This past Monday, Barry Marcus and Stan Weiss celebrated nine years as Sag Harbor’s hometown pharmacists at the historic Sag Harbor Pharmacy. The celebration followed an anxious week of outreach following the revelation that Medco and United Healthcare had informed all Sag Harbor Pharmacy clients who use their healthcare plans that the pharmacy would no longer accept the New York State Empire Prescription Drug Plan – a falsehood Marcus said was bred in bureaucracy.
According to Marcus, on Monday, January 22 the pharmacy was literally flooded with calls from some of their 400 to 500 customers who use the Empire plan wondering why, after nine years, their hometown pharmacy had abandoned their prescription drug plan after receiving letters from United Healthcare and Medco.
“Fortunately, I have very loyal customers,” said Marcus this week, after the problem had been sorted out with providers; although he said the pharmacy has personally had to shell out a significant cost in mailings and advertising to fix the snafu, which could have been potentially deadly for business.
“Anyone that is a really good customer, and that is 99 percent, wouldn’t leave us for another pharmacy unless they heard from us directly that they were no longer covered,” said Marcus.
That loyalty has been cultivated over generations through the pharmacy’s 150-year history in Sag Harbor, and history is no stranger to its newest proprietors, who have avoided making any major changes to the pharmacy’s services and have known each other since they first boarded the train to pharmacy school.
Marcus and Weiss both graduated from the Brooklyn College of Pharmacy in 1965. They met years earlier, though, when dressed in shirts and ties on a train traveling to their first day of orientation they struck up a conversation.
“We wound up being friends and we have been for the last 50 years,” said Marcus. “Our wives are friends, our children and our grandchildren know each other.”
The duo even spent the last summer taking their 13-year-old grandchildren to Alaska. But years before that, after finding success on their own, the families decided to solidify their bond professionally by purchasing the Sag Harbor Pharmacy.
After retiring, Marcus admitted he became bored, and loved the East End having owned a condo in Montauk.
“I wanted something different,” he said, after leaving his large scale, Elmont, Long Island pharmacy. “A country store. I spoke to Stan and we got together in 2000 and decided it was a go. We opened February 1, 2001.”
Working for a hometown pharmacy suits them both, said Marcus, especially having a staff at the pharmacy stay on after they purchased the business.
“It’s a wonderful marriage and we have a full-time pharmacist who works with us, so we have our time off and we don’t have to work as hard as we did when we were younger,” said Marcus.
However, he added, both owners still enjoy rolling up their sleeves and getting to work.
“We like the contact we have with our customers, the questions,” said Marcus. “Every day we answer hundreds of questions. And we consider our work a very professional thing. We both still wear a shirt and tie every day because that was what they required when we were in college.”
In their careers, Marcus and Weiss have watched the pharmacy business change dramatically, altering the way pharmacies make money. With the addition of managed care, pharmacies nationwide were required to take on computers – a large expense – and fees on prescriptions became fixed, with doctors encouraged to push specific brands.
“The only way to make money after that was with the front of the store items,” said Marcus. “Prescriptions are no longer profitable.”
And so, like every pharmacy, the Sag Harbor Pharmacy exists through gift-related items like frames, teddy bears and chocolates during the Valentine’s Day season, which the store is already stocked for, and unusual or specialty cosmetics, lotions and organic soaps like the Thymes, California Baby and Burts Bees brands. But ultimately, Marcus said history and customer service are at the top of the pharmacy’s list of priorities.
“We try to keep it the way it was from the 1860s,” said Marcus. “We even still have a phone booth in the store. Even though Verizon made us take out the phone, the booth will stay.”