Present-day Morgan’s Pharmacy. 2012 is the drug store’s 100th anniversary.
Pharmacist Barry Deutschman has owned Morgan's Pharmacy, in Georgetown, since 1992. He keeps a slew of Morgan's memorabilia in the drugstore's back office - like a receipt for a delivery to the White House, for Jacqueline Kennedy.
"This receipt was auctioned off at Sotheby's," Deutschman says. "But one of the neighbors' sons worked at Sotheby's and made a copy of the receipt so that we could have it."
Among the items on the hand-scrawled slip of paper are Aspirin, "Almay Face," "spot strips" and Revlon nail polish. The total delivery, with federal and state tax, comes to $8.17. But the pharmacy's history actually extends well beyond the Kennedy administration. In fact, it was 100 years ago that Malcolm and Harold Morgan first opened their doors on the corner of 30th and P Streets.
"This is what the store looked like in 1912," Deutschman says, gazing at an old photogravure. "You can see the same fixtures going down both sides of the store, the soda fountain. In 1912, the drink that they served the most was either Coca-Cola, or Two-Cents Plain, which was just seltzer water. Today the biggest seller in the cooler is no longer Coke. It's seltzer! We go back to the future, so to speak."
Changes in time... but the same friendly service
But not everything is new again at Morgan's. The drugstore's products have expanded and diversified. The original black exterior is now a minty-green. And certain customer habits have gone up in smoke, such as the tendency for them to light up cigarettes inside the store, as you can see in one of Deutschman's photos from the 1950s.
It's true, though, much has stayed the same at Morgan's over the past century. The store still does deliveries: a couple-hundred a week. It still offers personal charge accounts. And, says staff member Dave Ibinson, it's still a place where everybody knows your name.
"Probably 90 percent of our clientele is a return customer," he says. "So that in itself is something you don't get elsewhere."
And Ibinson knows all about "getting" stuff; he's the store's buyer and merchandiser. Right now, he's going through a set of old wooden drawers where customers can find all sorts of goods; the drawers, by the way, probably date back to the 1910s or 20s.
"You name it, you can find it," he says. "And if you can't, we'll get it for you. We aim to please."
Manager Maurice Brown agrees.
"It's our customers; we take care of them," he says. "It's like a big family, and that's pretty special. Because these places aren't around anymore! You know, all the big-box stores come in, and get rid of all the little guys."
Independent vs. Big-Box
Well, not all "the little guys." The National Community Pharmacists Association says upwards of 20,000 independent pharmacies still exist in the U.S. In the 1980s, it was more like 40,000. And that's approximately the number of chain drug stores today, according to the National Association of Chain Drug Stores. That's up from 30,000 in the late 90s.
But Deutschman insists, when it comes to those big chains, "competition in itself was never really a problem."
What has been a problem, he says, is the health-care system. Since he graduated from the now-defunct George Washington University School of Pharmacy in 1958, he's watched reimbursements from private and government third-party payers shrink, and he's watched prescription prices rise.
"I did work here in the 70s, part-time," he says, "and you filled a prescription and you made a fair profit, but the average price of a prescription was maybe $25 maximum. Well, today, prescriptions are very expensive, especially brand name drugs."
Then, of course, there's been the growth of Pharmacy Benefit Managers, or PBMs: huge companies like Caremark and Medco, which administer nearly every prescription drug insurance plan in the U.S.
"Customers don't understand when insurance companies don't want to pay for a specific drug," Deutschman explains. "And they'll say, 'but that's what my doctor wants me to have!' And unfortunately that's not what the insurance company wants you to have! So, you have to go through the process of a prior authorization. And that can take anywhere from 24 hours to three or four days, or total rejection!"
Which is why Deutschman's goal is to help customers navigate the system, "and fight the hurdles and the maze of getting through that," he says. "That's one thing independents can still afford to give, and that's the time and the energy and the service."
Morgan's, he says, can give something else, too: 100 years of colorful history. One of his favorite moments was when Julia Child came to town, to work with some chefs at the Smithsonian.
"She walks in one day and I looked at her and I said, 'Well, hello, Ms. Child! How are you? What a pleasant surprise to have you come into Morgan's!,'" Deutschman recalls. "And she said, 'Well, I need some help!' I said, 'What's that?' She said, 'I need some Tums for the tummy!' So, that's a story I like to tell."
Deutschman has collected decades of stories by now. But he says he's not taking off his crisp, white, Morgan's Pharmacy button-down any time soon.
"I have no plans of retiring," he says. "I love what I do. I've always considered myself a people person, so I love being around people. I love talking with people. I mean, what more could I want?"
Only he knows the answer to that question. But whatever it is, chances are he can find it at Morgan's. After all, they aim to please.
[Music: "I Got You (I Feel Good)" by Quincy Jones from Reprise! When Pop Meets Jazz Vol. 3]
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