Corner pharmacy, at 90, dispenses human touch
Corner pharmacy, at 90, dispenses human touch
At Paulsen’s Pharmacy on the corner of Northeast 43rd and Sandy, get a chocolate milkshake made on a sparkling marble countertop in use for 90 years, and then step across the room to obtain a prescription using a high-speed digital system.

At the helm of this mix of nostalgia and modernity stands a member of All Saints Parish. Gary Balo says a Catholic background makes him a better pharmacist.

“Anybody in a pharmacy has a passion to help people,” says Balo, who started working at Paulsen’s in 1970 and became owner in 1988. “We are problem-solvers, trouble-shooters.”

In the mid-1990s, Balo became the spokesman for pharmacists who opposed physician-assisted suicide. He appeared in one newspaper article with a pharmacist-friend who favors the Oregon law. The two still bowl together on Thursday nights. No one has ever asked Balo to fill a lethal prescription.

“Faith means integrity and honesty,” he says. “And clients become our extended family. We support them in many ways. We jump for joy when they have something great going on in their lives and we mourn with them when they lose someone.”

Because it’s not a chain store, Paulsen’s can offer a human touch when in other venues computers do the work.

Balo’s goal is to meet customers’ needs, know their names and listen to what they have to teach. He makes it a point to stock hard-to-find items and order what he cannot stock. Even before allergy alerts were printed on medicine bottles, he went out of his way to check with customers to make sure they would not have a reaction.

When children are bored or fussy, Balo often orders up a free soda to calm them until a prescription gets filled.

He attended St. Rose School, not far from the pharmacy. A 1964 graduate of Jesuit High, he sang in student choirs.

After Jesuit, he attended Oregon State University and obtained a pharmaceutical degree in 1970. After an internship, he began scanning the papers for a position. One of the pharmacists at Paulsen’s was leaving to get married and he filled the slot.

The pharmacy began in 1918, founded by a man now known only as Mr. Nichols. Charles Paulsen bought it in 1923 and ran it for more than 30 years. James Meade, who began working there in the 1940s, purchased the store in the late 1950s.

In the late 1970s, after Balo arrived, he and Meade were co-owners until 1988 when Balo became sole owner.

The pharmacy is one of the oldest businesses in Hollywood and resides in one of the district’s oldest buildings. The back counter of the fountain is original marble and the woodwork goes back 90 years, too. Nostalgia seekers often come just to see the fountain, one of few still existing in drug stores.

In 1983, the landlord almost sold the Paulsen lot to a fast-food chain, but business owners and the public protested.

There have been other hard times. When the Fred Meyer store across the street moved a few miles away, shopping patterns shifted. Road construction in the 1980s and just last year dampened business, as did the move of a Trader Joe’s store. But things are stepping up again.

Many faithfuls have stayed on through it all. Jeanice Curtis, a retired school district secretary, first started shopping at Paulsen’s 50 years ago.

“I like the feel of the place,” Curtis told the Hollywood Star News. “I like the people who work here. I don’t feel like just a number when I come here.”

Balo needs a knowledge of arcane insurance systems and government programs, something his predecessors did not have. He often patiently makes phone calls, helping customers figure out their insurance coverage.

He admits that a single-payer health system would be simpler, but he thinks fair competition is good for healthcare.

Balo, 62, reveres his pharmaceutical forbears. He recalls Paulsen coming in to work part-time during retirement and maintaining gentlemanly close contact with long-time customers. When Paulsen died 20 years ago, Balo closed the store for the funeral, the only time he ever shut down during business hours.

Balo may have felt like closing the shutters in 2006, when he faced a deluge of confusion as Medicare Part D became law. That January, he faced the two toughest weeks of his career.

Karen Balo, married to Gary for 34 years, came to the pharmacy to fill in as a technician temporarily after the couple’s daughter left kindergarten. That was 23 years ago.

Living and working as a couple takes patience and a good sense of humor, they say.

“We get along,” Karen says. “We kid back and forth. We still talk and we’re still friends.”

They met at a car repair class. Karen was one of only two women enrolled and the two hit it off when they both had their heads under the same hood.
Now, they are both active at All Saints, where Gary has been a parishioner since 1962. He is an usher and they are both extraordinary ministers of Communion.

Balo’s dream is to find a good successor for Paulsen’s, a pharmacist who wants to continue the tradition and tend to the relationships.

“I want there to be continuity,” he says.