In Memory of “Doc” Curtis Robinson.

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Disclaimer:  Article provided to Larry by Marc Fisher of the Washington Post and posted on this blog in memory of “Doc” Curtis Robinson.

Pharmacist Fills Prescriptions And a Social Need

By Marc Fisher

Just for fun, I called one of the 48 CVS pharmacies in the District and asked if it would deliver a prescription. “No, we don’t do that,” the nice pharmacist said. I checked the company’s Web site, which offered to mail prescription items within 10 days, or, for a mere $16.95 “express” fee, within six days.

Then I stopped by Doc Robinson’s basement on East Capitol Street NE. Doc delivers. Six days a week, when he locks up the Robinson Apothecary, he drops off a few medicines at his customers’ homes. “I take it by when I close, and we sit and talk,” he says. “I might stay half an hour and visit.”

No charge. “No, I couldn’t charge,” Doc says. “Because I deliver at my convenience.”

The sign outside Doc’s tiny warren says just “Pharmacy.” There’s no light in the stairwell; wouldn’t want to bother the neighbors at night. No sprightly music whisks you through your shopping. No ads clutter the carved wooden doorway. No aisles of dry goods or notions block the way to the pharmacist’s counter.

No, there’s nothing here but long and lean Curtis C. Robinson, 83 now, former Tuskegee airman, veteran of 33 World War II combat missions over Italy, graduate of Howard University’s School of Pharmacy, proud grandson of a slave who became a postmaster and a Methodist minister, stalwart survivor of the drugstore chains’ war against independent pharmacies.

Back in the ’60s, Robinson owned five pharmacies in Washington. He was usually located in the same building with a busy medical practice. He never did much with what’s known in the trade as the front end — the cosmetics, toiletries and whatnot that now account for most drugstore profits. He just liked to fill prescriptions and advise customers on their drugs.

“At one time, I was doing a hundred prescriptions a day,” Doc says. “Now I look at television, fill 15 or 20 prescriptions and look at some more television, which suits me fine. This is my life.” The doctors who worked upstairs in the three-story corner rowhouse left a few years ago — one died, another found a new location. But Robinson stayed on, alone. He’s especially alone since his wife, Florie, died two years ago. “Now I go home and look at more television,” he says.

Robinson Apothecary is an archive of customer records, a museum of office equipment of the past half-century, a stockroom with a specialty in geriatric drugs — not by choice or training so much as by the passage of time in the lives of a few hundred loyal customers. Robinson decided some years ago to refer new customers to his independent colleague down the block, Morton’s. “I don’t carry any pediatric stuff anymore,” Doc says.

He’s lucky to carry anything, given how the business has changed. “When I graduated pharmacy school, it seemed like there was a drugstore on every corner,” Doc recalls. “Slowly but surely, the chains grew. At the independents, the senior was usually unable to get the junior to take over the store. Then Medicare and insurance companies took over and took the profits out of the pharmacy. The only profits left were in the front end, and those independents that had no front end were out of business.”

Robinson’s front end is a lawn. “Only way I survive is no overhead,” Doc says. He and a partner owned the building until they sold recently to a young couple who are returning the place to its original role as a single-family house. But the couple want Robinson to stay, and Doc says, “I figure I have several more years.”

The chains have forced most family-owned drugstores in the Washington area out of business, literally surrounding Mom and Pops with new branches, then buying their prescription files and sending neighborhood institutions off to an unsought retirement. Those who have managed to stick it out have banded together in buying groups to wheedle discounts from wholesalers; even so, the chains have a huge advantage in their contracts with managed-care companies and employers.

But no chain can compete with what Robinson offers: “People come from their doctor, and they want advice. I don’t want to conflict with what the doctor says. But they seem to trust you more than they trust their doctor.”

Naturally. They’ve known Doc Robinson for 50 years, he comes to their house, he calls them to remind them if they need a refill. He’s what we’ve lost, and we haven’t the slightest idea how to get it back.

Marc Fisher
The Washington Post