Friday, October 7, 2011

On Manhattan Chain Drugstores: In Search of a Place Where Somebody Remembers Your Name

It is a weekday and I want to fill a prescription. Within three blocks of my apartment, there are now three large chain drug stores in my neighborhood, part of an ever-growing national trend that has taken over the city. Of late, whenever a neighborhood store closes down, it seems like yet another chain drug store or yet another branch of a bank or clothing store opens up in its place, bringing an all too predictable uniformity to nearly every city block.

I stop off at a CVS drug store that is a block east of where I live.

“Can you fill this script?” I ask a clerk at a pharmacy counter, which is located all the way in the back of the enormous store.

"Come back in three hours,” the put-upon clerk says.

"But why?” I ask. It is midday; it looks like there are about three pharmacists working behind the drug counter; and there are no customers waiting.

“We have other orders to fill.”

“Can’t you fill it while I wait?” I ask, knowing full well that am already too drained to return later or the next day. “I really need it right away,” I plead with her.

“You have to ask the head pharmacist,” the clerk says indifferently. “She’s on the phone.”

I wait for 15 minutes while the head pharmacist chats away on the phone without acknowledging me. Then I decide to walk away. The modus operandi of this new brand of pharmacy is inflexible: you wait, line or no line, offer up your prescription, come pack for pick-up.

On my way out, I chance upon a young man who is stocking the shelves with discounted laundry detergent.

“Where do you have Nivea lotion,” I ask him.

"I don’t know. I only stock shelves,” he tells me.

I am surprised at this employee who does not even seem to know the layout of his own store.

I walk out perplexed at this new breed of pharmacy that can't fill a prescription but offers laundry detergent at low cost. This particular store has even replaced actual people with instant checkout, leaving you with absolutely no one to help you.

I next consider going to the friendly neighborhood pharmacy about eight blocks away, that has been there for more than 100 years, and where they will fill your prescription promptly and efficiently, on the spot, and are even the purveyors of exclusive beauty products, not to mention my favorite hair clips, but right now I don’t feel quite up to making that 16-block round-trip trek in this city, where everyone has to perambulate. Other such closer options in the neighborhood have disappeared over the past five years, as small neighborhood stores closed down, a casualty of rising city rents, expensive new high-rise building developments, and the cutthroat competition of the much larger chain drug stores, which have been expanding their lines of merchandise to include groceries, candy, and even stockings, not to mention other offerings, to the point where they are beginning to resemble a sort of mini-Wal-Mart -- where the drug counter, relegated to the back of the store, functions merely as an afterthought. In fact, in recent years, the city has been starting to look like a veritable mall of Duane Reades, CVS’s, and Rite Aids and now, even a Walgreens, that has moved in as of late and acquired the New York City-based Duane Reade chain.. On Broadway, there is now one of those megastores on nearly every block. Sadly, judging from the way things are going, it looks like pharmacies, as we used to know them, will soon no longer exist, except in a different incarnation as a small section of a megastore.

I feel a sense of anomie among all these nameless clerks and pharmacies and stock boys, since no there one knows me, acknowledges me, or can be bothered to help me. I feel helpless, isolated, and very alone. Here, the unspoken rules or normal standards of customer service or decent human behavior no longer seem to apply.

As familiar neighborhood stores are displaced by these megastores, much of our daily interactions are increasingly with such strangers with whom we lack any ongoing relationship. Such stores are not vested in forging relationships in the way of the local neighborhood drug stores, where the friendly pharmacist not only knows you, but also your medical history. With their emphasis on large scale profits (and small salaries), these ubiquitous chain stores breed little loyalty on the part of their ever-changing staff, who provide indifferent service, and also contribute a humdrum uniformity to every block. When you ask for help there, no one is available or accountable. Dealing with these places is an exercise in frustration.

I waste at least 30 minutes there to no avail. I decide to go in search of a more amenable place.

I briefly consider going to a different chain drug store, a Duane Reade, about two blocks south. It is small and cramped, not to mention dirty, dingy and depressing, with the harried pharmacist in charge there, courteous but constantly in a rush, trying to run the entire counter by herself. What with the ever-changing population of clueless young assistant pharmacists -- who know little about the prescriptions they fill or about their customers, and the indifferent clerks who simply pass the time until they clock out, not to mention the endless, impatient and often rude line of customers, the place is a madhouse, particularly near rush hour, when someone inevitably will announce loudly and aggressively, “There’s a line waiting.” Getting a prescription filled in this place reminds me of Godot’s absurdist drama, where one simply waits, only to find out in the end that the store is out of stock or that one has the improper insurance authorization and that one is inevitably condemned to come back and wait in line again.

In resignation, I finally decide to check out a spanking new enormous drugstore, part of the same chain that recently opened up two blocks north.

To my surprise, I find a pleasant young woman who greets me at the counter, with a bright smile that lights up her face. “Hello, can I help you,” she says in a friendly and cordial manner.

I am relieved to come across her in this city where no one ever seems to smile and shopkeepers no longer say "Hello."

“Can you fill this prescription now?” is my inevitable query.

“Of course we can,” she says, noting my fatigue and distress, as she steps away to consult with the pharmacist, and completes the process within a few minutes. The simple courtesy of this gentle and slender young pharmacy clerk makes me want to return.

Her name is Mariah.

"How are you doing?” she greets me in a dignified and respectful way the next time I see her, actually addressing me by my name.

I looked up at her, amazed. In this era of indifferent service, she has won my loyalty. I even ask her what her hours are, and jot them down, in order to make my life in this city of strangers simpler. I am certainly hoping she stays there for a while.

Sure enough, when I later look up this pharmacy online in “Yelp,” one reviewer gives it 5 stars. “Pretty implausible,” the reviewer says sardonically about giving a store of this particular chain -- that New Yorkers love to hate -- a 5-star rating, “except that the staff (at the drugstore counter) is so helpful and fantastic they make up for the ‘irritation’ of shopping there.”

I guess that goes to say that a small thing like a person doing his or her job with courtesy and concern even at a counter now incongruously delegated to the back of a megastore does indeed make a real difference.