For many of its longtime customers, the letter arrived April 24 announcing the demise of Meadowbrook Pharmacy after more than 60 years at the corner of Barracks Road and Emmet Street. And the sadness at the loss of one of Charlottesville’s two independent pharmacies was not assuaged with news that a CVS would be opening on the same corner.
“They’re being forced out,” says customer Ruth Rooks. “A lot of people are extremely upset. My whole family is grieving. Nobody wants to go to CVS.”
Says Rooks, “I think a lot of people in town would greatly prefer to deal with a family-owned business.”
Owner Willie Lamar is too busy to talk to reporters during business hours, especially with the stream of clients coming into the store to express their dismay about the store’s closing. When he finally gets a break at the end of the day, he says, “I knew the lease was not going to be renewed.”
Lamar, 61, comes from a pharmacy family—his parents own one in Madison, and he’s a partner in independent stores in Stanardsville and Orange. He bought Meadowbrook Pharmacy July 1, 1983.
“I haven’t found a space where the logistics would work,” he says, when asked about relocating. “It takes a year or two to get a business going, and by then I would be bumping up against retirement.”
The store was known for free delivery of prescriptions, and its uncommon offerings of gifts like the wear-it-three-ways beach cover-up, New Yorker greeting cards and children’s books. “It was not just a pharmacy,” says Rooks. “It was a lovely place and fun to go in.”
Clara Belle Wheeler owns the Meadowbrook Shopping Center, which was built by her father, and she goes to the pharmacy when she needs a hostess gift or Christmas present. “My father did all his Christmas shopping on Christmas Eve at Meadowbrook Pharmacy,” she recalls.
“There used to be a soda fountain,” she says. “I’d go in and get a chocolate fudge sundae.”
But those soda fountain days are long gone, and Wheeler has been trying to redevelop that primo corner, which housed local institutions the Carriage Food House and the Tavern, for years.
“Ever since CVS and I have been in negotiations since maybe 2000, it’s been up and down,” she says. But during that time, “I have been in contact, discussion and consultation with Willie Lamar. He has been a wonderful tenant. It was never a matter of pushing someone away.”
She says Lamar, who lives in Madison, told her the last time he signed a five-year lease, “I’m tired of running up and down the road. I’ve got these other businesses.”
And she insists, “In no way was there any bullying in these negotiations. Every time I met with CVS, I always said at the beginning and the end, ‘CVS must negotiate a suitable buyout with Meadowbrook Pharmacy that’s acceptable to Mr. Lamar or we won’t have a deal. Do I make myself clear?’”
“I’ve got no problem with Clara Belle,” says Lamar.
But while Wheeler declines to confirm whether CVS demanded no competing pharmacies on the site, Lamar does. “For CVS to enter into a lease, the requirement was that my lease not be renewed,” he says.
The last day to get a prescription filled is May 8, and then Lamar will transfer all of his current files, prescription records and inventory to the CVS at Barracks Road Shopping Center. “In the pharmacy business,” he explains, “you can’t just close. Then people can’t get their records.”
Customer Christine Davis does not want her family’s records to go to CVS. “I don’t necessarily want a large corporation having access to my records,” she says. “I don’t feel CVS should be able to buy my medical records without my consent.”
The new, nearly 13,000-square-foot CVS, one of 9,700 stores nationally, is expected to open in March 2019, according to a CVS spokesperson.
The Planning Commission has granted the project entrance corridor approval. Next up will be site plan approval. And before any ground gets broken, the market, Tavern and ALC Copies buildings will be demolished.
The strip mall center that houses the pharmacy, Cottonwood fabrics store and El Puerto restaurant is not going anywhere, stresses Wheeler.
As for the “grassy knoll”—the one-acre parcel where Wheeler tried to build a mixed-use building with underground parking that was nixed by the city—“I can’t tell you what’s going to happen,” she says. “They authorize nine-story buildings on Main Street, but not four-and-a-half stories on this site. They say they want mixed use, so I don’t understand.”
The Meadowbrook Pharmacy closure leaves Timberlake’s Drug Store the last independent standing in Charlottesville. “I was a little surprised,” says its pharmacist, David Plantz. “I knew CVS was coming in but I thought they’d relocate.”
He says rumors that Timberlake’s is for sale are just that, and he expects his business to grow with the Meadowbrook customers he’s heard from who are moving their prescription filling.
Back at Meadowbrook a couple of days after the closing was announced, customers continue to mourn the loss of their pharmacy. A woman tells Sandy Davis, one of Lamar’s nine employees, how much they’ll be missed, and Davis wipes tears from her eyes.