Las Olas Chemist: A throwback in a world of chain pharmacies

The last thing Marc Leach wants his shop to be compared with is one of those big chain pharmacies on every other corner.

Las Olas Chemist moves to a different beat.

At the small, old-world type of pharmacy in downtown Fort Lauderdale, customers find vitamins and medicine all lined up against the walls, the store isn’t large enough for long aisles. Black chalkboards spell out what’s available — antibiotic ointments, body powders and foot creams are stacked on shelves below “Booboo’s & Tootsies.”

Look for runny nose and allergy medicine under “Sniffilitis.”

“I wanted it to be a place that people were comfortable to come to,” said Leach, pharmacist and owner of Las Olas Chemist. “I wanted it to be a place where they walk in and go, ‘This reminds of the place that I used to go when I was a kid or that my parents brought me to.’”

The Florida Independent Pharmacy Network says about 1,000 independently owned pharmacies operate in the state, but the number is declining.

“They’re dwindling all the time because they cannot compete with the chain pharmacies: Walgreens, CVS and all those people,” said Jim Powers, consultant to the Tallahassee-based group.

The pharmacies still in business manage to stay open thanks to patrons who appreciate the personal service, Powers said.

On a recent afternoon, long, heartfelt laughter cracked up between a client picking up an order and one of Leach’s four employees.

“Hey, Bob,” Leach said, waving to a customer leaving the store.

“I think the more chain-like an environment, the more sterile it is and the less comfortable people are in having conversations about things that may be personal,” Leach said of his 900-square-foot shop at 1201 E. Las Olas Blvd. “So that old world feel, while I love it, actually has a purpose.”

Las Olas Chemist has been on Fort Lauderdale’s famed boulevard for a decade, attracting customers who long for a personal connection to their pharmacist in an environment that feels familiar and comfortable, Leach says.

“Every person that comes in here is a hero,” said Leach, 54. “Why? Because they have the option to go to a pharmacy that’s open longer hours, that has greater merchandise, that spends millions upon millions of dollars on advertising, but yet they still choose to come to us.”

Sheryl Suissa, 61, said she’d rather go to Las Olas Chemist than a chain store because she likes the personal service that comes with picking up her prescriptions.

“I can talk to Marc about my prescriptions, I can ask him to recommend something and trust him about it,” the Fort Lauderdale resident said. “I like the people who work here. They take good care of me.”

Leach says the tiny size of the store, keeping staff to four part-time and full-time employees, and low overhead also have helped him stay in business amid larger players. He says he’s able to offer competitive prices thanks to membership in a buying group of about 800 pharmacies.

The pharmacy business runs in his blood, too. Leach is a third-generation pharmacist and has about a dozen other family members who are pharmacists.

His father, Martin Leach, is retired but keeps an active license so he can walk in as backup when needed.

There’s a lot more competition now compared with the early days when Martin Leach opened his own pharmacy, he says. Lots more insurance companies to deal with, too.

“There weren’t as many drugs either,” he said from behind the counter, after a wave of customers emptied out the store.

Leach said he recently brought on board a licensed nutritionist and dietician to help customers adjust their diets and prevent diseases.

People hate taking pills, so if he can help them prevent illnesses, even better, he said.

The writing on a wall above the store’s exit sign sums up the store’s philosophy: “May you have happiness in your eyes, love in your heart and peace in your soul.”

mvalverde@sunsentinel.com, 954-356-4526, Twitter @MiriamValverde

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Las Olas Chemist: A throwback in a world of chain pharmacies
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