Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

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Our community’s oldest independent pharmacy, Preston’s, changed proprietors in December.

John Eklund, stalwart owner for the past three decades of the store at 5101 Lee Highway, retired confidently knowing that what he calls “the go-to place for people who need assistance” is in good hands.

With its discounts, specialty medications vital to senior citizens and nostalgia novelties (humor books along with gift-shop scented candles), Preston’s remains a slice of mom-and-pop Americana in a chain-store world.

“Sometimes I felt like it’s a last resort,” Eklund told me. “I can’t count on my hands and toes how many customers said they went everywhere else first” before finding the item at Preston’s.

He considers that “a compliment” given that prescription drug retailing has become a “convenience business.”

Competition for independent pharmacies is cutthroat. But Eklund takes satisfaction in the continuity of a customer base that includes families of three generations and discreet service to admirals, generals and notables such as broadcaster Katie Couric.

The original Preston’s started in 1934, on N. Monroe St. in Cherrydale. Eklund picked up the history from longtime customers, as he only met Mr. Preston once in the early 1980s.

Eklund can recite the pharmacy’s complicated history of moves to several sites around N. Glebe Rd. and Lee Highway (where the Wells Fargo branch is now and the site that is now an M&T bank, plus for a time in the medical building at George Mason Drive and Lee Highway).

Raised in upstate New York before earning his pharmacy degree at the University of Rhode Island, Eklund came to the Washington area in 1974 to work at a Peoples Drug Store. A colleague who’d shown success running independent stores drew out Eklund’s ambition to be an owner.

In 1986, after scouring sites in Springfield, Falls Church and Fairfax, he settled on Preston’s at 2165 N. Glebe, now a nail salon by Thirsty Bernie. “It was an institution [that was] 50 years old and had a good reputation,” he said.

But in the 1990s, when managed care was gaining steam, suppliers began driving hard bargains and chain stores threatened him. The nearby Rite Aid aggressively pressured him to sell, threatening to “put me out of business,” he recalls, even though Eklund’s customers often went next door and confirmed that Preston’s prices were lower.

After a game of chicken with a landlord that went on for years, a nervous-but-determined Eklund in 2000 finally made a deal with Ray Welch for the Texaco and auto repair shop at Lee Highway and N. Edison St. There his contractors built a new Preston’s that is a “good-sized” 6,000 square-feet. He got financial and engineering help from Cardinal Bank, Sidney Dewberry and Jack Bays Inc.

“I never had a big enough ego to change the name,” Eklund said, even as new customers mistook him for Preston.

Eklund’s original retirement plan involved grooming his deputy, a “tremendous pharmacist and customer favorite” who had degrees from Howard and Penn State universities. But she moved to California, “a stunning disappointment,” he said.

New owner Frank Odeh, who has run pharmacies in Fairfax and Falls Church, “is not a chain per se,” said Eklund, who kept Preston’s afloat through customer word of mouth. “He’s a marketer, which is what pharmacies need now. Preston’s was there a long time before me and will be there long after.”

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Glen, the panhandler with a rake who cares for his territory at Washington Blvd. and Sycamore Street, is a tree hugger.

For years, he told me, he complained to the county that the Sycamore trees next to the East Falls Church Metro parking lot are riddled with termites. Peeling off bark to show me, Glen warned that several are in in danger of falling on passersby. Yet Metro, the county and VDOT ignore the problem.

Glen’s separate efforts to pull up dandelions from the median recently earned him a reprimand from a police officer summoned by the Metro station manager.