Garner pharmacy's closing bitter pill for owner

Staff WriterJune 29, 2011 

— Thirty-seven years ago, customers sipped sodas and ate ice cream at the counter of Tom Jones Discount Drug Center.

Over the decades, the pharmacy has changed with the times. It moved into spots along Vandora Springs Road and abandoned the soda-shop theme long before settling in a $1.6 million pharmacy on Timber Drive in 2008.

At the time, business was good, and the new digs said so.

But the sluggish economy has taken its toll on the business. And Jones, 69, had to shut the store this month.

"It is what it is," Jones said. "... I don't want any other pharmacy to go through what I just went through."

But it may not turn out that way. His struggles are common among some independent pharmacies - Jones had to compete with chain drugstores that can offer lower prices. And mail-order pharmacies are increasingly luring brick-and-mortar customers.

When Jones first opened his business, Garner was tiny. As Garner grew, now to about 27,000 people, Jones knew he had to keep up.

His store on Vandora Springs Road was one of the first in the area to have a drive-through window.

And in 1978 he set up a computer system to track patients' prescriptions, when many businesses were still using typewriters or hand-written notes.

Years ago, he turned his business into a compounding pharmacy, which mixes drugs to meet patients' unique needs.

In 1995, Jones began to learn more about vitamins and nutrients and the role they could play in his clients' health. Since then, Jones figures at least 2,000 patients have come to him for health advice. Many of them were women entering menopause, while others struggled with their weight or were in the early stages of diabetes.

Customers attended seminars in his store, where he helped them develop a healthy-living strategy or a weight-loss plan.

That's the kind of individual attention customers say they can't find at bigger pharmacies. "It's a more personal atmosphere," said Joe Ann Bell, 67, of Garner, who shopped at Jones's pharmacy for years.

Some pharmacists can't counsel their clients like Jones did, Bell said. "They don't have time; they're too busy."

Small pharmacies are struggling because they don't have the staff to negotiate prescription costs with middle-man companies that work for big insurance firms, said Mike James, who owns Person Street Pharmacy in Raleigh and serves as government affairs director for Mutual Drug, which supports independent pharmacies.

And small pharmacies have a hard time competing with deals like $4 prescriptions offered at chain stores. "It's unrealistic," James said.

For now, Jones and his daughter - Caroline Hodges, who also worked at the store - are working at a Dunn pharmacy. He hopes to re-open a store somewhere in Garner.

"I'm planning to resurrect myself," Jones said. "There's a new culture - you can't assume that you're going to be in business the next day."

sarah.nagem@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4758

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