Charleston-area pharmacies fill prescriptions with a dose of nostalgia
Plantation Pharmacy on Wappoo Road in West Ashley doesn’t have a drive-thru window, but there is a wraparound porch with two rocking chairs and a joggling board.
The inside looks a little different from CVS or Walgreen’s, too — wide-plank wood floors, jars of hard candy and the quintessential hallmark of bygone pharmacies — a lunch counter serving up sandwiches and sodas.
But Plantation Pharmacy isn’t generations old like Pitt Street Pharmacy in the Old Village in Mount Pleasant or Guerin’s Pharmacy in historic downtown Summerville.
Owner and pharmacist Deb DaPore opened it in 2009 — five years after she opened the original Planation Pharmacy on James Island. Both stores, complete with old-fashioned charm, are thriving, DaPore said.
“You’ll see people come in and they’ll see people they haven’t seen forever and they’re all sitting down and they’re having a sandwich or a soda or whatever,” DaPore said. “It’s all about community.”
The customer service — and the ice cream — offered at Plantation Pharmacy and other independent pharmacies like it, including Vincent’s Drug Store and Soda Fountain in Freshfields Village on John’s Island and Herold’s Pharmacy in West Ashley, is evidence of a larger marketing effort to reverse the image of a vast, impersonal health care industry in the Lowcountry.
Of 126 pharmacies in Charleston, only 15 are independently owned, according to the S.C. Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation. A small crop of those independents are testing a theory: Will a spoonful of nostalgia help the medicine go down?
Mary and Michael Wise think so. The Wises, who opened Herold’s Pharmacy off Glenn McConnell Parkway in 2010, chose to install a lunch counter because they needed to differentiate their store from the dime-a-dozen chain pharmacies.
“We wanted that nostalgic feeling of the old-timey type of place,” said Mary Wise. “You can come in, your neighborhood pharmacy, get your prescriptions filled, have lunch. The kids come in, they get free ice cream. We had a kid that walked in the door at 8:02 this morning and he said, ‘I want my ice cream!’ He knows when he comes here, he’ll get an ice cream. That’s great.”
The pharmacy sells pimento cheese and chicken salad sandwiches and Cokes in glass bottles. Mary Wise even sells her mother-in-law’s pepper jelly at the cash register.
Wise, who formerly worked as a pharmacist at a chain drug store, said the volume of foot traffic there was exhausting. After two years, she was drained.
“I wasn’t able to provide that level of customer service and that’s the whole reason I went into pharmacy, to care for the customers, to spend that time with customers,” Wise said.
“It was all about get in, get out and you never got to talk to a pharmacist because they’re doing 600 prescriptions a day. You never even know what the pharmacist looks like. You trust there’s one back there, but other than the person ringing you up, you never really see a pharmacist, and I just felt like it was almost degrading our profession. It was really sad to me.”
So the independent pharmacies like Herold’s provide real face time with a pharmacist. Some of them also offer free home delivery, customized compounded prescriptions and — a time-tested favorite — malted milkshakes.
Kim Richardson, owner and pharmacist at Pitt Street Pharmacy, which opened its doors in 1937, said nostalgia may be a good marketing hook, but lunch counters aren’t money-makers.
“You have so many baby boomers just like my age group who grew up in pharmacies like this,” Richardson said. “A lot of pharmacies are opening up and they’re trying to recreate that old, warm fuzzy feeling of the soda fountain pharmacy. Unfortunately, it doesn’t make us a lot of money ... When you’re selling grilled cheeses for $2, how many can you sell to make a profit?”
DaPore admits her lunch counter probably only breaks even.
“It doesn’t make a whole lot of money but it’s again that whole community thing because you get people who go, ‘Oh gosh, I remember this.’ You don’t see this very often anymore.”
Richardson, who bought Pitt Street Pharmacy from the previous owners 16 years ago, said customers would run him out of town if he decided to close the soda fountain.
“That was the first thing they told me when I bought the place — you better not change it or we’ll kill you,” he said. “I’ll always have our soda fountain no matter if it loses money. Hopefully if we can just keep it breaking even, that’d be great. From a logistical standpoint of trying to use your square footage that you have and make money off your square footage, it’s not a real smart investment.”
Reach Lauren Sausser at 937-5598.