By Emily J Weitz
When Barry Marcus, owner of the Sag Harbor Pharmacy, first got into the pharmacy business 50 years ago, it was a very different world. He typed up the labels for prescriptions on his typewriter. He compounded cough syrups and made suppositories out of cocoa butter right there in the pharmacy. He ground up the ingredients for prescriptions with a mortar and pestel before spooning them into capsules.
“Now they come from the manufacturer already done,” he says. “Now you can’t make a prescription without a computer. It’s all automation. It’s a lot faster, and it gets you a lot more information. But I liked the old days. I’m from the old school.”
Maybe that’s exactly why when Barry Marcus and his business partner Stan Weiss took over the business a decade ago, they kept the legacy of the Sag Harbor Pharmacy, founded in 1859, alive.
“This is the original building of the Sag Harbor Pharmacy, since 1859,” says Marcus. “We are only the eighth or ninth owners of the store.”
That longevity is attributed to “the supportive community. Sag Harbor Village is a wonderful town and we love being here. I guess all the other owners had the same feeling.”
Mr. Marcus bought the Sag Harbor Pharmacy after he “retired” from the pharmacy he owned in Elmont, Long Island for 36 years.
“I was looking for a country store,” he says. “When the Sag Harbor Pharmacy came up in 2001, I decided to call my old friend Stan and see if he wanted to join me.”
Stan and Barry had met in 1960, on the train on their way to orientation at pharmaceutical school. They were close friends, but after school they went their separate ways. When Barry approached him about going into business together, “He said yes, and now here we are.”
But Marcus and Weiss are in a different business than the one they entered into 50 years ago, 18 years old and starry eyed. Along with the advent of computers, another monster force has drastically changed the pharmacy business: insurance companies. Where people used to come into the pharmacy and pay cash for their prescriptions, now they pay a co-pay.
“All these insurance plans came out where they controlled how much money you would get on each prescription. Years ago, when it was cash, you could sell something for $7.95 and make more than you would on a $50 one now because the insurance companies decide what profit you get, and it’s a very small amount. What we really pick up on is from the front of the store.”
Speaking of insurance, it’s impossible to think about anything related to health care and not wonder how it’s been affected by Obama’s healthcare reform.
“We don’t know how much it will affect pharmacies yet,” says Marcus. “But any time the government gets into it there will be more controls, which means less profit for everyone… We are hoping that the volume of prescriptions will increase if more people become insured. But the jury’s still out.”
Pharmacies saw a similar shift during the Bush era, when a Part B insurance plan was added to Medicare, providing prescription coverage to seniors. “Seniors on fixed incomes were filling their prescriptions more because it was more affordable.”
Still another major factor in the changing face of the pharmacy business is the mail-order and online prescription services. It’s not only the prescription you lose from that customer – “You lose that customer who comes in for a prescription and buys that tube of tooth paste,” says Marcus.
And then, of course, there are the big box stores. It’s difficult for small business owners to compete with giant corporations like Walgreens or CVS. To do so, they bank on “service. We try to accommodate our customers. The chains carry fast moving items. We carry everything. We get to know everybody by name and we get to know what their wants and needs are,” says Marcus.
But it’s not only the way they do business that has kept the Sag Harbor Pharmacy from suffering the same fate that family-owned pharmacies across the country have suffered. It’s the community.
“When CVS tried to come in a few years ago,” recalls Marcus, “the community came up with savesagharbor.com. They have helped to keep us in business as an independent pharmacy and they support us by shopping here. We are very fortunate to be in a town where everybody, not only our customers, but everybody wanted us to stay in business, to keep this town the way it is. This village is unique. It has a certain charm. It’s like a Norman Rockwell town.”
After all the changes that have come to pharmaceuticals, does it even resemble the business that young Barry and Stan entered into 50 years ago? Enough for Barry to pause for a contemplative moment and then say with confidence, “I’d do it again. I love pharmacy, and I speak for Stan too. It’s rewarding. You meet all these people that become family to you. You get to know everyone’s personal lives, their children. It’s wonderful.”
As Marcus and Weiss celebrate their tenth anniversary as owners of the Sag Harbor Pharmacy, they are signing a new lease and looking forward to the next ten years.
“I just hope they don’t go by as quickly,” Barry says. “I’ll get too old.”