In its heyday at the turn of the 20th century, Southampton Village’s Corwith Pharmacy on Main Street had a back-room laboratory filled with medicines and equipment. It was lined with oak shelves stocked with perfumes, candy and cigars. It even served as a communication hub at one time, as folks would line up at the message window to send out Western Union telegrams.
Today, after 138 years in business, the pharmacy, now located on Hampton Road, is closing its doors. The pharmacy is second only to Hildreth’s Home Goods, which was founded in 1842, as the oldest business in Southampton Village.
Pharmacist and owner John Kluge, who bought the company from the Corwith family in 1967, said that a dwindling customer base and the ever-changing nature of the business has forced his hand. At the same time, he said he’s happy that closing shop will give him the chance to spend more time with his grandchildren, Ian Joly and Fiona Kluge.
When Mr. Kluge started in business, supermarkets specialized only in food products, and pharmacies had their regular cycle of customers who would come in for their prescriptions one week, shaving cream or shampoo the next, and bandages the following week. Although supermarkets provided a “shot in the arm” to his business for a little while, the inclusion of health and beauty products in grocery stores eventually took a toll, according to Mr. Kluge. Customers came by only for their prescriptions as markets became one-stop shops.
The shop also fell victim to what many pharmacies have struggled with in recent years: the introduction of third-party pharmaceutical companies, which sell drugs for less, as well as the reduction in reimbursement rates by insurance companies, which means pharmacies get less money for the prescriptions they fill.
“There have been big changes, many of which have been outside of our control,” he said on Monday.
Mr. Kluge said he noticed a difference in the volume of customers after the store moved to International Plaza off Hill Street in 1987 to prepare for its new home on Hampton Road, where the store would move in 1988. Since then, he said, he lost many regular, year-round customers. They didn’t even come back when the new store opened its doors, he said.
“Location, location, location,” he said. “I didn’t think on a year-round basis the move would have a significant effect.”
Originally the pharmacy was located in the small, white building at 9 Main Street now occupied by H. Groome.
Caleb Corwith, who founded the pharmacy in 1874 after losing his wife to tuberculosis, decided to move the store across the alleyway and into a new house he built for his family in 1900, sharing a corner with the library on Jobs Lane.
The new store was “the old drug store with all imperfections removed and all desirable improvements introduced,” according to an article in the now defunct Seaside Times on March 17, 1900. “No where else in our broad land is it possible to go into another drug store and find a duplicate of Corwith’s Pharmacy,” it read.
The store had the newest laboratory equipment, running water and electricity. In fact, Mr. Corwith installed the electrical wiring and the telephone and telegraph wiring himself.
“It was like the Taj Mahal,” Mr. Kluge said, who bought the pharmacy from Foster Corwith when he retired. Mr. Kluge had been working as a pharmacist at the Sag Harbor Pharmacy when he decided to buy the business. In 1987, Mr. Kluge was unable to extend the lease on the Main Street building, and had to move out.
Over his 45 years as Corwith Pharmacy’s owner and pharmacist, Mr. Kluge said he has enjoyed working with people and performing the more scientific aspect of his job—making compounds for prescriptions and consulting with customers about medications.
“When you make something, people appreciate it,” he said about mixing compounds. One of his favorite memories is helping a Shelter Island woman who needed a unique prescription desperately, and so he made the compound in three hours, and personally delivered it to her in North Haven, with his dog at his side.
“You feel good when you get to do something like that,” he said.
Now, though, Mr. Kluge’s days of offering a helping hand are coming to a close.
Although he said he hasn’t thought that far ahead, he expects he may have to become a landlord at some point, but hopes to eventually sell the building. When asked if he considered passing the business on to someone else, he said it would have been a difficult task. “Business is too small to find someone to take over,” the 70-year-old said. “Wholesalers don’t want to ship to me.”