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After 60 years in St. Helens, Semlings closes

Business owner cites economic reasons for shutdown

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: NICOLE THILL - Semlings Pharmacy on 18th Street and Columbia  Boulevard will close this week after being in the community for 60 years. The Semling family first opened a pharmacy in St. Helens in 1946.Semlings Pharmacy, a St. Helens drugstore that first opened at the corner of 18th Street and Columbia Boulevard in 1958, plans to close its doors this week on Thursday, Jan. 14, after the company’s owner cited financial struggles.

Jack Holt, the president of Columbia River Pharmacy who currently owns Semlings Pharmacy, said a decision had been made to close the drugstore this year based solely on financial reasons. While Holt would not disclose the revenue the store was losing, he said it was substantial and more than six digits.

“It’s always been a profitable store for us until this year. That just changed,” Holt said.

Holt explained that Medicaid reimbursements to pharmacies for prescriptions changed in 2015 and the revenue Semlings Pharmacy was receiving was no longer enough to keep the store in operation. With changes to Medicaid reimbursement, the store had been essentially selling prescriptions at a loss.

“We’re just at the mercy of the contracts. The contracts in 2015 were bad and the contracts in 2016 are worse,” Holt said.

Former co-owner Steve Semling said he was notified about the pharmacy closure by an employee last week. He hopes the building will be used in the future by other businesses, but said Columbia River Pharmacy still has a portion of its lease left on the building.

“I feel sad that it’s closing,” Steve Semling said. “It’s unfortunate. We don’t need another empty store in St. Helens.”

Pharmacy manager, Tara Wichterman, said she had been personally notifying customers about the store’s closure throughout the week after she was notified. Reactions were often a mix of shock, sadness and disbelief, she said. Many just wanted to know why.

“Many of them just wanted an explanation as to why,” Wichterman said. “But they’ve had a lot of concern for us, [as employees] which was really touching.”

Roots in the community

The legacy of Semlings Phamacy began many years before Chuck Semling first opened a pharmacy in 1946 when he bought out Lemmon’s Drug in St. Helens. Chuck Semlings father was a pharmacist in the early 1900s, a profession Chuck also pursued.

After opening their first pharmacy together, Chuck and his brother, Spike Semling, bought an empty furniture buidling on the corner of 18th Street and Columbia Boulevard in 1946 and opened a new storefront for Semlings Pharmacy together.

At one point, the pharmacy featured an 18-stool lunch counter in 1958 which sold “fantastic cinnamon rolls” and “excellent hamburgers,” Steve Semling said.

Chuck Semling sold the business in 1965, after Spike Semling’s death in 1964, to two men from Hillsboro, who reopened the pharmacy under the name St. Helens Pharmacy. The business operated there until 1975 when the company’s lease ran out.

Jim and Steve Semling, Chuck Semlings sons, opened a pharmacy together at the same location in May that year under the name of Semlings Pharmacy, where they operated business until 2011.

Steve Semling said one of his most lasting memories was the ability to build relationships in the community.

“I think one of the most rewarding things was the interaction with the public, with our customers,” Steve Semling said. “We had some wonderful customers and they became good friends and it was a good feeling when you knew that you could help somebody.”

Change of ownership

In 2011, Steve and Jim Semling made the choice to sell the family-owned pharmacy since both men were looking to retire. Holt’s company, Columbia River Pharmacy, bought out the company, but continued to operate it under the Semling’s name.

Steve Semling also continued to work at the pharmacy two days a week after the store was sold, before fully retiring in the August 2015.

“I have very good memories of working in the pharmacy and working with some wonderful people,” Steve Semling said.

Financial realities ‘force’ closure of Semlings

The closure of Semlings Pharmacy was not an easy decision to make, Holt said, but was one that was “economically forced.” The business was well-run, and operated with a lean staff already, which made cutting back the store’s budget difficult to do, he explained.

“I’ve run stores at a loss before ... [Sometimes] you can see reason for it and there ways to get out of it,” Holt said. “We’ve tried lots of things. That’s just not one that we can see a way to get out of.”

Holt added that he was saddened to close the store, stating that the decision was difficult to make since he is not in the business of closing stores, but opening them.

Rite Aid Pharmacy is expected to pick up prescriptions for all Semlings customers, starting Friday, Jan. 15. Customers were notified by mail about the change, Holt said. Additionally, customers who call Semling’s after Thursday will be automatically transferred to Rite Aid. Several employees from Semlings Pharmacy have accepted job offers with Rite Aid as well.