Paulsen's Pharmacy: 100 Years, One Location, Three Owners

January 7, 2019

Over the course of a century, Paulsen’s Pharmacy has been providing medications and care to the people of Portland, OR.

Woodrow Wilson was president, the First World War was just ending, the Spanish flu pandemic had just started, and Nichols Pharmacy opened in Portland, OR. The pharmacy is still there after 100 years in one location in the Hollywood district of the city, undergoing two name changes, three sets of owners, and one still-functioning soda fountain.

Known as Paulsen’s Pharmacy since 1923 when Charles Paulsen, RPh, bought it from the original owner, Frank Nichols, the manner in which it has changed hands illustrates the ways that ownership of a pharmacy may depend on making the right connections. It also illustrates how a modern pharmacy can [change] some of its main streams of revenue.

Former owner, Gary Balo, RPh, went to work at Paulsen’s right out of pharmacy school in 197O.

“I worked there 45 years. I was a partner and owner for 38 of those years,” he tells DrugTopics. He bought the pharmacy with his partner, Jim Mead, RPh, from Charles Paulsen. Mead retired in 1987, according to the store’s website.

Early in Balo’s ownership of the pharmacy, the owners of the building announced that they wanted to tear it down to make way for a McDonald’s. Other tenants in the building moved out, but Balo and the pharmacy stood firm and got the support of the neighborhood with a publicity campaign that saved the building.

Balo says he usually worked at Paulsen’s six days a week, with his wife Karen working alongside him for 35 years.

“We wanted to start a new chapter in life,” he says. “I wanted a change of pace and to do traveling and volunteer work.”

When Balo decided to retire, he held on for a few years because a former employee had expressed an interest in buying the pharmacy once she had more experience. But it never panned out, and Balo started looking around for someone else to buy it. 

A conversation with Gary Basrai, PharmD, at a pharmacy convention in August 2015 led to Basrai and his family making an offer for Paulsen’s, Jasmine Basrai tells Drug Topics. “The deal was consummated in April 2016,” Balo says.

The Basrais own several independent pharmacies in Northern California, including Haller’s in Fremont, CA, and Alisal in Salinas, CA, with Jasmine Basrai as manager of operations for all of them. 

The main change that the new ownership has brought to Paulsen’s is a new revenue stream-Paulsen’s now has a specialization in hospice pharmacy, Jasmine Basrai says. “Half of our business is hospice pharmacy,” says Huy Nguyen, PharmD, the pharmacist in charge at Paulsen’s.

Nguyen joined the pharmacy after the Basrais purchased it and says that the store’s long history is important to its customers. “When you come into Paulson’s, we know who you are,” he tells Drug Topics. “[some] customers have been coming here for 30 or 40 years.”

Although Balo retired so that he could take life easier, the move away from being a community pharmacist for so long was stressful, he says. “When we retired it was a tough three- or four-month transition.” We had third- and fourth-generation customers-we knew their lives. It’s very emotional to sever that.”

Any business that has been in one place for a century will have a lot of mementos and items on hand. Balo and his wife took some souvenirs home, and donated a lot of them to the Oregon State University College of Pharmacy. There are still many interesting items on hand, says Nguyen. “We have bottles from 1913 and the 1920s, and handwritten stuff from way back.”

Another thing that hasn’t changed at Paulsen’s is their delivery service. One of the pharmacy’s oldest employees, Ben Schwartzkopf, 81, has been their delivery person for 23 years, making his rounds on weekday afternoons.  

Though the pharmacy has undergone renovations in recent years, the soda fountain still retains its original marble countertop.

Valerie DeBenedette is the Manager Editor for DrugTopics

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