Oakland pharmacy open since 1935 closes its doors


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Joseph Finkelpearl's surprise announcement to close his Oakland pharmacy -- albeit not totally unexpected -- left customers forlorn and ready to offer lofty eulogies for Melwood Drug Co., even before the door was locked for good.

Customers and employees lined up to praise "Mr. Joe," as he's known, for being a genuine nice guy who had helped customers with deliveries, discounts and drug dilemmas for 53 years.

Yesterday he even took a call from a customer requesting that he deliver a Milky Way candy bar and quart of milk in lieu of change for her prescription. Her change amounted to only 53 cents.

And Buddy Klemp, a Squirrel Hill resident who traveled there to retrieve a prescription for his 93-year-old father, said "people come from everywhere because he has that sweet smile."

As he said it, he playfully pinched Mr. Joe's smiling cheek.

"He has an even disposition, and I've never seen him mad," said Mr. Klemp, who had just heard the news and was offering heartfelt goodbyes. "He's a sweet man, and I'm going to miss him."

News of the store closing brought an even more dramatic reaction from 103-year-old Elizabeth Gellman of Oakland, whose pained expression punctuated how the news would affect her.

"I feel terrible," she said. "It's like an arm being torn away."

Mr. Finkelpearl, 77, has operated Melwood Drug Co. since 1956, when he took over operations from his father Maurice, who'd opened the store in 1935. The corner store on Centre and Melwood avenues became a gathering spot for many who stopped by for snacks, toiletries, pens, cigarettes and friendly interactions with Mr. Joe and employees.

The drug store had a soda fountain until 1963, and until 10 years ago, a post office. Generations of family members worked for Mr. Joe, including current employees who include a mother and her daughter among their other relatives.

But time can be unkind to long-established businesses. Mr. Finkelpearl said big franchise pharmacies along with mail-order operations have ganged up on neighborhood pharmacies.

Reimbursements from insurance companies also have dwindled, coupled with a bad economy that make it ever more difficult to meet his payroll of 20 employees. Reductions in foot traffic after the Giant Eagle grocery store shut down across the street was another major blow.

Other small pharmacies have clung to life with creative business ventures, including focusing on niche markets such as servicing nursing homes. But at his age, he said, he no longer has the energy to stay in business and work 11-hour days.

"Pharmacists are not in a union, so they have to take it or leave it," he said, poised behind the counter. "You have to take what is offered [from insurance companies] or you don't play the game.

"If you are young and energetic, you can survive," he said. "But I think time has passed me by. I'm 77. It's time to move on."

Mr. Finkelpearl said he will not retire but will seek a pharmacist job elsewhere.

Patricia A. Epple, executive director of the Pennsylvania Pharmacists Association in Harrisburg, said even big pharmacy chains face challenges nowadays due to the very issues Mr. Finkelpearl raised.

While the number of pharmacies hasn't declined noticeably throughout the state in recent years, "an independent might close, but a chain opens," she said.

The industry ogre is the mail-order company, like CVS Caremark, Medco and Express Scripts, which control 70 to 80 percent of the pharmacy benefit manager business that operates online. But as mail-order operations gain market share by offering lower prices and easy delivery, they threaten to force existing pharmacies to close. That could leave people with serious problems.

"What's sad is that mail-order can't fill acute medications on a timely basis, and a pharmacy cannot exist just on that business alone," Ms. Epple said. "If you need an antibiotic today, you go to a pharmacy and get it today. Mailing away for it can take 10 days or more. That is not effective."

Mr. Finkelpearl ceased filling prescriptions yesterday but will keep doors open to sell off other inventory. "This really was not my decision," he said. "Financially, it is not possible."

The announcement left people inside the store shaking their heads.

"You don't see too many mom-and-pop stores like this that have the atmosphere and friendly service," said Eric Grzegorczyk, 43, of Oakland and a store regular for 38 years. "You know him, and he knows you. The bigger companies are pushing the smaller guys out of the way."

Daily customer Richard Soja, 49, of Polish Hill, said Mr. Finkelpearl helped his mother when she had a brain aneurysm and his girlfriend after her diagnosis with ovarian cancer, which eventually would claim her life. Mr. Soja said Mr. Joe made recommendations, sold drugs on credit and allowed payments they could afford.

"I'm devastated," he said. "This is horrible -- a tremendous loss to the community."

And after Mr. Klemp got his father's prescription, he turned to Mr. Joe to say what many others would repeat before day's end.

"I'll miss you," he said.


David Templeton can be reached at dtempleton@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1578.


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