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The Commons
Photo 1

David Shaw/The Commons

Mary Giamartino, proprietor of the Hotel Pharmacy.

Business

A conversation with Mary Giamartino, owner, the Hotel Pharmacy

A couple of fledgling pharmacists from New York and New Jersey set up shop in Brattleboro. Thirty-five years later, their landmark enterprise continues to offer the best pharmaceutical care love can provide.

This series of interviews has been supplied to The Commons by the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation (brattleborodevelopment.com), the regional development corporation tasked with helping businesses start up in Windham County. These interviews are intended to explore the experience of starting a business in the Windham County region, looking at how individual business owners choose to be in southern Vermont, as well as their challenges, opportunities, lessons learned, and memorable celebrations.

Interviewer Jerry Goldberg, recently named executive director of the nonprofit In-Sight Photography Project in Brattleboro, worked as a communications executive for many years at CBS in both New York and Los Angeles. Later, in Brattleboro, he headed communications at World Learning and from 2005 to 2013 served as executive director of the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce.

One final note from your editor: This interview marks the end of the BDCC’s involvement in this project. We are pleased that Jerry Goldberg will continue producing this column directly for The Commons, and we thank the BDCC and its executive director, Adam Grinold, for supplying this valuable, informative, and fun feature to us over these past 15 months.

Originally published in The Commons issue #420 (Wednesday, August 9, 2017). This story appeared on page C1.



BRATTLEBORO—So you walk into this imposing Gothic church that must’ve been quite a star in the firmament of local houses of worship in its day. The vaulted ceiling alone is a spirit-lifter — especially since that’s often what folks need if they’re visiting a pharmacy.

How many times at Hotel Pharmacy have I approached that counter and stood there for whatever’s shorter than a nanosecond before hearing, “Would somebody please help Mr. Goldberg?”

How many times have I approached that counter with just my daily New York Times in hand to be greeted by one of the technicians holding a bag with a prescription in it without my having asked for it?

How many times have I approached that counter — whatever my mission — to be asked if I’m running low on my Armani spritz so they could place an order for me? (Heaven forbid I should run out!)

And how many times over these 35 years have any of Frank and Mary Giamartino’s patients found, as I have, that no matter how they felt walking in — even before swallowing the first pill — they felt better walking out? Their care had begun.

So meet Mary Giamartino, talking to us from her command post in the rafters above the store, about the journey that she and her late husband, Frank, have taken. It’s June 7, 2017, the actual day that marks Hotel Pharmacy’s 35th anniversary in this landmark building.

* * *

Jerry Goldberg: I’m really delighted that you’ve agreed to do this interview, especially on such an auspicious day.

Mary Giamartino: I’m honored that you asked me.

J.G.: I guess I wanted to be part of the celebration. And to get to hear how a Brooklyn girl from 28th between Farragut and Foster landed in Brattleboro on Elliot between Main and Elm.

Mary, let me tell you briefly what we’re going to be doing here today. We’ll talk for probably 45 minutes, but with you it’ll probably go faster because you’re from Brooklyn.

So it’s really about your story — yours and Frank’s — and how this all came about. OK? Take me back to the beginning.

M.G.: I grew up in Brooklyn which, in those days, was idyllic for a kid. It was safe. We played in the streets. Our folks didn’t have to worry. It was a great time. I went to high school in Manhattan on 42nd Street between 8th and 9th Avenues.

J.G.: That’s like adjacent to the theater district. Hard to imagine that there’d be a high school there.

M.G.: The Holy Cross Academy for Young Ladies.

I didn’t want to go there, but I’d won the Holy Name Society Scholarship. They give one to a boy and one to a girl by the New York City police, fire and sanitation departments.

My dream was to go to Stella Maris, which was on the beach in Rockaway, Queens. My mother, however, informed me that I would be attending the Holy Cross Academy for Young Ladies and that I was going to like it. And she was right. I did. Soon after I enrolled, the school announced that it would be closing in a couple of years, so they accelerated all of us.

At about that time my father, a New York City fireman, had two heart attacks. When he was ready to go back to work, he was offered desk duty, which he didn’t want. So he did some research and moved us to a little town in upstate New York called Milford, south of Cooperstown.

I woke up in the morning and saw cows. I went to the local high school on a bus and made lots of friends. I remember wearing a dress on the first day of school — as a Holy Cross Young Lady would — and the kids asked me if I was going out. I learned about farming, haying, animals — just a whole different type of life. Oh, and about how to dress up there.

J.G.: I love Cooperstown. We go there every summer.

M.G.: Because I had accelerated at Holy Cross, I needed only a few credits to graduate, but, of course, my parents wouldn’t allow it.

J.G.: Too young?

M.G.: Yes. I was only 16.

In the meanwhile, my dad did some further research and found out that the Alfred Corning Clark Foundation — which, incidentally, supports the Baseball Hall of Fame — awarded academic scholarships every year based on merit, not need.

So basically the four Garry kids — my brothers Eugene and Fran, my sister Monica and I — got full college scholarships through that program.

J.G.: And where did you go?

M.G.: Albany College of Pharmacy. My first choice was St. John’s University in Queens, but Albany was only 70 miles from home, and I ended up there.

J.G.: What attracted you to pharmacy?

M.G.: Well, I’d always loved science — especially chemistry. When I was 9 years old, Dave, the pharmacist at the Vanderveer Pharmacy, came to my rescue. I had something in my eye, and he rolled back my eyelid and got it out.

Now today, you wouldn’t dare even to attempt such a thing. But I thought, Hmmm, this is interesting — and I filed it away. I guess I’ve always wanted to be a part of helping to keep people as healthy as they could be.

J.G.: Back to Albany. Was that where you met Frank?

M.G.: Yes. My roommate, Sandy Saraceno, called me at work at the Church and Scott Pharmacy in Cooperstown. It was the beginning of our second year, and Frank’s fourth.

She said, “I met this guy that even my parents will like. I want you to meet him. We’re going to Ralph’s Tavern tonight.”

I said, “OK, I’ll be there.”

I arrive, she introduces us, hello, hello. He goes you’re wearing my pants. I go what? We both had on straight-leg Wrangler jeans with a hole in the pocket in the same exact place. He goes, nice accent you got there, lady, and I said that more people talk like me than you.

J.G.: Where was Frank from?

M.G.: Frank was born in Teaneck, New Jersey, right across the Hudson from Manhattan. His family eventually moved to Parsippany.

J.G.: So you met at Ralph’s Tavern and...

M.G.: ... and that was it. I went my way. Then a couple of weeks later, a group of us pharmacy students were going dancing. I was the last one picked up because I was working the late shift at Klein’s Pharmacy in Albany. Frank was in the back seat. We went, we danced, and that was the beginning.

J.G.: When and how did Brattleboro come into the picture for you two?

M.G.: Frank graduated and decided to take his pharmacy boards in Vermont because, well, he just loved Vermont. We used to bicycle here a lot. I mean a lot. He took the boards in June ’76 and saw a posting for a job in Brattleboro. He jumped on it because Brattleboro was exactly three hours to Cooperstown, where my parents lived, and three hours and 10, 15 minutes to Parsippany and his family.

So he interviewed at Hotel Pharmacy in the Brooks House, where Duo Restaurant is today. The owners, Dave and Patti Hoefer, hired him on the spot. Frank worked at Hotel until we bought the business from Dave and Patti on June 7, 1982 at 11:30 in the morning.

J.G.: And what about Mary’s brilliant career?

M.G.: These were our commuting years. I was still in school, so Frank and I drove back and forth between Albany and Brattleboro every weekend for two years. My classmates called me the Vermont Maid.

Then in April ’77, in my fourth year, I was accepted at a few medical schools. One was in North Carolina. I asked Frank: What if I went there? He said that he’d visit me. I went on a class trip and the day I got back he called and asked if I wanted to come visit, which I did.

When he got home from work, he said — and this is a quote — “I think we should get married. What do you think?” And I said “Sure.”

And he said, “What do you want for dinner? Beef, chicken, or fish?”

I said, “Fish.”

He said, “OK, I’ll cook the fish if you’ll make the other stuff.”

J.G.: I love it!

M.G.: I graduated on June 3, 1978. We got married on June 10. I passed the boards in July. You know, to this day, a lot of people don’t know that I’m a pharmacist, even though it’s been 39 years.

In February 1979 I went to work at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital as chief pharmacist. I did that until I retired five years later to take care of our son, Nick, whose medical condition required more of my time.

We were blessed to have the amazing Dale Emery — “Nana” Dale — who took care of both our boys. She really raised them, especially Nick. But she needed help with Nick, so I left the hospital. I did some consulting from home and helped Frank at the store. Even today, Nana Dale watches my granddaughters. She’s still part of the family.

J.G.: Tell me about where we are right now — in this magnificent former Methodist church — a house of worship that became a house of healing.

M.G.: I like that! OK, we bought this building on March 30, 1992 and spent almost a year restoring it. We opened our doors on Feb. 8, 1993 — the same day, incidentally, that the W-store opened across the river in Hinsdale.

J.G.: Aside from Walmart, what was your competition in town at that point?

M.G.: When Frank first arrived in ’76, Roots Pharmacy and Town Rexall were here — but they were friendly competitors. It wasn’t cutthroat at all.

Then Will Griffin, owner of Roots, retired. We bought Rexall from Ken Carpenter on the morning of June 19, 2006. Frank died that night.

When we came to town, there were no chain stores downtown. Rite Aid opened on Main Street where the River Garden is now, but it didn’t last very long. They never filled more than 30 prescriptions a day, so they closed. Rite Aid still has stores on the edges of town battling each other and, I guess, Walgreens.

But our biggest issue isn’t those guys. It’s all the insurance companies trying to direct people to the chains and to mail order. They have so many ways of trying to take money away.

J.G.: Let’s go back in time for a minute and talk about the challenges of starting a business here. You and Frank hadn’t done that before. So tell us about the decision to take that pretty big step.

M.G.: Well, with Dave leaving the Hotel Pharmacy, the opportunity was there. At that point, Frank had been working at Hotel for six years, so he had a good rapport with the clientele and felt that it would go OK.

Our plan was to live on my hospital salary, and since at the time we had only Vince, who was 9 months old, we figured we’d do it. So we took a small business loan from the town, and it worked.

I’ll never forget our first bill from our supplier, Burlington Drug, which was $14,000. Now we do $6 to 7 million a year in sales.

J.G.: What if this pharmacy was in Albany, for instance, as opposed to Brattleboro? What’s the big difference about operating in a small town?

M.G.: You get to know your patients better. We learn a lot about them because they talk to us. And we listen.

We have 24-hour emergency service, so if somebody needs something at night, one of us will come in and take care of it. If we need a technician, they’ll come in.

We also deliver within a 20-mile radius free. We have curbside pickup. People can call on their cell phones and we go out. We call the people we deliver to at home so we can make sure that they understand everything.

We have durable medical equipment. We do immunizations. We do medication therapy management. It could be something simple like giving someone a pedometer, seeing them not on their blood pressure medicine anymore, and saying here, why don’t you try this.

I mean, that’s why we’re here. That’s what we do. Take care of our patients. It’s very rewarding to know that you’re making a difference in somebody’s health.

J.G.: I love that you refer to us as your patients. You and your team are part of our treatment.

M.G.: Thank you. My team is great. I’d put them up against any in the country. I think we have a very good relationship with the physicians, nurses, physical therapists — all of the health-care professionals in the area. We’ve never had a problem reaching them.

J.G.: How many are on it right now?

M.G.: With me, it’s 20.

J.G.: I’ve been a Hotel Pharmacy customer for probably 15 years. And I see many of the same people behind the counter. Longevity counts. So tell me, real quick, how long your current group has been with you.

M.G.: Let’s see. Penny’s been here for three years. James, 2{1/2}. MJ, 16 and Sydney, one. Caitlin’s here for two. Ruth and Jodi have been here since ‘96, so that’s 21 years for each of them and 20 for Seth, who came a year later. Jason, seven. Joe, nine. Caleb has just started. There’s Ethan at three, Anthony at nine, and Peter at four-plus. Casey’s been here for five years and Lou first came in ’01, so 16. Add Adrian for a half year and Dakota for a quarter. We hired Jim in ’82, so 34. And I’m here for 35. That’s a lot — about 190-plus years of experience.

J.G.: OK, I’m pushing you to become a human calculator, here, Mary, but here goes: About how many employees have worked at the Hotel Pharmacy in its 35 years at this location?

M.G.: It has to be over 250.

J.G.: That deserves a “wow”!

So you and Frank took over and built this business and obviously it’s running smoothly. Have there been any bumps in the road?

M.G.: After Frank died in 2006, an employee embezzled a significant amount of money. It was so much that all my accountants and attorneys wanted me to file bankruptcy because the loss was more than they thought I could ever make up.

I didn’t. I wouldn’t. My feeling was that the people who’ve been loyal to us and the business deserve to have their lives continue the way they should, with the benefits they had. I did everything in my power to make sure that happened. And it’s happening.

J.G.: As you said a while ago, you like to take care of people... make their lives better.

M.G.: Although the financial situation upset me, the biggest thing the embezzlement took from me is my time. I should have more time to myself now, but I don’t. Luckily, I love what I do. But some days I wish I could, you know.... If that hadn’t happened, I’d be—

J.G.: Enjoying the fruits of your labor.

M.G.: Right. And being with my two wonderful, amazing granddaughters as much as I could. I’d love to be able to go see Vincent and Emma, and little Francesca and Eva whenever I wanted to. And to see my mother, who’s just moved to New Jersey. But I don’t want to sound like I don’t want to be working here, because that’s not the case.

The other thing that has upset me about the financial situation since that dark time is that I can’t donate to all the nonprofits as much as we used to. Hopefully, I’ll have completely turned that around in a while.

J.G.: You’ve given a lot to this community, Mary, in ways that go beyond the pharmacy. The scholarship that you award each year at Brattleboro Union High School in your son Nick’s name is another way of caring for the members of the community.

And hiring. We hear a lot about there being a shortage of folks around who are qualified to do the available work. Yet your people are always so spot on. How do you go about building a team that’s up to the task?

M.G.: See, we don’t advertise. When we need to hire a person we sit down and say, “OK, everybody, think!” Let’s find somebody we know who can work, who’s pleasant, who likes people, whose parents said “no” to them, who didn’t get trophies just for participating.

J.G.: I’m so with you on that one.

M.G.: Or I’ll call the high school for advice. We try to hire any qualified student that we can and work around their activity schedule. But it’s hard, because most of the students who are real workers are in music or drama or sports or geography or the Chinese club.

At one point, I had high school guys who didn’t play soccer work in the fall, then another group who didn’t play basketball work in the winter, and another group who didn’t play baseball work in the spring. We did job-sharing before it was invented.

J.G.: OK. You’re at a party and someone who knew you’d built a business here asked you about moving here and starting the next chapter — maybe even opening a business. What would you say?

M.G.: I’d say that this is the place to be. The Brattleboro area has everything. It has art. It has farms. It has organic. It has skiing. It has higher ed. And if you want to start a business or whatever, there is all sorts of help. Not just financially. They even have classes. Look at the Community College of Vermont, which has partnered with Brattleboro Memorial Hospital. Just something simple like that.

People come here to write books or do pottery or make jewelry or open a restaurant. People want different things. One thing, though, and I think this is true: generally, most people here want others to succeed. I know I do. Especially our young people. Brattleboro is just a very giving, caring, mentoring community.

J.G.: It’s 35 years today, Mary — a big day. Where do you see Hotel Pharmacy in the next the 35 years?

M.G.: Well, one young gentleman, Casey Powers, did his internship here, worked here summers and had seven other offers of employment when he graduated. I told him he could always come back, and he did. It’s been great. He’s going after it.

We also have my niece, Caitlin Shea Garry, who’s going into her second year in pharmacy school. And we’ve hired Adrian Heal, part-time. His late father owned the Putney General Store and Pharmacy.

Back to your question. I’m 61. I own this building outright. My plan is to institute an employee stock ownership program, and if the younger pharmacists wanted to buy it I would certainly make it happen. I certainly don’t want to sell to a chain.

J.G.: It would be hard to envision downtown Brattleboro without the Hotel Pharmacy.

M.G.: Well, thank you.

J.G.: Is there anything else you’d like to say today, Mary?

M.G.: Just how grateful I am for this entire community. It has been very supportive of my Giamartino and Garry families — and my Hotel Pharmacy family.

When Frank and I took over the business, accountant Joe Pieciak helped us immensely in buying this building. And Dan Yates from Brattleboro Savings & Loan. They told us what to do. And Paula Sugarman, the historic restoration expert. She’s amazing. And the Borofskys from Sam’s and the Tylers from the Colonial Motel and Tavern.

These people were there for us, both personally and professionally. I’ve learned from them and other business owners, too. I’ve had a very, very good experience. No regrets.

J.G.: Can’t end on a higher note than that.

M.G.: Thank you.

J.G.: Thirty-five years in 45 “New York minutes”! Time to celebrate!

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