The mood was somber at Southgate Pharmacy this weekend. The beloved store felt more like a funeral home, and for all intents and purposes, it was.
Throughout the still air several customers could easily be overheard conversing with employees and each other:
“I feel like I’m going to cry.”
“When I got the phone call, I just sat there in bed. I felt like someone died.”
“It’s very sad.”
Southgate is a throwback to the era when the shop first opened. It has as much in common with the 1950s as it does with current times. Patrons then and now are accustomed to strolling the aisles for trinkets and small gifts, fragrances, toiletries and notions. Prescriptions are still delivered to customers, even, at times, during inconvenient or after-work hours.
Employee Judy Anderson shed some light on why the reactions were so mournful.
“Southgate Pharmacy is like the Marshall Fields of ,” Anderson said.
“Our business thrived on integrity—we rarely ever advertised. We’ve always operated in a very old-fashioned way."
— James Skoniecke
The Homewood location is the last surviving store of three opened by the Skoniecke family in 1956. The other two locations were in Harvey. Brothers Len and James Skoniecke took over the Homewood operation over two decades ago after their father and uncle retired.
“I think there’s a lot more consistency (since Southgate was run by our family). Customers know what they can get and what to expect,” James Skoniecke said.
“Our business thrived on integrity—we rarely ever advertised. We’ve always operated in a very old-fashioned way,” he added.
Despite some other speculations, James Skoniecke says the decision to close was not made overnight.
“We just couldn’t keep hanging on to something that isn’t viable,” Skoniecke said. “After 20 years of this getting worse, we had to call it quits.”
The business couldn't cover its costs, and complications from operating “at the mercy of the insurance companies” were, on occasion, resulting in the business losing up to $20, even $30, for filling a prescription, according to Len Skoniecke. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
“(Insurance companies) are eating us alive and there’s nothing we can do to fight them,” James Skoniecke said.
Greater than their frustration towards the unsustainable situation to befall the brothers, however, is their concern for their customers. James' voice was pained as he explained how he and his bother hate to feel like they’re letting their loyal customers down with the decision to close.
“It’s a great community with great people,” James Skoniecke sais. “It’s where I got my career started. My life’s work is here.”
“There are so many people that grew up around this store,” Len Skoniecke added. “A lot were local teenagers who got their first jobs here.”
Len Skoniecke said their employees have been instrumental in maintaining the pharmacy's customer base over the years. He says the first thing he ever taught the new employees was to always say “hello” when a customer walked in, and “thank-you,” when they left. And that’s what they did.
“Even if (the customer) didn’t buy anything, we wanted to make sure they knew it was important that they stopped in,” Len Skoniecke said. “We’ve been lucky to have good employees that get to know the customers. They enjoyed working here, we’ve enjoyed having them.”
Page upon page could be written detailing the scores of stories of long-term customers’ experiences with the local gem.
“I moved here in ’69. I lived at Idlewild and Dixie, had no car, young kids and I would walk over to get medicine here,” Donna Isaacson said. Once a customer, Isaacson has been responsible for selecting and purchasing the gift shop inventory in recent years. “They used to have such wonderful items—perfumes and make-up. Kids would come in for candy on a Saturday night.”
Isaacson echoed the sadness shared by so many residents.
“I had to hold someone who was crying. Men and women, young and old have tears in their eyes when they walk in,” Isaacson said. “You can’t get the family atmosphere and relationships (that you get at Southgate Pharmacy) at big box stores.”
Despite the unavoidable long faces and occasional tears, however, there exists a confident optimism in James Skoniecke’s perception of the situation.
“I don’t want to paint a sad story because there’s been so many wonderful experiences over the years,” Skoniecke said. “We’ve had a great history.”
They sure did.
Feb. 14 will be the last day to fill prescriptions at the pharmacy.
Len Skoniecke has agreed to take a position at , primarily at the 183rd Street location.
James will be taking advantage of the time off work to decide how he wants to move forward. In the meantime, however, he’s eager to spend some quality time with his little girl.
The gift shop in front will remain open past the closing of the pharmacy on Valentine’s Day.