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Chain reaction: an old pharmacy closes in Vermont

Lisa Purvis waved enthusiastically to Woodstock Pharmacy employee Sarah F. Lamb on Saturday, the last day in operation for the 167-year-old store. Purvis was a regular for more than 20 years. She will miss the "kindness, wisdom, and unbelievable customer service," the pharmacy provided. "There will now be a huge void in town."
Lisa Purvis waved enthusiastically to Woodstock Pharmacy employee Sarah F. Lamb on Saturday, the last day in operation for the 167-year-old store. Purvis was a regular for more than 20 years. She will miss the "kindness, wisdom, and unbelievable customer service," the pharmacy provided. "There will now be a huge void in town."Tara Wray

WOODSTOCK, Vt. — The leaf peepers were everywhere last Saturday.

Out-of-state license plates, most of them from Massachusetts, New York, and New Jersey, lined Central Street and the tree-lined byways that run off it.

Hoping a good foliage season would undo some of the economic damage wrought by the pandemic, merchants in this iconic New England town were glad to have the tourists, as long as customers wore masks and kept their distance.

In the middle of Woodstock Village, a dozen people hankering for ice cream waited to get into Mountain Creamery, home of the Mile High Apple Pie, which Boris and Sheila Pilsmaker opened on Central Street 33 years ago.

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Diners filled the sidewalk tables at Dr. Coburn’s Tonic, which opened in place of Bentley’s, the restaurant that had stood in the middle of the village for some four decades before closing last year.

On Elm Street, the line outside the Vermont Flannel Co., which Mark and Linda Baker founded some 30 years ago, was 20 deep.

There were almost as many people in line across the street outside F.H. Gillingham & Sons general store, which the Billings family has run since 1886.

At the only business in the village older than Gillingham’s, there was no line. The Woodstock Pharmacy, which opened 167 years ago closed its doors for good at 5 p.m. Saturday. The tourists didn’t notice, but the locals sure did.

The pharmacy was a quirky place. It was as much a toy store as a drug store. The basement floor was filled with toys. They carried all the newspapers, and old-timers remember when it had a soda fountain.

Because its roots are so long and so deep in the community, it was a place to go to get the local gossip as much as a prescription. Vera Bradley handbags sat in one window, while the others were lined with toys. Around Christmastime, the pharmacy was a kid’s idea of heaven.

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Gary Smith, who owned and operated the pharmacy for more than 45 years, and whose family had it for more than 60 years, had been trying to sell the business for several years. A deal to sell to local owners fell through. Smith eventually sold his business to CVS, which, as part of a trend that has killed independent drug stores everywhere, took the prescription list but not the store, leaving the town without a pharmacy for the first time since before the Civil War.

To say that the majority of people in Woodstock are hostile to chain stores is an understatement. After the other pharmacy in Woodstock, the Shire Apothecary, closed in 2013, Rite Aid floated the idea of opening a store in town. The town said thanks but no thanks.

“We have no chain stores here,” said Jeffrey Kahn, chairman of Woodstock’s Board of Village Trustees. “We’re losing our mom and pop stores, and they are a big part of what makes Woodstock special.”

Beyond keeping the character of the colonial village intact is the practical matter of people who live in the Kedron Valley having to drive a half-hour east to West Lebanon, N.H., or 45 minutes west to Rutland to find the nearest pharmacy.

For the elderly, especially, the thought of navigating busy, winding Route 4 is hardly appealing. Heading a half-hour north to the Rite Aid in Bethel is no bargain, either.

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“It’s really a burden on our older residents, especially,” said Kahn, who runs the Unicorn gift store two doors down from the pharmacy.

That problem will hopefully be alleviated by the end of the year. A Vermont company that owns pharmacies in four other locations has proposed to open a small pharmacy at the Ottauquechee Health Center in town.

Kahn says the fate of the retail space left vacant by the Woodstock Pharmacy’s closure is on many local minds. A part of what makes a community real is at stake.

“I just hope they lease the space to some kind of locally run business,” he said.


Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at kevin.cullen@globe.com.