End of a Wise era

Jodie Orzehoski comforts co-worker Raquel Anderson, at the Wise's Drug Store Fountain lunch counter Tuesday, January 13. Anderson was crying because the Fountain is closing at the end of this January. "I'm crying, because I'm leaving everybody", said Anderson, who's worked there for the past two years.

Doug Finger/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Wednesday, January 14, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 13, 2009 at 10:52 p.m.

Wise's Drug Store will serve its homemade milkshakes and chicken salad for the last time Jan. 30.

Wise's is closing its downtown pharmacy with a lunch counter and soda fountain after more than 70 years in business.

Buddy Wise and the fulltime pharmacy staff and bookkeeper will move to Wise's Pharmacy at 708 SW 4th Ave., but the lunch counter will not follow.

Wise will be 70 next month and said he's tired of working 50-hour weeks. He'll share duties with brother Larry, 57, at the 4th Avenue location.

"I'll be able to take some whole days off to go fishing," he said.

Wise also said business is not what it used to be. More people are on insurance plans, a lot of which require mail-order prescriptions.

Gainesville's growth has also moved the population center away from the store, he said.

"We do have to downsize for economic reasons and the workload," he said.

Wise points out that the other location is more convenient for customers because it has its own parking lot and drive-through service, and deliveries will continue. And the combined pharmacies will be better stocked than they are individually, he said.

That's little comfort to the regular customers and employees who are already in mourning.

"I haven't found anybody happy about it," Wise said.

"Buddy, I'm mad at you," said a passing customer, as if on cue.

Wise's has been a downtown fixture since the days when downtown was the center of Gainesville's population. It was opened by Joseph C. "Doc" Wise Sr. across the street from its current location at 239 W. University Ave. in 1938. The soda fountain came a few years later.

Buddy Wise started working there as a clerk in 1959 after graduating from high school and has been the pharmacist since 1975.

Wise's is also a throwback to the days when teenagers gathered at the local soda fountain.

Doug and Ricki Kirk, who were in for lunch Monday, said they grew up getting a lime freeze or cherry coke at their hometown soda fountains.

Doug, a retired minister from the nearby First Methodist Church, and Ricki, a math teacher retired from the Alachua County schools, have been coming for lunch for 15 years three or four times a week.

"It's social as much as coming here to eat," said Ricki Kirk, who called off the names of the other customers nearby Monday.

She said they'll probably eat more often at home now, but the regular Wednesday crowd is going to meet somewhere. "We just haven't decided where."

The word "family" comes up often with employees, some of whom go back decades, and the customers who make weekly or more frequent lunches part of their routines.

"Our relationships with each other, that's the hurting part," said waitress Gladys Burkett, a four-year employee. "Once you become a part of Wise's, you become a part of the family of Wise's. That's the kind of love and compassion Mr. Buddy Wise and (wife) Harriet Wise have for the employees."

Buddy Wise said he has had a lot of good, longtime employees who were the strength of the business.

"They're the reason we were able to survive," he said.

Mark Barrow, a retired cardiologist and local history buff, said Wise's is the last of the old businesses in the core of downtown.

Only Louis' Lunch, in business since 1928 on SE 2nd Street, is older among Gainesville's eateries.

Barrow started taking his kids to lunch at Wise's in 1960 and now takes them and their kids when they visit.

"It'll be another institution gone just like the Primrose Grill across the street from them a number of years ago," he said.

"This is the end of an era for us, too," said manager Pam Mead. "The good news is we're an independent that is continuing to do business."

The number of independent pharmacies in the U.S. has been fairly steady at about 23,000 for the past 10 years, according to John Norton, public relations manager for the National Community Pharmacists Association. About 5 percent closed in 2006 when Medicare Part D was slow to reimburse pharmacies, he said.

But 20 years ago, there may have been 40,000 independent pharmacies, he said. A lot of pharmacists got older and didn't have anyone to hand off the business to.

Prescription drug plans have also made survival difficult for independents that typically rely on pharmaceuticals for 90 percent of their revenues, while chain pharmacy superstores split pharmaceuticals and the front-end merchandise 50/50.

The age of the pharmacy may determine whether it offers a lunch counter.

Barrow said there are few lunch counters left in Florida that he knew about.

The property is owned by Craig Cinque and managed by Nautilus Realty. Stathe Karahalios of Nautilus said he is not sure what may go in next.

"With everybody else failing, I would have said a bar, but even the bars are having a hard time right now," he said of downtown business.

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