Boyle Heights had never seen a Walgreens before last July. Being the first of its kind, it has everyone wondering how the new addition will impact the neighborhood. Some community members fear big chain stores could push out local merchants, while others embrace the changes.
Until recently, Boyle Heights residents have relied solely on local “mom-and-pop” stores and pharmacies for everything from medicine to common retail items. This often meant visiting multiple small stores to get everything on a shopping list. With its one-stop convenience, Walgreens provides competition to nearby businesses.
Walgreens is located in the popular César Chávez Avenue corridor, which bustles with foot traffic. The street’s crowded small storefronts have undergone changes over many decades as waves of different ethnic groups made their mark.
Before Walgreens opened in July, a Big Buy Foods had occupied the site since 1962. The market sold meats, produce and common household items. It was convenient for residents who lacked transportation. Today, silent automatic sliding doors, beige walls and commercially printed welcome signs have replaced Big Buy’s loud cumbia music and hand-painted weekly specials displayed on flashy mirrors.
Not everyone in the community is happy about the change. Some residents question why their neighborhood market became a drug store when Boyle Heights already has two independently owned pharmacies nearby.
“Here, where they put it, it’s not necessary!” 73-year-old Carmen Fuentes, who lives near the new Walgreens, says sharply.
Less than two blocks from Walgreens, Botica Del Sol and Ramírez Pharmacy have both been serving the community for more than 30 years.
Michael Ramírez’ father opened the Ramírez Pharmacy on César Chávez Avenue at Soto Street in the late ’70s. Ramírez says what makes his business different from Walgreens is personal attention.
“When customers come in here, we know them by name,” Ramírez says. “I’m able to greet them. They feel that warmth when they walk in. They’re not just a number. They’re a customer.”
Fuentes, who refills her husband’s prescriptions at Ramírez, agrees.
“When I arrive, they greet me, just as if I had arrived at a home where everyone knows me,” she says.
But not everyone values the personal, years-long relationships that local pharmacies provide.
“Yes, it’s nice to know your pharmacist, but sometimes what you want is fast service,” says Joaquín Castellanos, who likes Walgreens’ wider selection. He says the smaller pharmacies can’t meet his needs as well.
Since big chain stores are rare in Boyle Heights, when one opens up it changes the way residents shop and experience the neighborhood. While some community members fear big-box stores could push out local merchants, others embrace change coming to the neighborhood.
William Hasbun, owner of Botica Del Sol, admits that small local pharmacies like his can’t provide all that big chain stores can.
“We can’t offer $25 coupon discounts on (prescription) transfers,” he says.
Walgreens also offers services that smaller pharmacies can’t provide, such as inexpensive flu shots, coupons for medications and mobile apps that allow people to refill prescriptions easily.
Even though Walgreens has only been open for a few months, Hasbun already feels the economic impact.
Whether customers stay loyal to smaller, family-owned businesses or shop at chain stores, a Walgreens spokesman says that choice can benefit the community as a whole.
Robert Elfinger, a spokesman at the company’s Deerfield, Ill., headquarters, wrote in an email that Walgreens’ presence would increase commerce in the community.
“Walgreens’ investment in Boyle Heights will create another reason for consumers to visit the area, and it will, in turn, benefit local businesses,” he wrote.
One of Walgreens’ smaller rivals agreed initially. At first, Michael Ramírez, owner of Ramirez Pharmacy, saw the opening of Walgreens as “a reawakening” and said it would push him in a positive direction.
“I was becoming too complacent after being here for (more than) 30 years,” Ramírez says. “Change is coming. I have to make things better.”
But recent developments have caused Ramírez to look at Walgreens differently. Walgreens is prominently displaying a picture of Michael’s late father, Eddie Ramírez, who founded Ramírez Pharmacy. And Ramirez says a banner welcoming Ramírez First Pharmacy’s customers to Walgreens has confused his customers.
Michael Ramírez says he believes Walgreens is “intentionally trying to mislead the customers here in Boyle Heights” and is using “underhanded dirty tactics to try to get some of my customers from Farmacia Ramírez.”
Walgreens points out that the banner does not refer to his pharmacy but rather to his brother Robert’s former pharmacy, First Ramírez, which closed in September after Robert Ramírez sold his customer files to Walgreens. Robert Ramírez works as a pharmacist at the new Boyle Heights Walgreens.
Boyle Heights Chamber of Commerce president César Armedáriz believes that Walgreens can help Boyle Heights reinvent itself by creating a more diverse business environment and more jobs. But he understands that Walgreens’ success may come “at the cost of hurting small businesses.”
While some believe it’s impossible for small pharmacies to compete with chain stores, California Pharmacists Association CEO Jon Roth says the last few years have seen an increase in the number of independent pharmacies.
“The future is not dead for them,” he says. “It’s actually quite bright.”
Still, Roth says independent pharmacies must adapt in order to stay in business.
“If they are just relying on the good old-fashioned dispensing (of) medication, it’s going to be really tough for them to survive,” he says. “Chain drug stores are pushing at expanded levels of service and types of services in the community.”
As for Michael Ramírez, he plans to remodel his store and is developing a new marketing plan. He remains optimistic about the future of his business.
“We’ve been here for 34 years,” he says. “And we will continue to be here for many, many years to come.”
Brizette Castellanos is a Boyle Heights Beat youth reporter and a junior at Theodore Roosevelt High School’s School of Communications, New Media and Technology.