Service is key for little city pharmacy

September 23, 2006|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,Sun reporter

Seems there's a little bit of a situation at Charlesmead Pharmacy's lunch counter.

Mrs. Oswald, with her husband's new medicine in hand and her fidgeting 8-year-old underfoot, is trying to leave. But Gil, who's working the snack area, is calling her back.

He has overcharged Mrs. Oswald for the candy her daughter picked out, and he wants to make it right. He hustles over to press a solitary penny into her palm.

"That's typical," Jeanne Oswald says outside the store yesterday, amused but not particularly shocked. "That's why we're here practically every day."

After Wal-Mart threw down the pharmaceutical gauntlet this week by unveiling a $4 prescription plan and competing megastores tripped over themselves to keep up, little Charlesmead in North Baltimore countered with - perhaps not surprisingly - nothing.

Marilyn kept greeting customers with her trademark "Ooooh, I'm soooo glad to see you."

Gil kept mixing the handmade shakes thick and chocolatey.

George kept driving the medicine out to people's homes for no extra charge.

The way it used to be, here, is somehow the way it still is and the way it has to be. Customer service, always the store's calling card, has become the key to its survival.

For the shop at Bellona and Gittings avenues - and perhaps for each of the country's remaining 24,500 independent pharmacies - the personal touch and the ability to operate on a first-name basis are their best and maybe their only defense.

"They care about ya," says Judy Strouse, a loyal Charlesmead customer from Homeland. "And that's important."

Wal-Mart might have $4 drugs, but it doesn't and will never have 30 years of customers' baby photos taped to the wood-paneled walls.

Wal-Mart might have $4 drugs, but when they see a longtime customer coming up the walkway, they don't squeal like Charlesmead's vivacious owner Marilyn Weisman.

"Oh! Look who's coming!" she says as two women head toward the store - one frail and using a black lacquer cane, the other helping to steady her. "It's Mrs. Goodhues!"

Gil Zemlak, busy refilling sodas and spreading tuna salad onto toast, looks up and a smile of recognition spreads across his face: "Hi, ladies, what's your pleasure today?"

Peggy Goodhues, 88 and a great-grandmother, began coming to Charlesmead long before the Weisman family bought it in 1977.

Neither she nor her daughter Geegee Connor can remember a time without the store. And neither would consider having a prescription filled anyplace else - no matter how steep the discount.

"I trust them," Connor says.

While megastores boast aisle after aisle of who-knows-what and vast selections of everything, no one has ever gotten lost walking the checkerboard linoleum of Charlesmead's three abrupt aisles or been dazzled by the store's choice of hairsprays.

Here they don't sell cigarettes. And the condoms are tucked away behind the counter because, as Weisman puts it, "our customers don't want to see that." Back when the store sold magazines, rest assured, no matter how hard teenage boys searched, they'd never find a "provocative" title mixed in with the Newsweek and Ladies' Home Journal.

Here part of pharmacist Doug Campbell's mechanical toy collection fills out a display case - because he never knows when he might need to cheer up a kid by making the miniature Ferris wheel light up and spin.

Here there's a sandwich on the menu named the Mr. Matthews. It's the peanut butter and jelly because Mr. Matthews, whose family moved him into assisted living last year, used to order that every day.

Marilyn Weisman took over Charlesmead three years ago after her husband, Bernie, suffered a debilitating heart attack. To this day, customers still ask about him and bring him get-well cards.

If faced soon with the temptation of corporate discounts that she can't possibly match, Weisman hopes that her customers will remember who knows their name.

"We have our customers," she says, "and we just pray people will go for what's important."

Mrs. Goodhues and her daughter are getting up to go.

"Sweetie-pie," Zemlak coos, "you leaving now?"

He reaches over the counter to grab her hand and holds it for a while.

"Come back and see me again, OK?"

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