56 Bartlett Hill Road (home of Arthur and Doris Carr)
Concord Oral History Program
Renee Garrelick, Interviewer.
Click here for audio in .mp3 format
Arthur and Bob Carr, father and son discuss the changes in the pharmacy industry from the end of World War II At one time the Carr family owned five pharmacies in the area- Richardson's Drug Co. in Concord Center where Arthur arrived in 1946 to work for Charlie Voigt and became a partner in 1953; the addition of Richardson Drug Co. in Lincoln in 1957; the opening of a pharmacy in the Concord Medical building at 747 Main Street in 1959; the purchase of Glen Swett's West Concord Rexall Pharmacy in 1960 which was moved to the West Concord Plaza in 1970 built by Charlie Comeau on what was formerly the Derby Farm; and Richardson Drug Co. in Weston in 1963. Only the West Concord Pharmacy remains.
The corner drug store:
A comparison of eras between father and son as independent pharmacists in the family drug store business in Concord. Arthur Carr joining Charlie Voigt as a partner in Richardson's Drug Co. in Concord Center, expansion to Lincoln, medical center at 747 Main Street, Weston, and purchase of West Concord Pharmacy from Glenn Swett, moved to West Concord shopping plaza in 1970. Only West Concord Pharmacy remains.
The cradle to grave nature of the business and the importance of service to customers. The drug store as a community gathering place with soda fountains and employment for young people after school. Deliveries to customers, emergency, after hour service-loyalty and bond with customers for generations and relationship with doctors disrupted by HMO insurers which drives how business is done and who you can afford to do business with.
No profit or too small reimbursement from insurance companies, limits which HMO to continue doing business with and loss of customers and long time relationships. Arrival of chains and competition by volume- pharmacy is a secondary business for chain stores. Hoped for change in the cycle to lessen driving power of HMO's.
Changing nature of pharmacies through computer technology and professional requirements.
Arthur - I was still in the Navy and went to the College of Pharmacy and they suggested I look at Concord for future employment. I spoke with Charlie Voigt and he was enthused about me getting out of the service and coming to work for him. We did this except we got to California and wrote back to him that we were not coming to Concord, we were expecting Bob at that time. So he threatened to do harm to me if I didn't come back and talk. We came back in May of 1946 and spoke with Charlie, and we were very enthused about coming to work for him because we saw it as a future together.
Charlie Voigt owned Richardson's Drug Store with John Watson for a number of years. I guess Charlie bought in the very early 1940s. Charlie and I hit it off very well together and it was interesting for both of us. We moved to Concord in late 1947 and settled in. As he retired, I started running the store for him. He taught me a lot of things. He was a gentleman all the way through. I always thought his son would want to take over the pharmacy. He was an engineer but he assured me he didn't want anything to do with the pharmacy which was good for us.
We set up a partnership, which started in January 1953. Over the next ten years, I slowly purchased the store from him. Toward the end of that ten year period he became ill. He sort of retired early. But by 1963 we owned Richardson Drug. He was looking for a partner. He wanted to sort of semi-retire. So he was able to do that.
There's no comparison as to how it was then as to now. We had our own problems at that point as Bob does now being in business. Computers came in and solved a lot of problems, but I was a little old to pick up the computer work and I didn't really like getting myself involved. It was a much slower pace back then, but Richardson's was a busy store. We started to expand in 1957 into Lincoln and West Concord in the medical center and in Weston in 1963. That kept me busy and the challenge was there which was what I needed. We built it up to five stores. I guess I didn't mention Glen Swett sold in 1960 to me. He wanted out to do his taxidermy. His store was right next to where the post office used to be in West Concord. He had been there for years. He wanted to sell so we took over. We moved that store to the West Concord Plaza in 1970. Charlie Comeau finished the building there and we moved in right away.
Back then the pace was different entirely. People paid more by cash and not by credit card as they do today. At one point we had 3000 charge accounts downtown, and it was all manually done until we finally got a bookkeeping machine. That was nothing like the computer now. We put Doris to work a few times.
We were able to get to know the people in the community then. Even now when I walk downtown many people I don't know but I see a friendly face. They are old time customers. There was a great bond. It meant a lot to them and it meant a lot to us.
Bob - I started in the Concord store when I was about 8 years old filling up the candy and the prescription bottles after school. I got to know both the employees and the customers. I think it was the people that convinced me to go into pharmacy. As I got older, I moved up to front store clerk at 12 years old and running the register and I thought that was cool. I was still filling the bottles and filling the candy but at that point I was eating more candy than I was filling. About in my sophomore year of high school, I looked into pharmacy school.
Arthur - When I first started at the pharmacy, they had a soda fountain. When we opened in Lincoln in 1957, they almost demanded a soda fountain. I knew the Lincoln people very well and the idea of having a drug store in Lincoln went over very well. We had a good following. We were very successful there.
Doris - I did bookkeeping a little bit, now and then when they needed an extra hand.
Arthur - The biggest change in the pharmacy business I guess is the computer. Bob and I went down to New Jersey after he was a pharmacist to take the class and get exposed to the computers. He picked it up so fast and I didn't. I was hitting a bad strain all the way through, and so I said, "Go ahead Bob, you do it. I'm going to sit back and I'll do the books for a while." That's probably one of the big changes. Then medicine changed entirely, pharmaceuticals. I was on the board of the College of Pharmacy for a few years, and we could see things were progressing so rapidly. I stayed with it for a long time but after a while I gave it up.
The relationship between the doctor and the pharmacist was much more laid back in the old days. Now the doctors are under pressure and they have to make every second count. We used to be able to converse with doctors and they could come into the back room and discuss pharmaceuticals and interactions with us. I don't know how much they do it now, and I don't know how much time you have to do it. We had a good rapport with doctors.
We were sort of at the heart of the community. We felt very close to the community and they felt close to us. I really miss that part of it.
Bob - There are so many changes and challenges now. The same changes my dad mentioned as to changes in medication, but there have been changes in insurance and that is probably the biggest problem now. Another advantage of being a close knot community is we have a lot of doctors who communicate with us on a one-on-one basis. Even though times have changed, it's still a good feeling to know that the doctors can talk with us [voice very low].
The insurance challenge has really put us through it. Doctors are now told what to prescribe for certain diseases. They have to stay within the insurance guidelines. We converse a lot back and forth with them on that as to whether insurance will allow another one or not, so sometimes it's total confusion. And the reimbursement rates are so low that you're probably going to average between 50 cents and 80 cents on a prescription no matter whether it is $400 or $10. That's about all you're going to clear on a prescription. It got that way just because of all these changes that came in. They were looking more volume, and the only way they could get more volume is to make deals with insurance companies and then price themselves to that end. And if you want to participate in that insurance, you have to take that reimbursement. Now they are pushing that you have to spend 20 minutes with a patient, take a medical history, tell them about the prescription and [can't make out - too low].
When he practiced back in the ‘60s, it always impressed me that patients had questions back then and we were about the only store back in those days that would tell people about their prescription. Even before it became law in 1990, we were doing that. It not only tells people about the medication but gives them a chance to ask a question, and again being a small community, it's so rewarding to have someone come back and say, "Gee thank you, I didn't know that and my doctor didn't know that." It's worth it.
Arthur - There were no large pharmacy chains around when I first started. We didn't have anything at all like that then. Medicaid was the only stringent thing we had to deal with back then as to price controls and all that.
Bob - The big pharmacy chains probably began around here in the 1980s. I think they started just before you retired. We were one of the last areas they came into because it's such a small area. It probably was the early ‘80s because that's when we decided we wanted to wait three years before we went to the computer to make sure we got the right one. At first there were only four or five in the State, and then they just kept coming and coming because they got reimbursed by the number of stores not by the number of prescriptions they filled.
Arthur - We always felt we could give service when a chain first started and that kept our customers with us and that worked out fine for a long period of time. And even to this day I think the service to the customers is the thing that makes Bob successful.
Bob - I had to laugh three years ago when CVS and Brooks started offering to deliver prescriptions at no charge. We've been doing it since the 1960s. It really made me laugh that they were finally waking up to service and then all of a sudden two years later they dropped it because they couldn't afford to do it. So you really have to make up your mind you're really going to be a service provider or [voice drops off]. Now it doesn't matter anyway about price because with all the insurances price is dictated.
They don't care if they fill a prescription. They make more on selling one bottle of aspirin than they do on filling prescriptions. They just have a prescription department to draw people in. It's kind of a lost leader. That's why the chain started actually because they found a way to get people in and they'll buy other things. CVS used to be just health and beauty aides. Then when they found the pharmacy drives people in, they [something about price].
We've changed our product line a little bit over the years. There are so many trends in the retail pharmacy business. For three or four years vitamins were not. But we've always tried to provide things that people can't get anywhere else. That's actually why we started into hospital supplies. [voice too low - can't make it out] Greeting cards are still a product line of ours because there aren't any greeting card stores.
We do service the New England Deaconess Nursing Home, and we also do a lot of pediatric business which makes it great. You run the whole gamut, and again that's the nice thing about it. We have kids that we fill prescriptions for when they're born and while they're growing up and the next thing they're coming to work for us, then they go away to college and then they move back into town with their families. It really is a unique experience. I can't remember who it was that came in the other day and said, "I remember you filled a prescription for me because my father had to go down to get it at 10:30 at night." That's the nice thing about a small community because you do feel a part of it.
Arthur - To continue on that for just a second, I recall many times in the past I would go out at night to a mother who had a young child and needed a prescription and comes back to you to praise you. I have had that happen many times. But Bob is doing the same thing. And you can't get the chain stores to do that.
Bob - You do it because you care about the people.
Nancy - Even today we deliver twice a day. An elderly lady called to get a prescription and she said, "You don't sell lemons by any chance, do you?" I said, "No, but would you like a lemon?" And she said yes, so I said I would send a lemon out with your package. So I went to the White Hen and bought a lemon and put it in her package. They call all the time, "Would you send some milk with that?" We just walk down to the White Hen and put it on their charge and send it out. We do a lot of deliveries. We also deliver on weekends if needed. We especially do deliveries for a lot of new mothers with babies and for the elderly who can't get out or for anyone who's had surgery and can't get out. They get used to it. In fact, especially for elderly people who are alone and don't have family around, they look forward to that delivery person. It's someone coming in and saying, "Hi, how are you?" It's just part of our everyday routine. We think nothing of doing that.
Bob - I think we've reached a volume today where we don't have to accept these HMO contracts. [voice too low] I think the whole thing is changing back to service oriented. People have had it with HMOs and their restrictions [can't make out voice]
Nancy - Mentioning about things going around full cycle, Arthur opened Lincoln Drug Store in 1957 and with all those customers there, they sold it to three of the managers.
Arthur - Yes, they bought it in 1973. They sold it about a year and half ago to a small chain and that small chain just closed the shop in about a month.
Nancy - Now we're getting some of the customers that were at Richardson Drug in Concord Center and then went to Lincoln Drug and are now coming to West Concord Pharmacy. Not only do we have original customers but we have two of their employees. So when the Lincoln people come in they see a familiar face. They remember Bob when he worked at the Concord Center store and they remember Arthur. It feels like they've come home again. Even though their records were sent to another pharmacy, they just had them transferred to us to some one they recognize and they get that service. They even travel from the other side of Lincoln all the way to West Concord. But it's gone full circle.
Arthur - I retired and sold the Concord store in 1984. I sold it to John Perry and he remodeled the store. I went to work at West Concord for a short time. I was semi-retired and then Bob took over.
Bob - I was a pharmacist when he owned all five stores. So I worked all five stores at one time or another. I don't think you could do it today with five stores and give the service you want to give.
Arthur - I want to make a comment about a doctor and I don't want to mention a name who made a comment to Bob about Lincoln Plaza. There is an independent pharmacy there, but the doctor says he's going to suggest that people come to West Concord as he said sometimes things aren't just right at the Lincoln store. This was a doctor that was around when we first opened.
I sold the Weston store in 1972 or 1973. Our general manager at that time bought that store. He just retired a couple of years ago himself.
Bob - I don't think anyone in medicine really knows what the future holds for it. A lot depends on the strength of the insurance companies, how much more they are going to dictate what should be done. I think right now there's a big consumer revolt against the insurance companies because they're being too strong in dictating what the doctors should do. It's hard to say what's going to happen. But at some point I think we're going to go full circle again. Maybe in 20-25 years from now, but I think doctors are going to be able to practice and pharmacists are going to be able to practice. Our role is going to be changing into more of a consultant. We're going to have aides who will count pills and pull the bottle off the shelf, which some are using now, put the label on, bring it to the pharmacist to check it, and bring it to the patient. How far it goes that way again is going to depend on the involvement of the insurance companies. But hopefully, we will be able to go with the flow and still provide the service. I was telling someone yesterday that if I had to practice as a chain pharmacist, I couldn't do it. I've been brought up the way I do it, and I've practiced that way and I couldn't change.
When the plaza was built, there was an antique store there but it was previously the Derby farm on that land. When we first moved to Concord, we lived on Conant Street not far from Laws Brook Road and I remember the open food markets down there. There was a market up where Condon's was and there was another one down where the post office was right on Commonwealth Avenue. I remember the two markets and the 5 & 10. Thank goodness because it just ties what I'm doing together.
Arthur - The comment may be made when Bob was talking about the future of pharmacy, but when I went to college it was a four-year program before I could take my boards. Just prior to that it was a three-year program. Then when Bob started, he was in the first five-year class. Now just last year there is a pharmacy program that requires six years schooling before you can take the boards. That goes along with all the changes happening.
Bob - It has been fun following my father in the business. Every father-son combination has their times but the whole profession impressed me with the way he carried himself out and served on town boards, the board of trustees on the College of Pharmacy and I wouldn't change a thing. I enjoy the small community and practicing in a small community.
Interviewer's note: In the book, Shaping the Vision, there is a chapter on the Carr's and a comparison of running of the pharmacies in Arthur's time and currently in Bob's. (Photos of earlier days of the pharmacies are in the book Shaping the Vision by Renee Garrelick.)