Baxter's Pharmacy is gone but not forgotten

| 23 Jul 2019 | 11:01

By Wendy Bynum-Wade
June 24, 2019, was the last day of business for an iconic retailer in the Village of Goshen. For 36 years, Baxter’s was the go-to pharmacy for consistent staffing, excellent customer service, and the kind of personal attention and advice only available these days at small, independent pharmacies.
The abrupt announcement on Facebook, after the doors closed at 8 p.m., brought outcries of disbelief, criticism of the way it was done, and a profound sadness. These sentiments grew as word spread throughout the area. Those not on Facebook found out from the simple poster fixed to the establishment’s front door. Some of the Facebook comments were disheartening — individuals second-guessing the how, what, and why’s of the closing.
The facts of life in the business world dictate that once management decides to close, whatever the reason, they can simply close. It happens often with doctors, lawyers, and other professionals who close their practices with no notice. They are under no obligation to provide an avenue of uninterrupted provision of service.
That’s not what happened. When Baxter’s closed its doors, the owner, John Nemeth, had gone to great lengths to make sure all his customers would have continued coverage, affording each family the time needed to determine the best situation for their needs without endangering the fulfillment of existing prescriptions. The only reason for not giving advance warning was the contractual agreement with a new provider. Anyone who thinks they would have managed it differently has probably not lived through the same circumstances.
Now that a few weeks have passed, it has become apparent that it wasn’t a bad dream, like the shower sequence “undoing” the cliff-hanger demise of Bobby Ewing of “Dallas” fame in the previous season’s finale. This change is for real. So how have the people closest to the situation been feeling?
Wilma Kruger, Joanne Aglione, and Stephen Andrews sat down recently to talk about their feelings. Collectively they said they were happy for John and his family and wished them much happiness in retirement. Still, they were incredibly sad that their time at Baxter’s had ended.
It started with Strong's
Wilma Kruger, originally from Warwick, came to Goshen with her husband, Bob, in the mid '60s in search of a home in which to raise a family. She was working in the Warwick School District, and her husband worked for the railroad in Maybrook. They found a good fit, and now, decades later, after Scott and Colleen have moved out on their own and her husband passed away, Wilma still lives in that home.
Wilma has had the longest tenure at the pharmacy in terms of years, but her employment history had many twists and turns. She was already working at 62 West Main Street before Baxter’s came to town, working as a short-term replacement for Viva Dunn, a long-time employee of Strong’s Drug Store when Viva went to Florida.
A few weeks filling in for a vacationing Dunn during the early '70s turned into a few months, but Dunn did return, and that was the end of it — or so Wilma thought. In the early '80s, Wilma was a secretary for the Orange County Citizen’s Foundation, working from 9 a.m. 'till noon.
Before long, George Strong and David Reese reached out to Wilma to fill in at Strong’s Drug Store again, extending her workday from noon until 2 p.m., five days a week. She was still working that schedule when John Nemeth arrived in Goshen and bought Strong’s in 1983.
In 1988, Wilma ventured into full-time employment with Orange County, spending the next 14 years in the probation department. Wilma retired from the county government in 2002, but that too was short-lived. Not long after, Wilma returned to Baxter’s on a permanent part-time basis and remained there until the closing.
Her position was “accounts receivable, accounts payable,and sometimes bookkeeper.” Her office moved over the years from a card table corner of the main floor retail space near the incense, to a corner of the basement, to her most recent perch in an actual office on the second floor. But in all the years she spent there, and with the changes she’s seen, the one constant was her love for the customers. Whether it was in person or on the phone, what Wilma enjoyed the most, and will miss the most, was the contact with the store’s customers. She attributes her success at keeping customers happy was to begin every conversation on a positive note. Most of the time, it stayed that way.
The best of times
Joanne Hobelman was brought up in Goshen, moving to the village with her parents from New Jersey in 1969. She graduated from Goshen High School, went off to college, and graduated from SUNY Potsdam.
After working in New York City as a paralegal, she met and eventually married Bob Aglione. She had told him about the wonderful village where she grew up, so they moved back to Goshen to start their family. Her son, Michael Aglione, is a recent GHS graduate and is preparing for his freshman year at the University of Delaware. Their daughter, Laura, is entering her junior year at GHS.
When Joanne began at Baxter’s Pharmacy 16 years ago. She started out working at the front of the store — counter, register, general customer service — at night and on weekends. As her kids got older, she wanted to be more available to them at night, so she transitioned to day shifts. Along the way, she was trained as a pharmacy technician, which allowed her to fill in with dispensing duties when needed.
"We all learned more than one aspect of the store so we could help each other out or fill in for each other if necessary," she said.
Asked about her best and worst days at Baxter's, Joanne said the worst was “the first time a customer she saw often passed away suddenly.” The best were “the times we could help a customer become a little less overwhelmed,” which was quite often over 16 years.
A pharmacist's fight
A native of Massachusetts, pharmacist Stephen Andrews joined Baxter’s 16 1/2 years ago. Normally, he says, he wouldn’t mention the half year, but since we were talking about who worked when, he felt it necessary to differentiate his tenure. All kidding aside, Steve was well-known and well-liked among the customer base, despite his perennial support of the Boston area sports teams.
Steve started his career behind the counter in several local independent pharmacies, including Scotchtown Pharmacy. During his time there, Scotchtown was bought out by Fay’s Drugs, which in turn was purchased by the J.C. Penney affiliate Eckerd Drugs. In 2002, he joined the staff at Baxter’s. For him, “the worst day was the day we closed. The best? All the days before that.”
Steve enjoyed the time when each of his daughters worked at Baxter’s during school vacations. With fatherly pride he mentioned that Heather Andrews, his oldest, was finishing up her accreditation boards and would soon be working in the area as a registered pharmacist. His younger daughter, Abigail, is currently a Dean’s List student at SUNY New Paltz.
Steve has also been very involved in county and state organizations, serving as a board member of both the Pharmacists Society of Orange County and the Pharmacists Society of the State of New York. Both groups have been busy lobbying in Albany, fighting for the state to place tighter regulations and create more transparency from PBM’s (Pharmacy Benefit Managers). These “middlemen” aren’t involved in dispensing or manufacturing drugs; they don’t see patients and don’t stock the shelves. Yet, according to the state society’s Facebook page, these PBMs have free reign to negotiate and manipulate the prices each insurance company will reimburse each pharmacy. That’s why there’s so much of a difference in pricing among drug stores for the exact same drugs. It’s an issue that affects small independent pharmacies as well as, to a lesser degree, some of the bigger chain pharmacies. It’s no wonder so many small pharmacies have been eliminated from our communities.
Where will they go?
Although John Nemeth was only 27 years old in 1983 when he bought Strong's Drug Store, he took over an establishment with a long and storied legacy. He set out to provide the same level of service, with just enough difference to make the hundreds of customers he inherited feel as if John and his staff were extended family members — just as they had felt for 50 years with the Strong family.
John and Baxter’s Pharmacy have been quiet benefactors to many over the last 36 years. Very few requests from youth athletic groups, high school sport teams, an extensive list of extracurricular programs and Goshen churches were ever denied. Over the years, those donations — given readily at $25, $50, $100 a clip — amounted to thousands of dollars donated back into the same community John, his wife, Kathy, and their three sons loved and have lived in for the last three and a half decades.
What’s next for the Baxter’s Pharmacy family? Many former customers are already aware that Steve has been asked to join the pharmacy staff at Walmart’s in Middletown. Joanne is interviewing but also plans to go back to school to convert her bachelor’s degree into a BSN and work locally as a nurse.
As for Wilma Kruger? She says she is “going to work very hard at staying retired.”
John, now 63, has decided to stop and smell the roses. Anyone who knows him knows how private a person he is. It should not have been a surprise that he was so reluctant to actively participate in an interview of any sort, especially one that sought to honor his contributions to Goshen. We can all be happy that he'll get to spend more time with his wife, his kids, and his new grandchild.
You will all certainly be missed but never forgotten. Thanks, to everyone, for the memories!