These Local, Independent Pharmacies Are Still Going Strong

The last mom-and-pop pharmacies have survived by offering old-fashioned customer care served up by a friendly face of wellness – in the mold of the legendary late ‘Dr. Carter.’

Susan Rebholz has been walking through the doors of what’s now called North Shore Pharmacy for nearly 70 years. Wendy Henning has been a customer for 46.

Such long-standing customer relationships are a rarity in the drugstore business today. The national chains on seemingly every corner are so focused on speed and convenience that we accept this new norm and even ask, “Is there an app for that?” (There is.)  

But there are a handful of mom-and-pop-style drugstores in metro Milwaukee with friendly pharmacists working to maintain the old-fashioned, more personal ways of patient care. The longest-standing of these have a combined 194 years of service: North Shore Pharmacy (formerly Thompson’s), 90 years in Shorewood; Milwaukee Pharmacy (aka Carter Drug Store),
54 years on the city’s North Side; and Swan Serv-U Pharmacy, 50 years in Wauwatosa. They’re survivors among a beloved group of businesses that now exist only in memories: Hayek’s Pharmacy, Brady Street Pharmacy, Oriental Pharmacy. 

North Shore Pharmacy owner Kyle Beyer chats with Susan Rebholz, a customer of the Shorewood pharmacy for nearly 70 years; Photo by Sara Stathas

 

But despite the old-world charm, time and progress have demanded change of these community institutions that remain. They’ve upgraded their technological systems, made physical renovations and in some cases transitioned to new ownership to stay competitive. To Randy Dawes, co-owner of Swan Serv-U, it’s not about little trinkets or rock candy on the shelves or bottles of iodine from 1955. “Where the old-world charm comes back is with your service, with that connection, and that’s really the charm of the place,” Dawes concludes. 

In 2020, North Shore changed its name to reflect the people it served including residents in the North Shore as well as nearby areas like Riverwest. “While the Thompson’s Serv-U name was very well-known in the Shorewood community … we wanted to be seen more as a regional destination,” says Kyle Beyer, owner of North Shore Pharmacy. 

Beyer also upgraded the pharmacy, a once dimly lit space with low ceilings that hadn’t been remodeled since the 1980s. It maintains the 1949 footprint of its original structure built after moving from its first location on East Capitol Drive and North

Morris Boulevard. Henning remembers her doctor being frustrated with her home pharmacy because he couldn’t send her prescriptions there electronically. “It didn’t have an overwhelming feeling of technology, [and] the decor wasn’t up to date, but that’s what I liked about it,” Henning says. Now, North Shore Pharmacy has modern technology to maintain efficiency and has transformed an area that was “dead space” into an immunization room that’s used daily as a significant part of their business.


I’VE LONG BEEN FASCINATED by the charm of the small local pharmacies, and you can’t tell that story without Lester Carter Jr., the first Black pharmacy owner in Milwaukee and a treasure and trailblazer to those who knew him or his reputation. But during reporting for this story – before I got to interview him – this living legend was called home. “Dr. Carter,” as he was affectionately known by generations of North Siders, died on Jan. 31, leaving a void in a Milwaukee community that had come to know, love and depend on him.  

Growing up Black in Milwaukee meant if you were ever vexed with an unshakeable ailment, someone would eventually suggest, “You should go to Dr. Carter; he’ll fix it!” He was the icon for friendly neighborhood pharmacists, greeting customers with his trademark bowtie and disarming smile. Carter became known for whipping up herbal remedies on the spot for his patients. He was a master at his craft and shared his wisdom with others whenever he could, including speaking at pharmacy and medical schools nationwide.  

Some of Lester Carter’s one-of-a-kind natural remedies; Photo by Barbara J. Miner

“The thing about Dr. Carter that I must stress is that it wasn’t just that he was a pharmacist in the 53206 ZIP code, but as a professional he was one of the best here in Wisconsin, spoken of highly all across the state,” says Ald. Khalif Rainey, who grew up just a few blocks down the street from Carter Drug Store and whose grandmother was a customer of Carter’s. “Everybody had a Dr. Carter story.” 

One of Milwaukee’s first Black pharmacists, he owned and managed Carter Drug Store on West Burleigh Street for nearly 50 years, quickly becoming a father figure in what became known as the Amani neighborhood. To the Black community, he was the miracle worker on Burleigh who was trusted to cure nagging health woes. With precious few pharmacists of color to confide in – or none at all – Carter was a beacon of light, welcoming those who may have felt misunderstood or stigmatized for their lifestyle, culture or circumstances. Impassioned to heal, Carter developed a dozen or so signature formulas, from eczema cream and oils to combat hair loss to cough syrups and treatment for razor bumps, a common problem in black skin.

“Everybody would try all these traditional things, and when those didn’t work, people would go to Dr. Carter,” says Ramel Kweku Akyirefi Smith, a psychologist and director at Elite Performer Integrative Coaching and Counseling. Smith’s family had been going to Carter for four generations – his grandparents down to his children have all received care from Carter. 

Carter brimmed with so much knowledge on healthy living, advocating for natural healing and nutritious food choices, that he could’ve written the book on it – which he did, at age 85. Healing the Human Body with God’s Remedies was published in 2017. 

A year later, Rainey led an effort to celebrate Carter with an honorary street sign in his name on North 24th Street. In the aftermath of Carter’s death, Rainey has proposed making Dr. Lester Carter Drive the official name of the eight blocks of 24th between Keefe Avenue and Center Street. The renaming would put his drugstore at the corner of Burleigh and Carter.  

Yolanda Tolson, managing pharmacist at St. Vincent de Paul Charitable Pharmacy in Madison, the only such pharmacy in Wisconsin, met Carter about 20 years ago when she was a budding pharmacist at UW-Madison. She bonded with him over their shared struggle of being “othered” as Black pharmacy students in college; despite a 40-year gap between their time at school, racism and discrimination persisted at predominantly white universities.  

Carter Drug Store, 2014; Photo by Barbara J. Miner

“I’m just in awe of him because I know it wasn’t easy for him, but he still maintained a level of dignity,” says Tolson, pointing out his persistence in the face of such challenges. “He did what he needed to do to be able to do what he needed to do and, as a result, so many people have benefited from his work.” 

After being discharged from the Navy, Carter used the GI Bill to attend the School of Pharmacy at Creighton University, and graduated in 1958. 

He eventually moved to Milwaukee, and, in 1968, bought the pharmacy on Burleigh in what was then a predominantly German neighborhood. Over the years Carter has told the story of how he used the German “guten morgen” instead of “good morning” to greet – and win over – the skeptical white residents. Neighborhood women began to bring Carter homemade bakery during their visits.

Over the decades, the influx of new immigrant families, the Great Migration and white flight would transform the neighborhood drastically; more recently, the 53206 ZIP code has become notorious for its high levels of poverty, crime, joblessness and drug abuse. But it is where Carter, like many other community advocates within the area, decided to stay, work and proudly serve until his death at 90 years old. 

A Fly on the Wall of a Bygone Drugstore 

Local writer and MilMag contributor Tea Krulos fondly recalls the quirky co-workers and regulars he met while working at Brady Street Pharmacy on and off for 10 years before it closed in 2010. Last December, VA Press published Brady Street Pharmacy: Stories and Sketches, Krulos’ collection of tales and artwork depicting those characters.

Check it out at bit.ly/BradyPharm.

Through it all, Carter’s charisma knew no limits. “What I loved about him is that he could go in the hood or the medical college, and everybody would be in awe,” says Smith. He recalled how Carter connected with others through generosity, like giving Smith’s children books to read on Black history. “For me, to go from being introduced to him by my grandfather to introducing him to my children … it’s a gift,” he says. 

Pharmacists like Carter become a part of the fabric of people’s lives and the communities they serve, dispensing inspiration and friendly conversation as much as pills and ointments. 

“He was part of the old guard, where the community pharmacist was truly that pillar of the community, working with families from the cradle to the grave,” says Tolson. “Working with families over the generations, you have that relationship and you have that trust.” 


THEY MAY NOT HAVE STREETS NAMED after their owners, but the independent pharmacies in Milwaukee’s suburbs also understand that the communities they serve come first. Beyer notes that patient needs can vary widely depending on a drugstore’s location, due to demographics or insurance coverage. “So much of the care we provide is local to the community that we live in, that we work in, that our footprint is in, and it’s personalized to that community,” says Beyer. “To put a cookie-cutter chain in and try to treat it the same as they do 10 miles north, west or south is a discredit to the community that they’re in.” 

Beyer, like Dawes, is a new-school owner of an old-school pharmacy. Beyer took over North Shore in 2020, and Dawes bought Swan Serv-U in 2014. They agree that superior customer service is paramount to sustaining independent pharmacies. “People come here because of the service they get and the time that they get. That leads to connection,” says Dawes.
“If you just stay and fill prescriptions, it won’t work. Doors will close. The legacy is lost.”

Kyle Beyer, owner of North Shore Pharmacy; Photo by Sara Stathas

Typically, when a small pharmacy goes out of business, its owners either cash out by selling to one of the large chains, which takes over the customers’ prescriptions, or they seek partners to eventually take over the business. Pressure from the big competitors is a factor, but so is the age of longtime owners who might want to retire, as was the case with Hayek’s Pharmacy, which operated for 100 years on Downer Avenue in Shorewood before closing in 2018. “I think Shorewood alone had four [independent pharmacies] close in the last 15 years,” Beyer says. Mortality is a risk for those who stay at the helm as long as Carter did.

Dawes adds that another critical component to longevity is innovation and preparing for the future. Swan Serv-U has adapted to community needs, like creating a space for vaccinations during COVID, a service the pharmacy hadn’t provided since 1972, and expanding offerings like point-of-care testing (such as for cholesterol, A1C and blood pressure), in-depth medication counseling, medication therapy management and educational seminars. “It’s all those other programs that you do that add revenue to the store that [many customers and the patients] don’t see, but without that innovation, you can’t have the service because your doors are going to be closed,” says Dawes. Swan Serv-U also trains the next generation of pharmacists in the real world by hosting clinical rotations for students from the Medical College of Wisconsin and Concordia University.  

While many small businesses have struggled during COVID-19, independent pharmacies have been able to carve out a niche for themselves. “COVID really showed the communities that independent pharmacies are easy to access,” says Beyer, “that we are simpler to navigate and that we’re able to ramp things up quicker and more effectively than the chain pharmacies. So we’re having a moment.” 

North Shore Pharmacy, for instance, saw vaccinations increase from 150 a week to 150 a day during the pandemic. 

“When 2020 hit, it became really important,” says 81-year-old Rebholz, who has been going to the Shorewood pharmacy since she was 12. “We were able to stay in the neighborhood without having to go to Wisconsin Avenue.” 

“COVID really showed the communities that independent pharmacies are easy to access [and] simpler to navigate. …We’re having a moment.”

-KYLE BEYER, OWNER, NORTH SHORE PHARMACY


Unlike the big chains, local pharmacies control their systems, and have the freedom to make changes where they see room for improvement that reduces wait time and confusion, giving customers what they need: a safe, simple, accessible way to get care or medication. It has also highlighted other niche services, like delivery and home services, which have steadily increased since the pandemic. 

“A lot of times people will come to us before they go to their doctor,” Tolson says. “We are the most accessible health care members of the team.” 

That has been the case for customers like Rebholz, whose adult children no longer live in Shorewood but often come back to the pharmacy when they need answers to medical questions. “Many times, they’ve been able to help us with medical problems that we might not have caught ourselves,” says Rebholz.  

It’s a stark contrast between independents and the competition. “It’s just a different way of doing business,” says Dawes. “The customer service is very different. I know great pharmacists at big chains who care, but it’s a factory.” 

Still, large chains have the resources, financial backing, marketing dollars and systems that ensure their sustainability and growth. Beyer describes independent pharmacies being stuck between insurance companies and pharmacy benefit managers, or PBMs – companies that run prescription drug benefits for insurers. Beyer says PBMs take advantage of small pharmacies’ size and underpay them for medications. He predicts that the model of independent pharmacies won’t be around in the next 10 years unless improvements are made to industry regulations.  

“When independent pharmacies hurt, that hurts communities. I think people need to be aware that we’re doing the best we
can, but it takes more than just customer support,” Beyer says. “It takes action to show that we deserve a seat at the table when they look at PBM regulations.” 


DESPITE SUCH THREATS, there’s still room for new independent pharmacies to be successful. Enter Hayat Pharmacy. 

Owner Hashim Zaibak was ushered into the independent pharmacy business because he was in the right place at the right time. He had been working for CVS as district supervisor when a group of doctors he knew moved their practice to a new location and wanted an independent pharmacy on site. After some training and research, Zaibak opened Hayat One at 3727 W. Wisconsin Ave. in 2011. The model has been duplicated with now 18 locations throughout the city and more in planning, strategically filling a void in underserved areas. “We thrive in the pharmacy desert areas where others don’t want to go because they’re high-risk or high-crime,” Zaibak says.  

Lester Carter Jr. behind the counter at Milwaukee Pharmacy in 2014; Photo by Barbara J. Miner

Hayat Pharmacy also caters to immigrant populations who may have communication barriers to health care because English is a second language. Zaibak hires pharmacists fluent in the languages spoken within the communities Hayat serves, which not only helps deliver the health care patients need but also builds personal connections. Along those lines, the pharmacy runs clothing drives for Afghan refugees, sponsors community dinners for new Afghan and Rohingya arrivals and works with the Islamic Society of Wisconsin to help immigrants in Milwaukee.  

Although Hayat has several locations, customer Diane Esqueda-Miladinovic says Hayat feels different from the big chains. Its pharmacies manage to maintain personalized care, like making house calls, taking time to walk patients through next steps and staying late to accommodate patients’ elderly parents with special circumstances. “I feel like he’s there like a friend,” Esqueda-Miladinovic says of Zaibak.  

“We thrive in underserved areas. We thrive in the pharmacy desert areas where others don’t want to go.”

-HASHIM ZAIBAK, OWNER, HAYAT & MILWAUKEE PHARMACIES


Hashim Zaibak, owner of Hayat & Milwaukee Pharmacies; Photo by Sara Stathas

 

In 2014, Zaibak was also there for Carter in his time of need. After Carter suffered a broken leg, Zaibak reached out. What began as temporary support for Carter Drug Store became an offer to purchase the business. Carter’s patients’ prescriptions were transferred to Hayat, but Carter wouldn’t be kept away from his lifelong service and passion. You could still find his bow tie and smiling face at 24th and Burleigh, though he worked reduced hours in semi-retirement. “I’ll continue working until I’m 100 years old,” Zaibak recalls Carter once saying. 

Carter did not reach that milestone, but earlier this spring Zaibak found a new pharmacist to continue his work around wellness, herbal remedies and goodwill in the Amani neighborhood. At press time, Zaibak was not ready to announce the name of the new face behind the prescription counter at Burleigh and (for now) 24th.

In the hearts of those Carter touched, his legacy will live on for decades to come. But it’ll take grit, ingenuity and reform for independent pharmacies like his to survive that long. 


Kenya C. Evans wrote the profile of Milwaukee Film’s Geraud Blanks in the September 2021 issue.


 

This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s May issue.

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