Oak Bay profile: Pharmacy is part of the community

Tuckers’ family business in Oak Bay Village going strong after 50 years

In the basement stockroom of Oak Bay Pharmasave

In the basement stockroom of Oak Bay Pharmasave

They still disagree on retail merchandising styles and how long to hang onto old stock.

But retired pharmacist Roy Tucker can’t deny that his son, Tony, has a knack for making a modern pharmacy hum.

Wandering into Oak Bay Pharmasave these days gives the father, now 84, a clear indication that retailing is far different than when he opened his first drugstore 50 years ago tomorrow (March 1).

On that day in 1962, he launched his business career, having made an arrangement with Howard Bewley to purchase Newport Pharmacy at the corner of Newport Avenue and Windsor Road.

“The selling price was $47,000. In those days that was like a million dollars,” he recalls. The deal, financed by Bewley himself, allowed Roy to get his start while earning a living for he and wife, Pat, and their young family.

Roy had worked whatever jobs he could find after obtaining his pharmacy degree from the University of British Columbia in 1955. “I remember being broke and going from paycheque to paycheque,” he says. “It ended up taking me 18 years to pay (the loan) off.”

When Bewley handed Roy the keys to the pharmacy all those years ago and walked out the door, the young pharmacist was forced to sink or swim and learn from his mistakes. As sole employee for much of the early years, he had to get creative in order to build his business.

In the early days, when the Tuckers were struggling to make a go of it, any opportunity to extend their customer service was seized. Often Roy took phone orders from shut-ins who needed a prescription or some other product. He’d call his wife Pat, who was home with four kids, to come with the car and make the deliveries.

Tony recalls the days when he and twin brother Jeffrey were thrust into delivery duty by their dad.

“I can remember he gave us oversized bikes so we would grow into them,” Tony says.

The boys were kept hopping, running prescriptions around to customers from Ten Mile Point to McNeill Bay. “He had us going all over the place.”

As the business grew, Roy began looking for new digs. In 1977 he struck a deal with John Weicker, who was operating a pharmacy in Oak Bay Village in the current location of Pharmasave. With more space to work with, the ideas for expanding came fast and furious.

Roy purchased the prescription client list and stock of Davenport Chemists, when it closed its store up Oak Bay Avenue.

“That, to me was the difference between success and failure,” he says of the decision.

Later the Tuckers joined with a group of other pharmacy owners under the United Pharmacies umbrella. In 1981, the blue banners of United were switched for the red banners of Pharmasave, for which the Oak Bay store was the first in Canada to convert – there are more than 400 owner-operated stores across the country now.

Tony spent time working away from the drugstore, latching on with the Oak Bay Marina Restaurant as a teen, then working at Food Forum groceries on Cadboro Bay Road.

The mid-80s brought crisis for the family, as Pat became ill, prompting Roy to consider selling the business to care for her. He and Tony talked about the son coming on board full-time, which he did in 1985.

It was a good fit for then 23-year-old Tony, who, unlike his dad, embraced the notion of learning on the job.

“I like retail, I like people, I like elderly people,” he says. “This was a situation that was kind of dropped in my lap, but it took off, as far as sales go.”

A graduate of the business administration program at Camosun College, Tony had ideas about purchasing and marketing that came largely from his work with Francis Ko at Food Forum.

The introduction of cosmetics at the store was a huge boon for business, he says. Bringing in such non-pharmacy items as giftware and seasonal items has also helped keep the traffic flow consistent.

“I think when people know they don’t have to go downtown to get things, it makes it easier for them,” he says.

Liz Smith, president of the Oak Bay Business Improvement Association, calls Pharmasave the “heart of the Village” for the way it generates traffic for the area.

And she’s constantly surprised at the stock that finds it way onto the store’s shelves.

“It’s like Aladdin’s cave, there’s so much interesting merchandise in there,” she says. “I have visitors that come from the U.K. and they always want to stop in to see what’s new.”

Unlike the days when Roy was overseeing things, Tony’s wife, Karen, along with daughter Kayla, goes on buying trips – to New York on occasion – to find interesting items that will catch people’s attention.

The heart of the store remains the pharmacy, however. Tony is not a pharmacist, but relies on the professionalism and knowledge of his four longtime staffers to provide clients with the service they’ve come to know and rely on over the years.

Tony keeps the atmosphere light in the store, chatting up customers and doing his best to make everyone feel comfortable.

He’s stopped trying to make Roy comfortable with the way he runs the store, but still lets dad speak his mind about the state of the stockroom.

“We sometimes disagree on whether he should put old stock on sale out front, ” Roy says. “(But)  for someone who doesn’t have a degree, he’s done quite well. He’s been very active in the community and I think he’ll be there for a long time.”


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