and Saturday. Come in and meet a wonderful family.