‘It’s always been a part of the community’

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Suffolk News-Herald

A downtown Suffolk landmark – Joseph P. Hall Drug Co. – is closing next month after 167 years in continuous operation.

Shirley Bumgardner, pharmacist and owner of the drugstore since 1969, will be shuttering its doors on Oct. 12. Customers’ prescriptions will automatically be transferred to Rite Aid, 515 N. Main St.

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&uot;It will be a seamless transition for customers,&uot; said Bumgardner. &uot;Rite Aid will have our computer. When customers call for a refill, they can just read the prescription number off their bottle like they always have.&uot;

Her decision to sell the tiny pharmacy at 121 W. Washington St., where five generations of Suffolk residents have filled prescriptions and shopped for sundries, wasn’t made lightly.

&uot;It just breaks my heart to close the store,&uot; Bumgardner said. &uot;I was hoping I wouldn’t have to be the one to do it.

&uot;…Working with insurance companies is getting more and more difficult…and few pharmacists are interested in owning independent drugstores today,&uot; she continued.

&uot;Keeping the whole store up really keeps me busy.

&uot;I’ve been thinking for awhile that maybe it’s more than I need right now.&uot;

Originally from Norfolk, Bumgardner first came to the pharmacy in the early 1960s to fill in so the druggist could go on vacation. She later bought the store with a partner, Floyd F. Bennett, in 1969. She bought out his portion of the business in 1992.

&uot;Suddenly, many years later, here I am,&uot; Bumgardner said. &uot;I’ve been here a long, long time.

The drugstore itself has been around much longer, with only five owners in its history.

Opened in 1837 by Joseph P. Hall, the drugstore was first moved to the Washington Square community just before the Civil War. After his father’s death, Joseph P. Hall Jr. took over the business and operated it until his own death in 1918.

The business was then purchased by J. Braxton Hill, who got a Rexall franchise in 1928 and moved it to Saratoga Street. In 1935, he sold the business to Jesse H. Harrell and M. Anderson Maxey, who operated it until Bumgardner and Bennett bought the business. They moved it back to West Washington in the late 1970s.

Although she is hopeful customers will make the move to Rite Aid, she realizes many will miss the store being downtown.

&uot;We have had a presence in downtown for so long,&uot; Bumgardner said. &uot;I feel like we have been an anchor here.&uot;

That’s an understatement, said Andy Damiani, president of the Downtown Business Association, agreed.

&uot;Joseph P. Hall is a fixture in downtown,&uot; he said. &uot;It’s always been a part of the community.

&uot;It’s unfortunate for a lot of people but I’m glad for Shirley. She works hard.&uot;

The loss of Joseph P. Hall is a hit for downtown, said Elizabeth McCoury, director of downtown development.

&uot;It’s a Suffolk institution,&uot; she said. &uot;It’s going to be a tremendous loss for downtown.&uot;

It’s also going to be hard of people who like to pay cash for their utility bills at the pharmacy, she added.

&uot;At some point, I think they have had as many as 600 customers a day coming in to pay their bills there,&uot; she said.

A lot of people will miss the pharmacy because its backdoor provides a shortcut from the Cherry Street parking lot to the rest of downtown.

&uot;We have a tremendous amount of traffic through here,&uot; said Bumgardner said. &uot;We have a lot of people cutting through, even if they aren’t customers.

&uot;We don’t mind being the thoroughfare. Besides, a lot of the people who cut through end up becoming customers.&uot;

Rite Aid has pledged to continue the J.P. Hall’s tradition of making deliveries to customers, Bumgardner said.

That’s something that was pretty important to her, Bumgardner said.

&uot;We’ve always done big delivery business,&uot; she said, estimating that 25 percent of he customers use the service.

&uot;We have a lot of older people who get their prescription from us. That’s the only way some of them can get their prescriptions.&uot;

Bumgardner – or Mrs. B, as she is called by her handful of loyal, longtime employees -will be joining Rite Aid as a pharmacist. Also, she said, the company has expressed an interest in hiring her employees.

&uot;We are used to being a close-knit family,&uot; said Dalene Fillhart, pharmacist technician.

&uot;We’re all hoping to go in there together.

&uot;We’re going to put our best foot forward and bring a little bit of Joseph P. Hall with us.&uot;