San Jose: Family-run Leiter's Pharmacy shuts its doors

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There’s been a small pharmacy at the corner of Park and Naglee avenues in San Jose’s Rose Garden neighborhood since the early part of the 20th century.

But no more.

Leiter’s Pharmacy, which operated at the location since 1973 after taking the space of an earlier pharmacy, closed for good last week — a victim of a tough market for small, independent drug stores.

“It’s a tragic loss for the neighborhood,” said Lyle Koch, who owns Antonella’s Ristorante across the street. “So many elderly relied on them for prescriptions.”

Koch said what he’ll remember most about the business were the friendly employees who’d been there for decades.

Pharmacy owner Chuck Leiter said he’d known for a while that he’d have to shutter the store because it was losing money, but he kept the doors open for sentimental reasons.

“My family has been ingrained in that neighborhood for over 60 years,” Leiter said, noting that his mother grew up there in the 1940s.

“I may live somewhere else,” the Saratoga resident said, “but to me that’s home.”

Over the weekend, visitors to the store, located in a strip mall across the street from the Rosicrucian Museum, were greeted with signs on its doors alerting them that Leiter’s had closed. The signs also informed them that their records had been passed on to the Walgreens down the street.

Former Leiter’s customers who peeked inside saw empty shelves, plastic storage boxes stacked high near one door, and a collection of wood, stone and brass mortars and pestle sets on the floor.

Leiter said the store once had about 600 such sets. His family had been collecting them for a century.

The pharmacy got its start in the 1950s when Leiter’s grandfather opened a store in San Jose’s Cambrian Park Plaza. The family later opened another location in Santa Clara before taking over the Park Avenue store.

But the pharmacy business has changed dramatically since then, as a growing portion of the market has migrated to big chains like Walgreens and CVS. Leiter’s family closed the Santa Clara location after a Longs Drug Store moved in nearby and later closed the Cambrian Park store.

For years the Park Avenue location was able to survive because the family focused on compounding, which involves making drugs — typically rare or no-longer-produced ones — from scratch. That’s an area of the pharmacy business that the big drug stores generally avoid.

Leiter’s compounding business has been very successful — too successful, in fact, to be housed in the small Rose Garden pharmacy. Last year, Leiter relocated the compounding operation, which now employs 100 people, to South San Jose because it had outgrown the allotted space in the Park Avenue location.

For years, the compounding business had helped keep the retail store afloat, Leiter said. Without it, the store couldn’t be run profitably, he said. Many consumers go to big drug store chains because, he said, that’s where their insurance directs them to go.

“It’s hard to make a living just doing pharmacy,” Leiter said. “These days, it’s a dinosaur.”

Leiter’s was known around the neighborhood for its service. Not only were its employees helpful, but the pharmacy was one of the few that actually delivered drugs to customers.

That’s something Jen Goins, who owns the Sailors & Saints hair salon across the street, will remember about Leiter’s. Goins, who went in the store occasionally to buy over-the counter items, said it generally wasn’t busy inside. But the delivery drivers were plenty busy.

“Those cars would go in and out of there all day long,” she said.

Freda Fraser, 68, said she’d only been to the pharmacy a few times since moving to the Rose Garden area three years ago, but she was sorry to see it go.

“They were really nice,” said Fraser, who works part-time as a crossing guard. “They were a pleasure to work with. Very professional.”

Leiter said the pharmacy started informing customers of the impending closure about two weeks ago and told employees shortly before then.

He’s worked to find new jobs for the seven employees affected by the store’s closing. Three will go to work for the compounding pharmacy, while two got jobs at Walgreens. One employee retired, and another decided to go back to school, he said.

Leiter, who owns the building in which the pharmacy was located, is hoping to fill the store’s space with a delicatessen or similar restaurant. That sounded good to the customers at the Starbucks next door, he said.

But it will be a while before another business will replace the pharmacy.

“We just literally closed up,” he said. “I still have to get my personal stuff out of there.”

Contact Troy Wolverton at 408-840-4285. Follow him at Twitter.com/troywolv.

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San Jose: Family-run Leiter's Pharmacy shuts its doors
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