When the Medicine Shoppe closes on Nov. 21, Pharmacist Joe Smith will be saying goodbye to loyal staff and to a career which has seen him go from a start-up business owner to an advisor to the White House on national policy. He will also be saying goodbye to legions of loyal customers, many of whom have been coming into his Park Avenue store for decades.
Smith, a native of Nebraska, says he has been touched that many of those longtime customers have contacted him to beg him to reconsider retirement, that bond of trust and connection with the community a testament to his commitment to customer service.
He says his business philosophy is simple: “Do what is right. It’s pretty simple. An accountant can tell you how you might make more money if you do it more efficiently, but what matters is whether the person you are taking care of gets better or not once they go out the door. Doing the job faster may be better for the accountant but it is not necessarily better for the customer.”
After a spell in the Air Force, Smith chose pharmacy.
“I had really great uncles and mentors who loved what they did, and I wanted to do what they were doing,” he said.
He studied pharmacy in Nebraska but then took an opportunity to move to a position in Falls Church, near where his sister lived. When asked why, he laughed and said, “It paid better. In fact, it paid well enough that the dean of my college said he thought about quitting and coming along, too!”
Smith liked Falls Church then and still does.
“In 30 years, I’ve seen a lot of changes around the City, but less within it: Falls Church is a city that likes to be little and still likes to care about people,” he said.
In his early career, Smith worked for some drug store chains, but soon decided that he wanted to run his own pharmacy.
“I really wanted to be an independent entrepreneur, to know that the buck stops here,” he said. “You solve the problems; you don’t just pass them on.”
Changes in the pharmacy trade have become more of a challenge. Insurance companies cut payments but an independent pharmacist cannot pressure drug companies and suppliers into lowering their prices. As Smith says, “There’s not a lot of wiggle room. It’s pretty tight.”
In 2002, Smith became president of the National Community Pharmacist Association, but over the years he has been a frequent adviser to state and national policy makers, met with colleagues from all over the world, filmed educational videos, trained countless students, and sat on key committees to advocate improvements in policy, provision and efficiency. During the 1990s, Smith visited the White House several times, meeting with the Vice-President, the Health Secretary and the Chairman of the FDA to discuss issues like computerization of records.
Smith considers pharmacy to be providing those services which make a real difference to the health of the community, providing genuine “health care” like blood checks and immunization rather than just “sick care” when a problem has developed.
“We are beginning to get the concept,” he said. “A lot of the things that a good pharmacist does like flu shots and monitoring blood pressure, are about helping people stay healthy. This is what health care is going to become, rather than taking care of people who did not take care of themselves or did not know how to do it. Health care is really a preventative term. It’s about how we should live.”
He notes that going on short-term regimes to improve the results of a check-up, as some customers have confessed to him, is missing the point of improving our long-term health.
“People say, ‘I’ve got to go on a diet because I have a physical coming up, and I want to get good results.’ Well, do you really want good results? If something is wrong, you need to know,” he said.
In the course of his time in Falls Church, he and his staff have prepared more than 500,000 prescriptions, and served almost every type of customer from the regular visitors who like to chat, those who like to joke and even try to make the pharmacist blush, and those who really need someone to listen to them.
Smith laughs and says that people tell him that they rank their pharmacist right after their hair dresser in terms of sharing personal information.
“You tell you minister your hopes, your doctor your fears, your lawyers your mistakes, but when you confide in a good friend,” he said, “that’s when you tell the truth.”
Smith’s team at the Medicine Shoppe includes Juanita Gomez, who has worked with Smith for 29 years, and Javad Mashatian, who has been at the store for more than a decade. Smith attributes this longevity of service to the working atmosphere he has tried to create.
“It is about mutual trust and respect … and humor,” he said. “We laugh a lot.”
Smith said he has no fixed plans for retirement, joking, “I do plan to spend much more time with family and friends, but I thought retirement was about being able to do nothing!” He does plan to travel more, though, with a trip to China coming up in April.
Coming into the Medicine Shoppe, longtime customer and local resident Eleanor Karro says she will miss Smith’s attention to service, recalling how he once spotted a problem with a potential drug interaction with a prescription from the dentist and medication already being taken by her husband.
“We really appreciated that commitment to caring for all of his customers,” she said. “We will be sad to see him go.”
As Smith puts it, “In any job, when you do it well, you can make a real difference. You can just be doing what you are supposed to do, but for the person you serve, it can be very special.” As he prepares to close the Medicine Shoppe after three decades helping Falls Church residents stay healthy, Smith’s message to his customers is heartfelt and direct: “Thank you!”
Once the Medicine Shoppe closes, Smith’s customers will still be able to access their records at the CVS Pharmacy at 134 W. Broad St., Falls Church.