Standing behind the counter at Barth’s Drug Store on East Main Street in Riverhead, owner Barry Barth greets customers by name as they enter. Recently, however, they’ve also been greeted with unfortunate news: Come Jan. 1, Mr. Barth will be a retired man.
Started in 1917 by his grandfather, Fred E. Barth, Barth’s Drug Store has been family owned since its inception. Following Barry Barth’s retirement, however, it will be owned by someone outside the family for the first time in 98 years. Mr. Barth recently sold the business to 48-year-old Bhaskar “Bobby” Gunjupali of Manorville.
“He’s enthusiastic, he’s energetic,” Mr. Barth, 68, said of Mr. Gunjupali. “He has a lot of ideas for the merchandising at the front of the store to make it more viable for the new resident population coming.”
These new ideas include adding household items to the store, selling more over-the-counter drugs and creating a cosmetics section in the front, Mr. Gunjupali said. He added that prices would be competitive with those at chain store pharmacies.
“We’re going to the next level of generational pharmacies,” he said. “We’re going to upgrade everything.”
Mr. Gunjupali said he plans to keep the staff of approximately 10 people exactly as it is now, and was drawn to Barth’s Drug Store because of its close proximity to his home and its long-standing ties to the area, having endured on East Main Street for nearly a century.
“We want to be in the community and we want to give the same service and upgrade the products,” Mr. Gunjupali said. “We’re looking forward to building up the store, doing some renovations … we want it to be one stop where [families] can have it all.”
Mr. Gunjupali, a New York State-registered pharmacist with experience in retail, most recently worked at the pharmacy at John T. Mather Memorial Hospital in Port Jefferson.
A supply salesman introduced the two this summer after Mr. Barth put the word out about his intention to sell. Mr. Barth said he knew pretty quickly that Mr. Gunjupali was the right man for the job.
“Sometimes you just get the feeling from talking with someone and meeting with them a number of times,” he said.
While Mr. Barth said he’s excited about the future of the business, he said he’ll miss spending every day at the store, especially in the beginning, since his routine will change for the first time since 1971, when he took over the store after graduating from pharmacy school.
“Actually, I’ve been here since I was 16 years old,” he said. “I worked as a stock boy, got $1 an hour. It was perfect. You worked 20 hours, you got $20.”
For other family-run Main Street establishments, seeing their neighbors’ businesses leave the family hits home.
“It’s kind of sad actually,” said Tony Balzano, co-owner of Main Street Haircutters. “We just had Jerry [Steiner] leave also, from next door at Allied Optical Plan. He came here the same year we did.”
Allied Optical Plan, founded in 1960 by Jerry’s father, Sol Steiner, closed July 17. But neither Mr. Balzano nor his brother, Andy, has any plan to retire just yet.
“I’m happy for Barry though,” Mr. Balzano added. “He’s worked here for many years.”
The Riverhead location where Mr. Barth spent most of his working life isn’t the only Barth’s Drug Store on Long Island. In 1978, Mr. Barth opened a second pharmacy in Westhampton Beach. Twenty-eight years later, in 2004, he sold that business to Louis Cassara, who later opened other locations, still under the Barth’s name, in East Moriches and East Quogue.
“It feels different to sell this one,” Mr. Barth said. “There was very little emotional attachment to the store in Westhampton Beach. This one was my grandfather’s, then my father’s and then mine.”
In 2010, Mr. Barth bought the former Barker’s Pharmacy on Love Lane in Mattituck, rather than see it become a CVS. He closed that location in April 2012 due to a lack of business.
He added that he believes his grandfather and father, Donald Barth, would approve of him selling the store and, since his daughters have chosen different career paths, feels they would approve of Mr. Gunjupali as well.
Mr. Barth said he’s looking forward to relaxing in his retirement and plans to spend more time fishing and going for walks with his wife and their dog. He did say that he’d be more than willing to work part time and fill in at the Riverhead location when needed.
“I’ll miss the people I work with,” Mr. Barth said. “I’ve been close to these people for quite a long time. A lot of these people that have been coming here for years have become my friends. That’s a nice relationship.”
PHOTO CREDITS: Nicole Smith