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By Corrie M. Anders
Enrique Tevar was enjoying a day off from work, so he missed getting the news right away. Shon Escamillo was off too, but got a "Guess what?" phone call from a co-worker. Thom Bernier was privy to the distressing truth for two days, but, as the store manager, had to keep the secret to himself until the official announcement.
The news, a corporate decision arriving just before Christmas, stunned the tight clan of employees at the Rite Aid drugstore in downtown Noe Valley--and saddened many of their longtime customers. After nearly a decade of operation, the Rite Aid Corp. announced it would be closing the store at 4045 24th Street sometime this spring.
The pharmacy stopped dispensing medicine Jan. 7, and transferred prescriptions to the Walgreen Drug Store outlet around the corner on Castro Street. The Rite Aid chain then offered to relocate the dozen or so employees at the Noe Valley branch to any of seven other Rite Aid locations serving the San Francisco area.
The store was down to six workers in mid-January--and they were busy overseeing the liquidation sale of $900,000 worth of merchandise--everything from aspirin and hair care to cosmetics and pet supplies. Rite Aid will continually slash prices each week in February until the inventory is gone, probably sometime in March.
Several employees said management told them that the 6,727-square-foot store was done in by an untenable rent increase. The company would not discuss financial considerations, but acknowledged that it reviewed "all elements" of operating the store as its long-term lease came to an end.
"It was a business decision to close the store," and it was not "made lightly," said Ashley Flower, a corporate spokeswoman in Harrisburg, Pa. It was "just impossible for us to continue to operate from a business perspective."
End of an Era
In the mid-1980s, the site was the home of a Thrifty Jr. drugstore. Rite Aid, today the country's third-largest drugstore retailer behind leader Walgreen's and runner up CVS Corp., acquired the Thrifty Jr. chain in 1996 and launched the revamped 24th Street store in May 1998. It earned a reputation for a warm and welcoming environment, and news of its demise caused pain for both employees and customers.
Tevar, one of the original employees who started with Thrifty Jr. nearly two decades ago as a cashier and rose through the ranks to supervisor, said parting would be difficult.
"I'm sad that I have to leave this neighborhood because I grew, after all these years, to get fond of so many people," Tevar said. "It was like a family."
Popular cashier Mary Packer was another worker who had many farewells to make. "It's sad," she said. "I'm going to really miss my customers. They're all really nice, especially my cuties...."
Pharmacist Alex Wong had an especially close relationship with many of his clientele, who found comfort in his medical advice and understanding demeanor. One regular surprised him with "a very nice tie" at Christmas, and another gave him a box of See's Candy.
"I was kind of devastated when I heard the news. Not for me, but my customers," said Wong, a 13-year veteran who has transferred to a Rite Aid location on Market Street.
Customers Show Their Support
As a touching going-away present, 95-year-old Helen Weinschenk, a 24th Street resident and former owner of the Wooden Heel shoe repair shop (now Mike's Shoe Repair), baked her famous lemon cakes for the workers.
"She was in tears" when she said goodbye, said Escamillo, the store's assistant manager, who has been with the company for 18 years, 11 of them in Noe Valley.
"She's one of my best customers and one of my best friends," added Bernier, the manager, who was moving to Rite Aid's West Portal location after eight years on 24th Street.
Kelly Crispen, who strolled through Rite Aid one day recently to pick up a few items and scan the shelves of marked-down goods, expressed dismay that the store was shutting down.
"It's disappointing because the employees are really friendly," said Crispen, an eight-year Noe Valley resident. "I come here and they know you by name."
Employees said the closing caught them totally off guard. "I was very numb...it was a real shock," Bernier said. "The store was in decent shape. It was busy and we were a fixture in the neighborhood."
Bernier said he was informed a few days before Christmas, but couldn't immediately tell employees. "That was not much fun. I didn't sleep," he said. "Once everyone knew, it was a big relief."
Other Businesses Eye Site
Local business leaders say they hope the building can be leased quickly so that the block does not suffer the eyesore of a boarded-up storefront. With its prime location, "I don't think it will be vacant very long," said Diane Barrett, co-president of the Noe Valley Merchants and Professionals Association.
The word on the street is that Wells Fargo Bank has shown interest in relocating a few doors from its current location to the larger Rite Aid space.
"They're on top of each other in that branch," noted Barrett. "They've shown interest, but they show interest in various spots that have come open and they've never moved on it."
Wells Fargo spokeswoman Michele Ashley offered an oblique response to a query about possible interest in the Rite Aid site. The bank is always looking for new opportunities to improve its operations, she said, but it has "no concrete plans" for relocating.
And after such a long tenure in Noe Valley, Rite Aid employee Tevar said relocating to a new branch was the farthest thing from his mind.
"I thought I'd be here forever and retire from here," said Tevar, 53. "I thought this store would last forever."