Hailer’s Drug Store

 From Jamaica Plain Historical Society archives

From Jamaica Plain Historical Society archives

Hailer’s Drug Store, one of the oldest retail landmarks in Jamaica Plain, shut its doors for the last time Monday. The unexpected closing caught customers by surprise as owner Steve Grossman broke the news to his many friends who have considered the pharmacy an indispensible anchor to both the past and present.

“This is the end of an era,” said a shocked Penny Pimentel, who works across the street at the Arts Center. “An important part of Centre Street’s personality has just been dissected out of Jamaica Plain. The breadth of supplies this store carries and the friendship of Steve and his staff will be sorely missed.”

Grossman explained he was not able to let people know before Monday what was happening because he was privately negotiating with CVS to buy out his customer list. The chain will take care of anyone who has been dealing with Hailer’s, and the phone number will also be transferred to CVS.

He said a combination of factors led to his decision to call it quits. “We have seen the handwriting on the wall for a long time, but the final nail in the coffin has been the exclusive contracts between health groups and big [pharmacy] chains - along with mail order prescriptions,” Grossman lamented. “We were, in effect, locked out of the system and just could not compete.”

Grossman said Hailer’s was the last independent pharmacy in Jamaica Plain. “My wholesaler told me he has seen over 60 independents close in recent years, and unfortunately, this seems to be a trend across the country.”

For independent owners like Grossman, the only alternative now is to lock the doors and say good-bye. “When my father, Saul, took over the business in 1948 (then called Arborway Pharmacy) there were prescription files that went back to 1831,” Grossman said. “In 1966 we moved from the corner of South and Rosemary, to Brighton - and then in 1970, back to Jamaica Plain. After dad passed away in 1985, I became the sole owner.

“This store has been like a living, breathing member of our family. But recently it has been like watching a loved one on life support. I guess I feel both relief and grief that it’s finally over. My lawyer says the store turned from a business, to a hobby, to a charity. I guess he’s right. And today is our wake.”

As Grossman broke the bad news to customers and friends, John Donovan - the former owner of Roger’s pharmacy - helped out filling prescriptions in the back of the store. Donovan, who said he spent 42 years in the business, gave it up in 1978 after enduring one too many robberies. Alongside Donovan, another former owner, Frank Hojlo - who gave up Smith’s Pharmacy for the same reason, exactly four years to the day before Hailer’s closing - stood by his two long-time friends. Together the three men represented over 137 years of neighborhood service.

“You know, we used to have 18 independent pharmacies between Jackson Square and Forest Hills,” Hojlo said. “Hailer’s was the last of the Mohicans. It’s a real shame. We have lost the personal contact of the local pharmacy that knew your family, cashed your check and delivered prescriptions in the middle of the night to folks who couldn’t get out of bed.”

Those days may be gone forever, but Steve Grossman’s customers and friends insist that kind of service will not be forgotten.

“Coming here is a personal thing,” said Paul Peccia, a customer of more than 35 years. “Small stores like this are much friendlier. You always knew you could call Steve up in an emergency. I’m really sad to see him go.”

When hearing the news, Anna Shea reminisced about the days she brought her daughter to the store in her baby carriage. Now she has her own family in Wrentham. And guess what? She still comes to Hailer’s because she likes Steve so much.

“It’s like home here,” she said. “You could come in, sit down, and meet your neighbors. I just feel terrible. Steve went out of his way for people. I wish him the best of luck.”

Leroy Balbanis, whose family used the store since its days at South and Rosemary, said he felt like he suddenly lost a good friend. “I’m going to miss everyone who worked here. This is really sad. I remember Steve’s father. A good man. The whole family was the salt of the earth.”

“Saul’s family are regular, good neighborhood people,” agreed John LeClair, who also remembers the South Street store. “It’s a big loss to the community. I’m going to miss Steve, Edna and Loraine. And coming here to shoot the breeze. You can’t do that at CVS.”

As LeClair stood up, he looked around the store for one last time. “I wish Steve and his new bride the best,” he said.

Grossman, who was married four months ago, said he has no plans as yet, and only wants to “cool out” for a while. “We are going to visit Jennifer’s family and relax,” Grossman said. His wife is a professor at the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy.

“This is a very emotional time for me,” he continued after taking a deep breath. “All the friendship and gratitude. And the mosaic of memories from so many years, it’s all around here.”

As for the future of the space occupied by Hailer’s since 1970, Jamaica Plain Business and Professional Association president Bob Shortsleeve said he hopes the next store fills the community’s needs, and not just duplicates existing businesses to pay the rent.

“I feel bad losing someone like Steve, whose family has invested so much in the neighborhood,” said Shortsleeve. “These are the kind of people who support the little leagues, the Arts Center, and other local initiatives. I hope the new owner has the same commitment.”

One suggestion Shortsleeve said he could support is a bookstore. “Steve’s variety of books and international magazines was always welcomed. I don’t know if the space is large enough, but it would be nice if it happens.”

Saying the Business Association should be a catalyst, not a control, Shortsleeve disclosed his group “will definitely communicate with the building’s owner concerning the tenant selection.”

But for residents like Fareedah Nu-Man, the thought of another store at the corner of Centre and Seaverns is too painful to consider at the moment. With tears running down her cheeks after she found out the pharmacy was closing, Nu-Man declared, “Nothing will take the place of Hailer’s. And no one can replace Steve. This really hurts.”

By John Swan

Originally published in the December 3, 1993 issue of the Jamaica Plain Gazette. Copyright © Jamaica Plain Gazette. All Rights Reserved. Used with permission. Production assistance provided by Monica Salas.