West Baltimore CVS, destroyed in riot, reopens

Eleven months after it was looted and burned in a riot, the Penn-North CVS/Pharmacy has reopened.

The looting and torching of the Penn-North CVS/Pharmacy last April inconvenienced some residents of the impoverished West Baltimore neighborhood much more than Christine Bailey. Many elderly patients, for example, were deprived of their medications.

But Bailey, 55, who lives on North Fulton Avenue, spent the last summer and winter missing the 77-cent cans of tuna fish the store carried.

So when the store reopened Sunday morning, with little fanfare aside from two big "NOW OPEN" banners, Bailey dropped a can into her cart, along with soap, tea, mouthwash and a daily planner.

She recalled the looting and arson — "an opportunist move," she said — and shook her head.

"It didn't have a damned thing to do with Freddie Gray," Bailey said.

"They just burned me out of my 77-cent tuna," she said. "I know it sounds insensitive, but when you're down to the last dollar and pay day is a day away, you can always run to CVS and find something."

Gray, 25, died last April after suffering a severe spinal cord injury in police custody. On the day he was buried, the city erupted in riots, looting and arson. The burning CVS at the intersection of Pennsylvania and North avenues became perhaps the most recognizable image of one of Baltimore's darkest days.

In the months since, the building was knocked down and rebuilt. On Sunday, the company's bright red block letters beamed down from the outside walls of the corner drugstore. Shelves inside were packed with diapers, food, "Frozen"-themed Easter baskets, magazines, curling irons, toothpaste, makeup, greeting cards and everything else.

Haywood McMorris, the store's 29-year-old manager, has worked at the Penn-North location for five years. He said he knows 70 percent of the customers, and shook hands with several people picking up prescriptions and groceries Sunday morning.

"I had a gut feeling that God was with us," McMorris said. "I knew we were going to open the store back up."

Once the builders turned the store over to CVS, McMorris said, it took about three weeks to stock the shelves and reopen.

The store celebrated a soft opening Sunday instead of waiting for an official ribbon-cutting because the company wanted to get it up and running as soon as possible, CVS district manager Scott P. Staso said.

Employees who were working there when it was burned were given posts at neighboring CVS locations until it reopened, Staso said.

Most returned for the reopening, he said, and some from other stores requested to be reassigned to Penn-North because they wanted to work in the new one.

Reopening was "a no-brainer," Staso said. "There's a lot of excitement and positive energy."

Jody Pranke, 41, who lives in the Gilmor Homes public housing complex, waited in line to buy dish soap, hair spray and some Cadbury Creme Eggs on Sunday. Gray grew up in the Gilmor Homes, and was arrested outside the complex.

The CVS is a 10-minute walk from Pranke's door. The store is both her pharmacy and a convenient place to get food and everyday household items.

When it closed, Prank said, she had to catch the subway or a bus to get her heart medicine.

"I'm happy they opened up," she said. "It's convenient for people that don't have access to a car."

MacArthur Jackson, 64, who lives on Calhoun Street, said he uses the CVS mainly for its pharmacy. He had been going to the Mondawmin Rite Aide since April.

As he waited at the CVS pharmacy counter to transfer his prescriptions back, he eyed a rack of discount household items.

"My wife comes in here and gets what she wants," Jackson said, and laughed. "They've got a sale. I'll let her know. She'll be in here."

Jackson, who has lived in the area for 30 years, said he comes into the CVS all the time.

"It looks beautiful to me," he said, surveying the new store. "I love it."

William Emerson, 75, a musician who goes by the name "Abu the flute maker," celebrated the reopening by playing on the front sidewalk near the door.

Emerson sang and played a homemade "plumberphone" forged out of PVC pipe and a guitar made out of a clock. He was accompanied by a backing track and his friend Robert "Kaki" McQueen playing a djembe drum.

"I'm a Sandtownian," Emerson said. "I've been coming to this CVS for years."

He said he was most happy for the seniors who live in the building next to the store.

"It's a treasure to them," he said. "It takes the burden off the seniors over here. It's a saving grace to many of these people. I volunteered them a grand opening, because it is grand."

cmcampbell@baltsun.com

twitter.com/cmcampbell6

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