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Halethorpe Pharmacy closing after more than a century: 'The entire community pharmacy sector is under siege'

The Halethorpe Pharmacy, a staple in the community for more than 100 years, is closing its doors for the final time April 23, as the owner cited the difficulty in operating an independent pharmacy nowadays.

Owner-pharmacist George Garmer announced in a long, heartfelt letter posted on Facebook about two weeks ago that the store would close. Garmer has owned the store since 2000 and also runs a drugstore in Essex (Independent Drug), which he plans to close April 25.

Garmer said the decision was difficult, especially because the business had been part of the community for so long and he had gotten to know so many of his customers.

“[Catonsville] is where I grew up,” he said. “The customers that came into the pharmacy … many of them are people I went to grade school with and to high school with. Both of my parents taught at Cardinal Gibbons.”

The problem, Garmer said, and also wrote in his Facebook post, was how difficult it has become for independent pharmacies to operate profitably because of the power of large corporations and federal government indifference.

“More and more often, we are paid at or below our cost when we fill your prescriptions,” he wrote on Facebook. “Independent pharmacies like ours are going out of business all over the country. The blame for this lies squarely with our federal government. Members of both parties have turned a blind eye while giant corporations pocket your Medicare tax dollars as their profits and bully small businesses like us out of existence.”

Florida-based Brad Tice, president of the American Pharmacists Association (APhA), said that the chain pharmacies can survive because they can absorb costs across the board.

The independent pharmacies simply can’t do that.

“The entire community pharmacy sector is under siege,” he said. “This is happening across the country right now. It’s going to be harder for all community pharmacies to last.”

Garmer had to deal with one more difficult issue when announcing the Halethorpe store’s closure. Somehow, word got posted on Facebook that the store was closing because it had been robbed too many times.

He said the claim was false; the store was robbed once in his 19 years in charge. But that rumor forced Garmer to post the press release earlier than anticipated. He had hoped to have face-to-face conversations with the people who worked with and for him. Each drugstore had 19 employees.

“That really added to the stress of last week,” Garmer said. “It’s disappointing that someone would do something like that. But that’s the [way things are] today. People post all kinds of stuff.”

Garmer said that the Halethorpe Pharmacy is going to merge with the Rite Aid store on Sulphur Spring Road in Arbutus. The records from his store are headed to that store, and many of Garmer’s staff will work there.

Meanwhile, his Essex pharmacy is merging with a local Walgreens. Garmer himself is applying for a Walgreens job.

Still, closing Halethorpe clearly was painful. The angst could be heard in Garmer’s voice, and if the Facebook comments are an indication, the store’s customers — Garmer expected to fill his one millionth prescription this past Friday or Saturday — will miss his staff and the business. Customer Dawn Vonella, for example, wrote: “So sad and sorry to hear this … I’ve loved this pharmacy and the people who worked there. Great service and loved the hometown atmosphere … You will be missed!!!

Garmer is proud of the standing his business held in the community.

“We put together an amazing group of people,” he said. “My employees are the best. They know how to care for people. It’s a real shame that that’s going away in the community.”

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