News & Media

Family-owned pharmacy decides it’s time to sell

By Diane Mastrull
Monday, July 22, 2013

A pharmacist since 1965, Dick Brown knows the remedies for a lot of things. So the 70-year-old Chester County businessman self-prescribed recently after assessing market conditions and coming up with what he found to be an unappealing prognosis for independent pharmacy owners like himself. His Rx: Sell and retire. That, in addition to his wanting some time for tennis, golf, and other fun while his body is willing to oblige, is why Parkesburg (population 3,600) will no longer see the Longenecker Pharmacy sign at the Parkesburg Shopping Center. The store was to reopen Monday as a CVS.

And so passes another family-owned business perceived by the community it serves as more than a commercial enterprise. “When I got sick, I received a get-well card and everyone in the pharmacy signed it,” Donna DiFerdinando of East Fallowfield, a Longenecker customer for more than 20 years, recalled recently on one of her weekly visits. She was taking advantage of markdowns on gifts, candy, and other nonmedicinal products that filled the bulk of the pharmacy’s 8,000 square feet.

She characterized the end of Longenecker – which even weathered a fire-related temporary relocation in 2005 – as “really, really sad.” Brown called it “kind of bittersweet,” his retirement prompted, he said, by daunting competitive forces such as mail-order pharmacies, declining insurance reimbursements, and rule changes by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

For example, per CMS rules as of July 1, pharmacies can no longer deliver diabetes testing strips to Medicare patients, Brown said – they must get them either through the mail or by going to a drugstore. Longenecker offered home delivery to better serve the area’s elderly population. Independent pharmacy operators don’t have the clout needed to overturn harmful business regulations, he said, a maddening lack of standing for a profession that could help reduce health-care costs by counseling customers on prescription use or the how-tos of health-monitoring equipment. “But nobody reimburses us” for that kind of labor-intensive work, Brown said, his frustration evident. “You want to help your patients, but the insurance companies don’t care.”

Three weeks earlier, Brown and wife Debbie, his business partner, broke the news to their 42 employees, many of whom had worked for them at least 15 years, that they were giving up the pharmacy. There were lots of tears, Debbie Brown said: “It’s almost like a death.” (Seven miles away in Gap, a Longenecker branch that primarily serves nursing homes will continue under the leadership of the couple’s pharmacist daughter Michele until a buyer is found.) The Browns have been married 39 years. Their working relationship is even longer.

At 60, Debbie Brown is 10 years younger than her husband and worked for him soon after he bought the original Longenecker Pharmacy in Christiana, Lancaster County, from Herbert Longenecker in 1968. She was a student then at Octorara High School in Atglen. They married in 1974 and Debbie rejoined Dick in the pharmacy business in 1984, after their children reached school age. By that time, Longenecker, founded in the 1940s, had relocated to downtown Parkesburg. The move to a shopping center on the outskirts of town came in 1988. Longenecker left an already flagging downtown district to join what the Browns thought would be a good draw, an Acme Market. “I figured I had to do that because, if I didn’t, the chains would probably come in,” Dick Brown said.

That proved to be an ironic concern, given his sale to the 7,400-store CVS chain, with 400 stores in Pennsylvania. The Rhode Island-based company converts about 200 independently owned pharmacies to CVS stores a year, said spokesman Mike DeAngelis, and it saw in Longenecker “an opportunity to grow our business and help make this an easy transition for Longenecker customers.”

Job offers have been made to most of the current Longenecker employees, DeAngelis said. “Customers will see the same faces taking care of them as they have in the past,” he added. It’s not clear whether that will include Mr. and Mrs. Claus and the Easter Bunny, who have been making holiday appearances at Longenecker for years, to the delight of generations of children and their parents. “There’s nothing preventing those from continuing,” DeAngelis said.

What won’t continue, at least immediately, is the home-delivery service. That’s partly because the employee who’s done it for the last nine years is hanging up his keys. “I need a break,” said Ron Hilton, 65, of Cochranville. Those workers who remain can only hope he continues to bake for them. Hilton’s sticky buns and apple cake were legendary at Longenecker.