that shouldn't happen
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On Monday, Nov. 10, Davis Pharmacy manager Thomas Hall unexpectedly found himself looking down the barrel of a sawed-off shotgun. Hall was standing behind the register of the pharmacy, at 45th and Baltimore in West Philly, where he's worked for the last 31 years. He stood behind that register through the crack epidemic of the '80s, the firebombing of MOVE and the more recent spike in citywide homicides.
But he'd never seen a gun in the store until the Monday before last.
"These three individuals came in — three black males between the ages of 17 and 21, two of them shorter, one tall," Hall remembers. "They came in and bought a candy bar, they asked me the price," Hall recalls. "Then the older guy produced a shotgun."
The oldest of the three pointed the shotgun at him. Hall, who has a 7-year-old son as well as a grown daughter, ducked. The thieves reached over the counter, emptied the register and left.
Once they were gone, Hall called the police, who responded and searched the area without finding the culprits. The incident shocked him.
"We've never had a problem of this kind. Ever. As long as I've been here I've never seen anything like this."
Imagine Hall's surprise, then, when he returned to his post the next afternoon to find the police there again, again responding to an armed burglary — by the same three men.
Apparently pleased with how easily they'd robbed the store the previous night, they had come back to rob it again.
This time, it was Ed Tanack, who owns the store and has worked there for 22 years, behind the counter. A demure man, especially unimposing in his white lab coat, Tanack recalls the details in a quiet voice.
"One of the younger guys came up to the register with a sawed-off shotgun, and pointed it at me," Tanack recalls. "I saw the big guy in the back ... he had a silver automatic. The other one's weapon I didn't notice too much, because he was busy cutting the phone lines."
The three spread out, one of them going behind the counter. This time, they were after more than the contents of the register: They wanted drugs, particularly OxyContin, a brand-name prescription painkiller which contains the analgesic chemical oxycodone.
Nationally, as other forms of drug use have declined, prescription drug abuse has skyrocketed in recent years, says Rusty Payne, a spokesman for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. And with increased abuse, he says, comes increased crime. In April, Walgreens began pulling OxyContin from its shelves in some Florida outlets. Last month saw the arrest in California of a man suspected of being part of ring that robbed as many as 30 pharmacies in the region for the drug.
Tanack declines to give numbers, but says that he was robbed of "a substantial amount of drugs, let's say that — the money's insignificant."
Police say they haven't arrested any suspects in the case.
Things have been quiet at the pharmacy since the second robbery — thanks, possibly, to a private security guard which the pharmacy has hired to stand guard outside its door during business hours. The police have stepped up their presence on the corner since the robberies as well, as has Penn bicycle security. At the moment, the small pharmacy is probably the most heavily guarded business on Baltimore Avenue.
And while that's certainly a comfort to the shaken staff, there's something sad about it, too. Davis Pharmacy has been an independent and family-owned business for its more-than-100-year existence. Tanack and his brother-in-law, Eliot Weinberg, bought the shop about 22 years ago from the Davis family, Tanack says. The store is a member of Good Neighbor Pharmacy, a cooperative of independent pharmacies around the country. The co-op allows small businesses like Davis Pharmacy to negotiate competitive deals on prescription drugs and, therefore, to survive.
While the small store is crammed with many of the same goods as any pharmacy, the atmosphere inside is markedly different. Hall, the manager who was held up in the first robbery, has been there even longer than Tanack, working first for the Davises and then for the new owners. Hall's daughter has occasionally worked at the store, and halfway through an interview, Hall's 7-year-old son, Thomas Jr., pops in to see his dad, darting around the store like it's a second home.
"It's a neighborhood place," Hall explains. "You know all the customers, you get to talk to all the people in the neighborhood."
And indeed, as customers trickle in, many address the staff by name — and many have heard about the robbery. One man lingers for a full 20 minutes, shaking his head and chatting quietly with Hall about it.
"People were shocked," says Lana Harris, an officer of the Walnut Hill Community Association. "That pharmacy has been there a long time serving the community, and I'm just glad that the owner didn't just want to call it a day and wrap it up. Because it's so few little family pharmacies left — you got Rite Aid and the big guys coming in, and I just hope that the owner didn't get upset and say, 'I'm just going to close up.'"
Davis Pharmacy remains open, but it will probably not be quite so cozy anymore. Tanack says that he and his brother are considering various options to bolster their security, including possibly putting a bulletproof plastic partition between the customers and the staff."You know, we're pretty open, and we like to communicate with people," Tanack says. "That's unfortunately going to have to change." The counter, which has always been open at one end, will probably be closed.
This security doesn't come cheap. The guard posted outside is painfully expensive, Tanack admits, and these costs come at a time when staying afloat is particularly hard.
There are indirect costs to security, as well, points out Hall. "When I first started working here, we didn't have the roll-down doors outside, either," he says, referring to the sheets of corrugated metal that roll down to cover most Baltimore Avenue businesses at night. "Before, all the windows were open. You would close the lock and go home and you'd have displays in the window. People could still look in your business and see different things that you carry. ... Now, you can't even do that anymore."