For 1910 pharmacy, a bitter prescription Demise: The landmark, independent McGinity's Pharmacy survived crime and a changing neighborhood, but its owner says managed health care doomed the store.

July 03, 1996|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,SUN STAFF

When the bell rang in the middle of the night, F. Rowland McGinity Sr. would stick his head out the second-floor bedroom window to see who needed help on Eastern Avenue.

His father, John, had founded McGinity's Pharmacy in 1910, and neighborly service was a hallmark of the family and the times back in the days when Highlandtown was a genuine urban village.

By the early 1960s, police were telling McGinity not to dispense drugs after hours unless they were on hand to protect him. Today, people brazenly sell drugs and sex across the street in Patterson Park.

But the crime and noise and street trash that was eating into the good life in Highlandtown were not enough to put McGinity's of East Baltimore out of business.

It was the health care insurance industry that doomed the independent corner druggist, according to F. Rowland McGinity Jr., the third-generation pharmacist at Eastern and Ellwood avenues known to all as "Doc Frank."

McGinity's last day of business is July 10, when it joins the Patterson movie theater and Illona Restaurant on the scrap heap of recently defunct Highlandtown landmarks.

"The writing is on the wall, and the safety net is fraying," says Frank, who still mixes ointments by hand and spends hours chatting with elderly patients who often are more lonely than sick. "You've got to be blind not to see it."

Under certain health maintenance and managed care plans, Frank is paid $3 or less to dispense drugs and compounds that often take him a half-hour to mix the old-fashioned way at the back of the store.

According to the National Association of Retail Druggists, such cost containment contributed to the demise last year of about 40 independent pharmacies a week. Mail-order prescription companies have also taken their toll.

The association says it has been independents such as the McGinity family -- druggists working to solve problems for patients who also are neighbors and friends -- who have brought about innovations in the industry.

Now 47, Frank started in the business as a kid, crushing ice and mixing lemon phosphates. He holds out his hands to show noticeably enlarged muscles between the forefinger and thumb. says: "See that? It's called pharmacist's hand. You get it from mixing compounds. You don't see it anymore."

Parents live above store

McGinity's business was bought by Rite Aid, and Frank will join the staff of one of the chain's half-dozen or so outlets within a few miles of his store, which filled its 2 millionth prescription in 1984. Frank's mother and father, Evelyn, 81, and F. Rowland McGinity Sr., 82, will continue to live above the store. Still standing in the basement are wooden cages in which medicinal alcohol was locked during Prohibition.

Helen Przybylski, a year younger than the pharmacy, grew up down the street from the store. She says she rarely cries, not even at funerals. Yet she felt a tear come to her eye at news of the closing.

"I was devastated. I knew his grandfather, Dr. John, and when I was little they had an ice cream parlor with iron chairs," she says. "They said they'd transfer my records to the Rite Aid. Frank was very capable; sometimes he'd advise you better than your doctor."

Frederick "Fritz" James, a 74-year-old resident of the South Decker Avenue rowhouse where he was born, remembers going to McGinity's before he was old enough for school. His 98-year-old mother, the drug store's oldest customer, has her prescriptions delivered to the Canton nursing home where she lives.

"I used to go down with a dime or a nickel," says James, who remembers the model fire engines that the store's founder, city fire commissioner John J. McGinity, had on display. "One of the druggists would say: 'Come here, I'll make you something special,' a chocolate soda or a sundae. It was a good old drug store where you sat down at the counter, and they knew you by your first name."

Soda fountain removed

The soda fountain was taken out in 1967, when Frank's father, known as Rowland, remodeled to concentrate on prescription medicine alone.

"I wanted to run a pharmacy and not have to watch the school kids who were coming in and beginning to steal," explains the elder McGinity, who closed the store only on Christmas and Easter.

Nowadays, says his son Frank, you have to sell lottery tickets and disposable diapers and shampoo to turn a profit and he'd rather work for somebody else than turn his family legacy into a convenience store.

"It's an emotional thing, something Frank's been thinking about for a long time," says Helen Getzel, who has worked at McGinity's for almost 20 years. "They've always been there. On that corner, there's never been anything else."

Pub Date: 7/03/96

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