If chains leave you cold, this store has cure
Independent pharmacy offers customers an old-time oasis in a thoroughly modern world
Ella Kerzel relishes the cup of coffee waiting for her in front of her favorite stool at Seaton Pharmacy's lunch counter, not to mention the morning regulars who make her feel part of 'a club.'
For Kerzel, 81, whose Mount Tabor home is eight blocks away, the old-time pharmacy Ñ which had a starring role in the 1989 movie 'Drugstore Cowboy'Ñ is a neighborhood oasis.
'It's the spot É where you always find someone you know,' she said. 'It's nice to be called by name and someone is glad to see you. They see me coming, and there's already a cup at my place.'
The countertop talk this day at Seaton's was a new coffee maker that produces 'hotter than hot' coffee.
'I see my regular customers all the time and know them by name,' said owner and pharmacist Alan Inahara. 'They've been coming to the store for decades. It's not like that at Rite Aid.'
In the age of fast-food and drive-up pharmacy windows, drugstores with soda fountains are as rare as chocolate malts. Seaton's has both, a distinction it shares with only two other Portland pharmacies Ñ Paulsen's and Fairley's, both on Northeast Sandy Boulevard.
Seaton's malts and shakes come in nine flavors, including peanut butter and butterscotch, and cost about $4, approximately four times what they cost in sock-hop days.
The family-run Seaton's, at the corner of Southeast 60th Avenue and Belmont Street, has held fast against the Rite Aids and Walgreens, those homogenous pharmacy chains where there is little room for chitchat but lots for advertising.
The drugstore even has survived the trauma of several cars veering off Belmont Street and crashing through its front window.
Except for new windows and the addition of a 15-year-old French fryer, Seaton's has not been remodeled for half a century. The pharmacy counter sits down the aisle from the post office window and encircles the back of the store. The lunch counter stretches the length of the store almost to its door.
How does this little independent drugstore manage to hang in there?
Inahara, who owns the store with his dad, Yosh, delivers personal service, mail and grilled cheese sandwiches in order to one-up the chains. Seaton's also offers bone-density screenings, accepts utility payments and operates a charge account service.
United we stand
Inahara has also joined a consortium of independent pharmacists to order bulk supplies and negotiate insurance contracts, both serious challenges for pharmacies today, according to Tom Holt, executive director of the Oregon State Pharmacists Association.
Pharmacies are a 'very viable business, but like any small business they are competing in an arena with big operators,' Holt said. 'They have to find a niche to compete with the Fred Meyers and Wal-Marts.'
Inahara is the first to admit he's been tempted to sell out to a chain such as Rite Aid, 'but everyone says, 'Don't do it.'
'Independent pharmacies are dwindling in numbers,' he said. 'We're trying to pay the bills and keep going. We're going month to month, year to year, but, yeah, I'd like to be around a year from now.'
About 75 percent of Seaton's business comes from third-party insurers such as Regence Blue Cross Blue Shield. The reimbursements yield a small fee, Inahara said, but they have to do 'a lot of prescriptions' to make money.
Another 10 percent of Inahara's profits come from his lunch counter business. And the post office, run by the U.S. Postal Service, keeps the store humming, especially around Christmas and tax time.
A half-century's work
'It's a little hub here,' Inahara said. 'Some customers have been coming here longer than me.'
Most come from the neighborhood and Courtyard Plaza retirement center on Belmont Street. Regular customers range from grade-school kids who buy candy to nostalgic octogenarians.
One regular is Jack, who chose not to give his last name. A resident of Altenheim Retirement Center at 7901 S.E. Division St., he takes a taxi to Seaton's on Thursdays to pay his utility bill and buy greeting cards.
Yosh Inahara went to work for Mr. Seaton 50 years ago after graduating from Oregon State University's School of Pharmacy.
Alan started working at the drugstore 24 years ago, and he was behind the counter when the pharmacy went Hollywood in Gus Van Sant's award-winning film. An autographed photo of its lead actor, Matt Dillon, hangs above the pharmacy counter.
'People saw the movie so they recognize him,' Inahara said. But the man who owns the drugstore of 'Drugstore Cowboy' confesses he found the film's star 'obnoxious and a know-it-all.'