CHAPEL HILL — Pharmacist John Woodard Jr. was behind the counter on Franklin Street on Friday, but the sound of bacon crackling and regulars gossiping was missing.
“You can take those down to Sutton’s for me,” he joked with the delivery driver dropping off crates of medication.
Only Sutton’s customers aren’t laughing.
After 37 years at the downtown landmark Sutton’s Drug Store, Woodard is now working in the basement of CVS down the street. He didn’t plan it – he’d hoped to train a younger pharmacist to eventually take over the business – but it was for the best, he said.
“It takes part of your heart out, but it’s exciting to be a part of a different, positive experience,” he said.
When the chain drug stores moved to downtown Chapel Hill – Walgreens is across the street – Woodard and business partner Don Pinney said they weren’t worried. Sutton’s has been home away from home for students, professors, locals and alumni since 1923.
At lunch, you might find movie stars and basketball legends, politicians and blue-collar workers sitting shoulder to shoulder, washing down hot cheeseburgers with cold milkshakes. Posters and snapshots plastered on the walls show the faces of new friends and those long gone.
On Friday, though, the shelves were gone and the booths pushed out to the walls, leaving an empty space. Some customers suggested filling it with salsa dancing or cornhole games, but Pinney said they’ll probably add a fryer for the cooks and more tables for customers. The grill’s hours will be extended.
‘Green as a cucumber’
Woodard said he “was green as a cucumber” when he started at Sutton’s Drug Store. He spent more time pouring coffee than dispensing medication but built a thriving patient base.
Health care changes have made it harder to compete with medical networks and chain drugstores, he said.
Before taking his new job, he said he had to make sure CVS would take care of his “people,” Woodard said.
“That’s the part keeping me awake at night, for the last couple of months,” he said. “If I do this, are they going to take care of my people?”
But CVS has been great, letting Sutton’s keep “Drug Store” as part of its name, he said. His new co-workers are “the nicest people in the world.”
At least for a month, Woodard can be found at CVS weekdays from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. After that, he might go part time and return to the Sutton’s register for a few hours a week, or he and his wife, Kim, finally might be able to take a vacation after years of 60- to 80-hour schedules, he said.
He’s No. 1
Woodard may not be at Sutton’s all the time, but reminders of his longtime presence remain.
A Carolina blue jersey on the wall bears his name and the No. 1; a figurine with an odd resemblance to Woodard watches over his old nameplate on the shelves of the now-dark pharmacy counter.
Pinney, who fondly calls Woodard “dad,” said he’s fired up about plans to use the pharmacy counter as the centerpiece of a “mini-museum” showcasing antique scales, pill bottles and pharmacy supplies. They’ve even got a 1920s-era cash register, he said.
Still, Pinney said it was heartbreaking Tuesday to see roughly a dozen CVS workers descend on the store, picking it clean of pills, patient files and products.
“My customers, some were in tears, they would walk in, their jaws would drop. I never thought under my watch that this store would change,” he said.
Staff writer Jonathan Black contributed to this story.