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‘They know you by name’: Upchurch Drugs closes after 50 years

A week ago, the customers of Upchurch Drugs were shocked to find a message in their inbox:

“BITTERSWEET,” the email said. “The time has come for Upchurch Drugs to close. Our lease is expiring and it’s time to retire.”

For the next week, customers stopped by, some in tears, to mourn the closing of a store that is rarely seen in the age of Amazon and CVS: an independent pharmacy with service so personal that customers gave cashiers photos of their newborn grandchildren. 

On Wednesday, the pharmacy’s final day, longtime shoppers reminisced about the store, its owners Janet and David Upchurch and the warm service they provided. 

“They don’t give me drugs, they give me love,” said David Parker, 69, who came to the store with his wife, Sylvia Parker, to say goodbye. 

“I’m a grown man,” David Parker said, “I’m not gonna cry this time… Okay… I probably will.” 

To its customers, Upchurch Drugs was more than a place to pick up prescriptions. It was part of their community for decades. 

Angela Pendergrass, 58, had been shopping there since she was a child. “They know you by name,” said Pendergrass, who was browsing among final-sale bath soaps and candles. 

Upchurch choked back tears and said he understood his customers’ reaction. “It’s a death. I’ve seen my own funeral…We’re abandoning them.” 

Shuttered stores are familiar in suburbia, but this closing was not the usual tale of a local business being squeezed out by a giant chain. It was mostly that David Upchurch, 63, decided to retire. 

The decision to close was a combination of factors, he told The 9th Street Journal. His colleague dispensing prescriptions, Bruce Ayre, had decided to retire, and David was not ready to commit to another five-year lease. That was “the nudge that I needed,” said Upchurch. 

The store, a 10,000 square-foot space in the Riverview Shopping Center on North Roxboro Road, had three sections: the pharmacy, a gift shop that offered a wide range of products from greetings cards to beachwear, and an optical shop. The pharmacy and gift shop are closing (Walgreens is buying the database of prescriptions but not using the space). The optical shop will move to a location to be determined.

The closing is particularly sad for Upchurch because he has been sweeping the floors for the business since he was 13. His father, Julian Upchurch, co-founded the pharmacy in 1970, and took over the store on his own in 1973, renaming it Upchurch Drugs. David took control in 1982 when he graduated with a degree in pharmaceutical science from UNC-Chapel Hill.

Janet runs the gift shop and their son, Lowell, 31, also works in the store. 

Upchurch tried to get another independent pharmacy to take the space, but it was so large that he had no success. 

On Wednesday, the store’s final day in business, he was sad to say goodbye.

“You feel like you’re letting people down,” he said.

Pictured above (from top): Pharmacy owners David and Janet Upchurch; longtime customers David and Sylvia Parker; Upchurch Pharmacy on its final day in business.  Photos by Jacqueline Cole — The 9th Street Journal