Josh Freed: My pharmacy lost its community feel, so I've moved on

As more mom and pop shops close down and anonymous chains take over, we lose any personal touch.

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I just broke up with my pharmacy. We’d had a long relationship over some 15 years, but our life paths were going separate ways.

The store had gotten bigger and busier lately, offering more vaccinations, blood tests and ever more shelves of groceries, electronics and desserts — the true financial backbone of drugstores today.

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The lineups at the prescription counter sometimes reminded me of the airport, manned by ever-changing staff who eyed me like a passing out-of-town stranger.

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I’d taken to phoning in my small monthly prescriptions in the morning, so at least they’d be ready for pickup by night.

But recently when I arrived as instructed after 7 p.m., there was a 10-minute lineup ahead of me. After I’d waited my turn, a server told me curtly: “Your medicine’s not ready yet,” without even a “sorry.”

I waited another half hour, so as time dragged on I asked for my annual year-end receipts for insurance purposes. They charged me $5 a page — $15 in all — apparently a new “store policy.”

The combination of them being so late and me being charged for a printout was the tiny straw that did our relationship in. Before leaving, I said softly and somewhat embarrassedly to the person serving me:

“How do I change pharmacies? I’m not too happy here anymore.”

He didn’t blink and said matter-of-factly: “Oh, just go to any other pharmacy and they’ll switch your account.” So spurned, I walked away from my 15-year drugstore partner and phoned a nearby rival to have my prescriptions transferred.

It’s not like me to walk out on anyone. I’m a weirdly loyal client who has had the same internet and phone company almost as long as there have been internet and phone companies. If the Protestant School Board of Greater Montreal hadn’t forced me to graduate to high school, I’d probably still be going to my old elementary school.

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Back home some 90 minutes later, my phone rang. It was the chief pharmacist, a nice guy I’d known casually before he became so overworked he sometimes must avoid eye contact, like a harassed waiter.

He’d just heard from my new pharmacy about the transfer and seemed genuinely shocked and hurt. He sincerely seemed to want to know why I was abandoning him.

I explained what happened and he apologized and offered to refund the $15 printout charge. “Give us one more chance,” he said like a spouse before a separation. “I hate to lose you — you’ve been with us so long.”

I explained that our problem ran deeper. In earlier years, the pharmacy felt like part of my neighbourhood and I knew people behind the counter. But the chain has decided to go for volume and lost whatever community feel it had.

As it’s gotten busier it’s become more anonymous, much like the automated cash machines that recently replaced their human cashiers.

I mostly shop in my neighbourhood and like having a tiny relationship with those I deal with. I’m not looking for 10-minute conversations — I know they’re busy — just a little chit-chat that says we share the same neighbourhood and planet.

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But my drugstore had become the Walmart of pharmacies, like so many storefronts in my neighbourhood. We’ve lost the long-standing Main deli, and my friendly corner pizzeria and a decades-old local bar, as chain stores take over the streets with their ever-revolving staff.

I think something is lost overall, even when profit is gained. As more mom and pop shops close down and anonymous chains take over, we lose any personal touch.

But if you take that away from stores today, we may as well just press our phone keys and order our drugs at Rx Online, while having our hair cut at Barbers‘R’Us.

I said much of this to the poor pharmacist, but surprisingly he didn’t hang up — he listened. Instead, I heard occasional sighs of regret from him and sensed he, too, missed having more time for client relationships.

After listening, he promised things would change because of our conversation. I hope so, but suspect the store’s too overwhelmed to manage it.

He wished me well in my new drugstore marriage and I thanked him for our years together. Then we agreed to go our separate ways and parted like an amiable couple after divorce.

My new pharmacy partner may not be open as late and definitely doesn’t have as good a selection of food, electronics or desserts.

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But I’m already chit-chatting with the pharmacists and other employees who are less busy and more friendly, while the prescription wait is two or three hours, not 12.

So when I leave the store I feel more, not less, human.

I’ll probably feel guilty when I pass my old pharmacy in the future — maybe cross the street, or avoid buying milk there for fear of bumping into my pharmacist.

That’s what I did for years after I abandoned my downtown barber, because parking there had become too tough.

In a way I’ll miss my old pharmacy, as I like the familiar. But I know almost no one there will miss me.

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