AP NEWS

Gray’s Pharmacy, nearly 100 years old, to close

November 5, 2016

NORFOLK, Va. (AP) — Anne Jenkins dropped her cane while collecting her prescription at the drug counter.

Pharmacist Dave Halla, 66, reached down to pick it up for the customer and gave her a hug.

“You’re a gentleman and a scholar,” she said.

After nearly 100 years in the community, Gray’s Pharmacy, on Hampton Boulevard across from Old Dominion University, will close at the end of business hours Nov. 29. The business and its inventory will be sold to the national chain CVS. Halla, who has owned it since 1989, assured customers their prescriptions would be confidentially transferred to a CVS store just a few blocks south.

What will become of the Gray’s Pharmacy store is unknown. The property remains in the hands of the Gray family.

The news spread quickly through the Larchmont neighborhood. As staff rang up customers, they handed out three-page letters informing them of the change.

I’m not dying, Halla told one crestfallen customer.

Wish I could have told you sooner, he said to another.

Many had been going to the store — whether to drop off mail at its postal-service station, suck down a chocolate milkshake at the lunch counter or cure the common cold — since the day Halla was born.

Founded in 1918 by W.F. Gray and his son D.D. Gray, naysayers told them it couldn’t be done: a pharmacy two blocks from the county line and 4 miles from downtown? The wooden building was not across from a bustling college then but a cornfield.

To the doubters’ surprise, the business thrived. In 1953, three years after the store’s third remodeling, Modern Pharmacy magazine marveled at how the owners managed to demolish and completely rebuild a store without missing a single day of business.

“This astonishing feat was accomplished by tearing down only half of the building and completely rebuilding it, then temporarily moving the old pharmacy into the new storeroom while the other section was being torn down and rebuilt,” according to the magazine story.

The store was also praised for its system of three different-colored baskets used to sort prescriptions based on whether a customer was waiting on site, ordering by phone or requesting a home delivery.

As in many other industries crowded with national competitors, mom-and-pop pharmacies have closed as the Rite Aid, Walgreens and CVS giants have taken market share. More than 1,000 independently owned pharmacies operated in Virginia at about the time Halla stepped into Gray’s Pharmacy. He believes his drugstore might be the oldest statewide.

It’s unclear how many such institutions exist today; the Virginia Pharmacists Association doesn’t have that information, said Director of Operations Peggy McLaughlin, and the Board of Pharmacy doesn’t distinguish the license holders by type of ownership.

On the national level, however, independent pharmacies are estimated at about 22,160, a number that has not kept pace with the U.S. population or the number of prescriptions, according to the National Community Pharmacists Association.

Changes in the industry influenced Halla on his decision to close. In his letter to customers, he described how his reimbursements have declined, with 25 percent of prescriptions falling below the actual cost. He also explained how he believes the Affordable Care Act has impacted his bottom line.

“As a result of Obamacare, which has mandated that most large companies supply health insurance to their full-time employees, many companies have opted for high-deductible policies, many as much as $5,000 annually, which means that consumers have become much more conservative in purchasing prescriptions or going to the doctor,” he wrote.

He runs down the overhead: Thousands of dollars in licensing fees and insurance. Then, there are the monthly bills, including $1,200 on his software and hardware contract.

“Each vial you put pills in is 28 cents, a label is 8 cents and the list goes on,” he said.

At Gray’s Pharmacy, the stark contrast between the old and new days is on display. In wooden cabinets that date to the mid-century are mortars and pestles, and apothecary jars filled with remedies. They sit beside primary-colored Sudafed, Advil and Aleve cardboard packages.

Halla himself is a departure from the old-school druggist. Absent business cards and a white lab coat and a tie, he shrugs and grins. “Screw it all,” he says.

Halla, who considers himself a treasure hunter, is proud of the store’s history. He uses glass cases to show off the curios he discovered in the back room. Glanoid Ovarian Substance, Merrell’s Detoxol Liquid and Asthmador cigarettes are among the findings.

In high school, he worked at a drugstore, where he was impressed by the role the pharmacist played in his small New England town that had no doctor.

When he bought Gray’s Pharmacy in 1989, it was 30 days away from bankruptcy, he said. He spent the next 9 1/2 years paying off debt from rehabbing the business. His renovations included ripping out the soda fountain, which lacked a sprinkler system.

Ann Fletcher, who stopped into the store this week, said she used to ride the trolley that ran in front of the pharmacy. In her youth, she would go there to buy “movie magazines” and candy.

Halla has become wistful about what he’ll leave behind. As a pharmacist, he often sees people at their most vulnerable — when they or someone they love is sick. He knows private things, and it’s that awesome responsibility that drew him to the profession.

His days start at 5:30 a.m. He works 70 hours per week.

Pharmacists “know everything about everything,” he said, “and will probably have to take it to their graves.”

Jack Vellines, who said he’s been going to Gray’s Pharmacy since the early 1950s, plans to follow Halla wherever he may land. He asked again when Halla would officially close the pharmacy’s doors.

“You’ll be here for my birthday,” Vellines said. “Good.”

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Information from: The Virginian-Pilot, http://pilotonline.com

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