Credit: Needham Observer

How many pharmacies does one town need? We’re about to find out. Union Pharmacy Needham is expected to open near the end of March in the former Harvey’s Hardware site on Great Plain Avenue, making it the third pharmacy within a short walk of one another and one of two independent pharmacies in town.

Union Pharmacy owner Xiaoyan Qin/ Credit: Needham Observer

Union Pharmacy owner Xiaoyan Qin emigrated from Shanghai, China, in 1998. “For me it’s like the American dream. I only have $2,000 in my pocket, and I don’t speak much English.” She took English language classes and earned a Doctor of Pharmacy degree. 

She began her career at CVS, but after 11 years, Qin said she felt the industry was going the wrong way. “We become like a part of a computer, everything is an algorithm, you never have enough time to consult my patients or talk to my patients,” she recalls. “I made my decision. This is not what I want to use my degree for.” 

In 2019, Qin opened Union Pharmacy on Union Street in Newton Centre. In the early days, it was just her. “I’m by myself, I don’t have money to hire anybody, I work 8 to 8, 9 to 6, every day. … Little by little, I hired a pharmacist.” 

Shortly after she opened, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. “We did lots of things we never did before. You would never imagine a pharmacy selling so much masks and doing so many compounding of hand sanitizer,” she said. 

Choosing the Needham location

Qin said she wasn’t looking to open a third store when Harvey’s Hardware owners Jeff and Gary Katz approached her to become their next tenant. According to Qin, when the brothers walked into her Newton Centre location, “they loved the service, they loved the vibe, they asked their agent to contact me, if you want to open a store in Needham.” 

Opening Union Pharmacy Needham is a big risk, Qin said. “I don’t know if we will be successful here. But I like this space, and I have good energy, and I think this is gonna work. I think the team will be fantastic for Needham people.”

What’s different?

As an independent pharmacy, one of the ways Union differs from the chains is in how they handle vaccinations. “You don’t need to make an appointment, you just walk in,” said Qin. The vaccines are given in a consultation room. “We have a space for you, it’s private.” She said they will have every vaccine for adults and children 3 and older. “We have all the vaccines you can name, RSV, shingles, COVID.”

Prep continues inside Union Pharmacy/ Credit: Needham Observer

And there will be continuity. “We don’t change (the pharmacists). It’s all about customer care, it’s a relationship.” 

Services like filling pill organizers will be provided for $20 per month. “The good thing about that is all your medication is all filled at the same time,” she said. ”If you don’t have the refill, we reach out to the doctor. It’s very close management.” Union also provides long-term-care medications to nursing homes and assisted living communities. “We put their medicine in the bubble pack, with once-a-week, sometimes once-a-month delivery.”

The physical footprint of the independent pharmacy is also smaller than the big chains, and there are fewer non-prescription items. “We don’t sell a big liter of Coke, we have a small one. We don’t sell 1,000 aspirin, we sell a one-month supply. You go to big chains, there’s a wall of Tylenol, but pharmacists, we know all the ingredients are the same, it’s just marketed differently. You don’t need a whole wall of Tylenol.” 

In her Newton Centre store, Qin reports she has over 100 credit card transactions a day, which seems like a lot, but she said a large chain pharmacy would have 200 to 300 a day. The pharmacists at these drugstores, she said, “they are good, they are just overworked, very overworked.”

The other independent

Bird’s Hill Pharmacy is Needham’s other independent pharmacy, located at the opposite end of Great Plain Avenue, near the Hersey commuter rail station.

“There used to be many independent pharmacies in Needham. At one point as many as six or even 10,” said co-owner Andrew Stein. He defines an independent pharmacy as “owned and operated by pharmacists and technicians (who) love the profession and prioritize patient care. This is where you go if you want personalized attention.”

Stein and Qin were classmates and have worked together at the Massachusetts Independent Pharmacy Association. “Xiaoyan is very intelligent and business savvy. She has been a great advocate for the profession and her patients,” he said. “She will be able to offer superior customer service. I expect her to be busy right away.” 

“We have complementary businesses, so I anticipate sending a lot of referrals her way and am excited for Needham to have another independent pharmacy option. It’s good for the community, the folks in Needham are gonna love it.” He said he does not view chains as competition. “We typically serve different needs.”

The chains

CVS has two stores in Needham, one on Great Plain Avenue (opened in 1984) downtown and one on Highland Avenue (opened in 1997) in Needham Heights. 

“(They) provide convenient access to quality, affordable pharmacy care services and help close gaps in care,” said Matt Blanchett of CVS Pharmacy Retail Communications. “Our focus is to have the right kinds of stores in the right locations to support our patients and the needs of the local community.”

Blanchett said they’re evolving in the way they support patients. “We’re creating sustainable working conditions, creating capacity for our pharmacists to exercise clinical abilities consumers are asking for, easing the administrative tasks ….. (and) using technology to fuel efficiency. Technology helps enhance, not replace, the important relationship between community pharmacists and their patients.”

There is one Walgreens located on Highland Avenue across the street from Town Hall. Walgreens did not return several phone and email requests for comment. 

“I don’t think we can compete with CVS and Walgreens, but we have a heart,” said Qin. “For our customers, we take care of them. If you look at my bank account, you will laugh at me. It’s very little. My husband says, ‘What kind of business are you running?’ The American dream for me is not how much money you can make, it’s how much you can give.”

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