The two WVU School of Pharmacy grads opened Gregg’s Pharmacy in Oakland, Maryland, on August 21 of that year. Five days later, they bought a drug store in Terra Alta, also naming it Gregg’s Pharmacy. That purchase was unplanned.
More than 50 years later, the Oakland location sits along the main drag of town within a stone’s throw of a Walgreens and a CVS. There’s no need to check the vital signs of the mom-and-pop pharmacy. It flourishes in the face of competition and offers a flavor of service undetected at the big-box retail giants.
Ernie Gregg outside his pharmacy in Oakland, Md.
The Terra Alta location is the only pharmacy in the Preston County town of about 2,000. In the 1990s, a Rite Aid opened shop across from their Terra Alta store. Rite Aid didn’t survive more than a couple of years there.
The secret to the Greggs’ longevity and success isn’t crammed in a little magic pill.
“We’ve just been adamant about good patient service,” said Ernie Gregg, now 77. “We know our customers’ names. They know us. We offer something that maybe others don’t. We’ve competed with larger operations. We’ve held our own.”
Even in his late 70s, Gregg is still on-call after hours.
What? Pharmacists are available when their stores are closed? That can’t be right. It is at Gregg’s.
“People don’t get sick by the clock,” Gregg said. “If it’s really necessary, we’ll go in.”
The customer-comes-first mentality was ingrained during the brothers’ upbringing in a small community and an old-school era of pharmacy care.
The Greggs grew up in Masontown, also a Preston County town, about 15 miles east of Morgantown. During Ernie’s senior year of high school, two pharmacists in Masontown encouraged him to look into pharmacy as a career. He heeded their advice and registered for pharmacy school at WVU. Meanwhile, his brother wanted to study veterinary medicine. At the time, there were only three veterinary schools east of the Mississippi. Jim Gregg thought his chances were slim, so he switched to pharmacy his sophomore year of college.
After graduating, Ernie worked in Oakland and Steubenville, Ohio, while Jim wrapped up his pharmacy studies.
An opportunity then presented itself to the brothers.
A banker suggested to the Greggs about opening an Oakland pharmacy with the bank’s help.
“I was 25 and Jim was 23,” Ernie Gregg recalled. “At that age, you think you’re invincible. All I had was a car, and I was renting a house. But we opened the pharmacy.”
Gregg helping a customer at his Oakland, Md. pharmacy.
Gregg’s opened in Oakland on a Monday. That same week, the brothers learned the owner of a Terra Alta pharmacy wanted to sell his business.
“A couple of doctors told us the Terra Alta pharmacy would close by Labor Day if no one bought it,” Gregg said. “We knew these doctors so I thought if we took them out for coffee right then and there, we’d figure out how to buy it.”
By that Saturday, the Gregg brothers owned two pharmacies.
“At the time, I was married, had one child and was already living in Oakland, so Jim said, ‘Since you’re established here, I’ll go head up the Terra Alta store.’”
Jim Gregg passed away in 1996. His wife, Mary Jo, took the reins of the Terra Alta location up until a few years ago. Now Ernie oversees both stores.
Much has changed in pharmacy since 1961, from technology to advanced medicine. Both stores have kept up with the times, but some ingredients have stayed the same, notably the personable service.
“The nice thing about a small community is that you know your patients and their history,” Gregg said. “We can give them personal attention and closer patient counseling. That’s important.”
Over the years, the pharmacies have offered services such as organizing special prescription boxes for patients so they’ll know what medicine to take and when to take it. And in rare cases, they will deliver.
Gregg is already passing on his expertise to another generation of the family. A granddaughter, Robin Gregg Spiker, also a WVU School of Pharmacy graduate, works at the Oakland Store. A grandson, Nicholas Gregg, will graduate from the WVU School of Pharmacy in May 2014.
“Maybe I can start to slow down now,” Gregg said, laughing.