Charm of small-business pharmacy sweeping Athol

  • Athol Pharmacy at 290 Main St. DOMENIC POLI/FOR THE ATHOL DAILY NEWS

  • Athol Pharmacy at 290 Main St. Domenic Poli/For the Athol Daily News

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Many readers of Inside/Outside fondly remember Michael Dow, who owned and operated the Orange Pharmacy for many years. An even larger number were served by Diane Lincoln — and her father Lyndon Lincoln before that — at Bruce’s Pharmacy in uptown Athol. Others will remember Alex Kuzmeskus of Ray’s Pharmacy and Jim Walsh, who owned a Liggett Rexall franchise.

These are only four of the independent pharmacists who served the North Quabbin region in the past half-century. Their customers received cherished personal service. Some independent pharmacists were able to take a stand on public health issues when they felt it was necessary. Diane Lincoln showed courage by being the first to display condoms in a visible place near the register, making it more comfortable for people to purchase them. Her pharmacy also was the first in the region to stop selling tobacco products. The health of the community was part of her mission; it wasn’t all about the money.

Big business has gradually taken over retail drug sales, but some exceptions remain. A positive step against this trend was the opening last year of the Athol Pharmacy at 290 Main St.

To learn more about this business, I interviewed Chris Mulqueen of Paxton, a registered pharmacist who is the manager. He works alongside three pharmacy technicians, Devone Fox of Athol, Andrea Wikel Fiske of Orange and Elizabeth Hager of Royalston. Steve Stone, R.Ph., of Athol works as a part-time pharmacist, allowing the store to be open 60 hours a week.

“Having the local staff helped to draw customers,” Chris said, noting that the techs had previously worked at the Athol Family Pharmacy (in the former Burger King building), which went out of business and, as part of a business deal, sent customers’ records to CVS in uptown Athol.

“Yes, indeed,” I commented to Chris, “I’m one of those who enjoyed seeing those friendly familiar faces, and I also have an ideological bent in favor of small businesses.”

The pharmacy also has Dwayne Smith and Kaleb Salmond, both of Athol, providing free delivery service to customers anywhere in the nine-town North Quabbin region. Another special touch is unique packaging of medications for customers who have difficulties, such as opening bottles. Athol Pharmacy provides packaging services for a local assisted-living facility so that all of its residents’ medication is well-organized and prepared with careful attention to detail, conforming to doctors’ orders.

The owners of the Athol Pharmacy are two partners, pharmacist Steve MacNeill of Stow and businessman Shaun Thompson of Stoneham. The Athol store is their third, following similar retail establishments in the eastern Massachusetts towns of Winchester and Georgetown. They hope to open one or more new stores in central or western Massachusetts. Chris had worked part-time in the Winchester store following four and a half years in a Price Chopper supermarket pharmacy department.

Chris said that a warm welcome was given by the town, including officials from Town Hall and the North Quabbin Chamber of Commerce, who were pleased with the downtown location, and also with the fact that the owners purchased and rehabilitated an old building (formerly a hair salon). The store opened last May and the business has steadily grown. The business has sponsored a street hockey team at 202 Sports and supported the “Best Buddy” program.

Chris grew up in Gardner, is a graduate of Gardner High School and a 2012 graduate of the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy in Worcester. Asked for a comment about her boss, Devone Fox said, “He is easy to work with and bends over backward for the customers, following up as needed with insurance companies and doctors.”

The store is not large, but there is enough space for over-the-counter medications and body care products displayed on shelves, and if a customer doesn’t see a desired item, special orders can be easily filled. There is also a “value shelf” with common household items, such as toilet paper and cleaning products, at reasonable prices.

Speaking of “large,” here’s information I found on the internet: CVS Pharmacy is currently the largest pharmacy chain in the United States by number of locations (more than 9,600 as of 2016) and total prescription revenue. As the retail pharmacy division of CVS Health, it ranks as the seventh largest U.S. corporation, according to Fortune 500 in 2016.

Walgreen’s is next with 8,175 stores, and Rite Aid after that, with 4,621. The Athol Rite Aid store (formerly Brooks) is being taken over by Walgreen’s, a recent development. This item from Fortune magazine provides more information about the Walgreen’s expansion:

“Walgreen’s would close nearly 600 of the 1,932 Rite Aid stores it is buying in a $4.375 billion cash deal set to close in the spring of 2018. The company two years ago had planned to buy smaller rival Rite Aid in its 4,500-store entirety but in the face of anti-trust regulators balking in June, instead settled for a downsized deal announced in September.” The Rite Aid stores being closed are nearby existing Walgreen’s stores — which is not the case for Athol.

I’m sure these large stores, very successful businesses, serve their customers as best they can, but I’m one of those who believes “small is beautiful.”

Athol Pharmacy’s hours are 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays; 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday; and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Sunday. The phone number is 978-830-0427.

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