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Old-Time Druggist Swallows Bitter Pill: With Rent Doubled, He's Forced to Close


This is one of those old-fashioned neighborhood drugstores with a chipped plaster Venus de Milo on the cosmetics case, a couple of racks of greeting cards in one corner and a pharmacist in a white jacket who, stepping out of his cluttered work space, personally takes your prescription slip.

"Flu?" said Sam Perlman, 63, a balding man in oversized bifocals, dolefully considering the piece of paper he is holding. "Yeah, it's going around."

There are not many places left like the Midtown Pharmacy in Monterey Park. In an age of mega-pharmacies that can spit out 600 or 700 prescriptions a day, Perlman and his customers at the Midtown still address each other by their first names.

A lot of them were there the other day--talking with an easy, joshing familiarity bred from Perlman's gentle influence during countless bouts of bronchitis and tooth extraction and rubella--when Perlman dropped a bombshell. After more than 30 years at Garfield and Garvey avenues, he said, the Midtown is closing.

"You're kidding!" said Celia Arcos, wide-eyed with disbelief. "Nothing can be done?"

"It's the point of no return," Perlman said soberly.

"Sam, this is ridiculous. I'm so mad."

Perlman's landlords, maintaining that the pharmacist is paying a fraction of the prevailing rate for downtown Monterey Park commercial space, have almost doubled his rent, from $3,100 a month to $6,000. They have given him until the end of February to sign a new lease or vacate the store, an unreinforced concrete structure that needs to be bolstered against earthquake stresses.

"We can't do anything on earthquake reinforcement until he moves out," said a spokeswoman for the Lancet Investment Co., the Chinese partnership that bought the building last year. "It's the main reason we want him out."

But Perlman said that, besides raising the rent, the landlords want to shut his business down for three months while the building is under repairs. "And they wanted me to sign a release, absolving them of any responsibility for anything that might happen in the store," he said. "How can I do that?"

Many of the customers see the demise of the Midtown as part of the radical transformation of Monterey Park in the last decade from a sleepy, ethnically diverse small town to a bustling San Gabriel Valley dynamo where a majority of the population is Asian, the nation's first suburban Chinatown.

"We've been inundated with Chinese restaurants, inundated with gift shops," said longtime resident Joy Rowe. "That's OK. But now the merchants who have been here so long are being pushed out."

"What can you do?" asked DeEtta Roberts, a retired retail clerk, shrugging her shoulders. "If you don't like it, move to Alaska."

"It's a real touchy situation," said Mayor Patricia Reichenberger, who has been working to relocate the Midtown. "For the past six or eight years, investors have been coming in, raising rents, forcing people out. Or refusing to renew leases. It's a long sad story."

Perlman's store has been especially coveted, Reichenberger said. "It's the best spot in town," she said.

Although some whites were quick to broadly implicate "the Chinese" for the closing of the Midtown, Perlman denied that the issue was racial. Almost a third of his clients are Asian, Perlman said. "They're hard-working people, family-oriented," he said. "Their checks don't bounce. They're very honorable in business."

The headlong rush to buy real estate in Monterey Park has wiped out the small-town business district, he said. Perlman will be one of the last to go. Gone are the haberdasher, the shoe repairman, the barber and, 14 months ago, Paris' Restaurant, the Garvey Avenue gathering place of politicians and businessmen for 37 years, which has been turned into a Chinese restaurant.

"You start feeling like a stranger in a strange land," Perlman said. "Even the taco stands are Chinese now."

In the 37 years since he got his license from the State Board of Pharmacy, the soft-spoken druggist has seen some big changes in the drug-dispensing business, too.

When Perlman took over the Monterey Park store in 1959, he became part of a vast network of neighborhood pharmacists, dispensing medication to American families. That was a more innocent time, Perlman said. "We used to keep the condoms under the counter, and sanitary napkins were wrapped in plain brown paper."

But the biggest changes since then have been in the industry's economics, he said. "Suddenly there were prepaid health care plans directing patients to their own pharmacies," he said. "Or patients were sent to the chains, where there were fee arrangements. The community pharmacist is gradually being forced out."

The Monterey Park real estate boom could not have come at a worse time for him. "Overhead is increasing just as the margin of profit is decreasing," Perlman said.

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