Those walking around the Center Island Pharmacy in Hampton Bays will come upon empty aisles, partially stocked shelves and entire sections of the store in various stages of disassembly.They’ll also find longtime customers wiping away tears as they comb through the remaining merchandise, employees young and old swapping stories with shoppers, and the store’s owner, 79-year-old Frank Silecchia, strolling the aisles collecting handshakes, hugs, condolences and congratulations in between making sales.
For many customers, the four-decades-old institution at 254 West Montauk Highway was more than just the place they went to fill their prescriptions. It was where they went for advice, for help and for just about everything else.
Its closure later this month, to them, is the end of an era.
“Frank has always been here, and he’s always been willing to help everybody, no matter what,” said Selma Sherter of Hampton Bays, a longtime customer. “We always called it ‘Frank’s Place,’ because that’s how we knew it, not as Center Island. When you came here, it was for Frank.”
“It’s a disaster, it really is, because you’re not going to get anybody [like him],” added Bob Bartel, a customer who travels from Eastport to get his prescriptions filled. “People today don’t care. He cares, and everybody who works here cares. The people that work here have been here for 30 years and all.”
Others lamented the loss of yet another mom-and-pop store in the community. “It’s just a part of what’s happening all around—the little guy gets swallowed up by the bigger guy. It’s very sad,” Marian Fink of East Quogue said. “We try to keep this community as a small town, and this was a major part of everybody’s life.”
Mr. Silecchia’s lease for the Breslin Realty-owned property expires at the end of the month. After 40 years of business in an increasingly competitive market, and after pouring resources into his business already to keep it afloat, the longtime owner said he could not take on an increase in rent. He declined to say how much his rent has increased, and Breslin representatives did not return calls or emails seeking comment.
An exact date has not been set, but Mr. Silecchia, who lives in East Quogue with his wife, Gerri, said within the next few weeks his store will close its doors for good.
“After adding to my business to keep it going and working the pharmacy myself, it becomes very hard, because you don’t have enough time to do everything that you want to do,” he said. “So, with the new lease and the extra expense, I felt like it was time.”
More Than A PharmacyShortly after Thanksgiving in 1972, Mr. Silecchia, who had been working in pharmacies since he was 15, obtained the space for a pharmacy of his own. On April 1 of the following year, his store celebrated its grand opening in Hampton Bays.
The pharmacy evolved with each passing decade, adding new features to keep drawing in new business. First a doughnut counter in the back, where Mr. Silecchia baked cookies, poured coffee and glazed doughnuts by hand. Then a fish-and-chips stand, record store, in-house lamp shade cutting and, finally, a “Maria’s” Hallmark Gift Card center that is named after his oldest daughter, who has worked at the pharmacy since she was 9.
East Quogue resident Isabella Phillips recalled paying a visit to Mr. Silecchia’s doughnut counter after every doctor appointment she had while pregnant with her son, who is now in his 30s.
But it was merchandising where Mr. Silecchia found his second calling. “It was just in me,” he said, adding that for years a sign hung in one of the store’s window reading, “If you don’t see it, ask for it and we’ll get it.”
From clothes to cosmetics to kitchen wares and appliances, Mr. Silecchia kept his shelves stocked with everything shoppers could imagine, customers said this week. The store’s employees also embraced Mr. Silecchia’s “help everybody” mentality, said East Quogue resident Carole Nappi, who has been a regular at the store since it opened.
“I will miss it—I will miss everyone here,” Ms. Nappi said. “They’re always so personable.”
Mr. Silecchia said that, over the years, he’s hired “mothers, daughters and daughters’ children,” to work in his store.
Francine LeDuca, who has been working as a cashier there for 31 years, said she took her customer service cues from Mr. Silecchia and, from there, developed long-lasting relationships. Ms. LeDuca said she would help customers with their problems, listen to their stories and, with a special few, attend their funerals when they died.
“The whole town has come here. He has helped everyone in any way he can. He served them all these years, and they will all be very much missed,” Ms. LeDuca said. “It was a pleasure working here. I couldn’t ask for a better 31 years than the time I’ve spent working here.”
A Bittersweet GoodbyeFor the pharmacist and his oldest daughter, after 40 years of business, this new chapter is a welcome change. Mr. Silecchia said he will work part time as a pharmacist at the nearby Rite Aid in Hampton Bays, where all his patient profiles were sent so he can maintain the relationships he’s built during a lifetime behind the counter.
Although he’s sad to move on, Mr. Silecchia said he’s heartened by the support he’s received from customers in recent weeks.
“A lot of people were affected and that really touched me,” he said. “After all these years of working so hard to help everyone I could, it’s nice to know it was appreciated.”
As for his daughter, she views the store’s pending closure as an opportunity to take the knowledge she’s built up working for her father since she was 9 years old and applying it to something new.
“It’s bittersweet. Everything took a lot of work and a lot of time and a lot of thought, and through every changing decade [my father] devised a way to keep business going and to keep customers coming in,” she said. “Seeing everything now, it’s the end of four decades, but it’s a new beginning for everyone.”