BANGOR, Maine — It’s the end of an era in Bangor. Bernard “Billy” Miller and his wife, Gloria, worked their last day on Friday after 55 years at the helm of Miller Drug, a fixture in the city and part of the dying breed of locally owned community pharmacies.
“It’s with heavy hearts that we do this because we’ve been so involved over these past years that the community identifies Miller Drug with [the Miller family],” Billy Miller said Friday during an interview in his office above the pharmacy on State Street.
“I feel very sad to think that what I’ve been doing all my life I can’t do anymore. I also feel hopeful that the people that I’m affiliated with … will continue the philosophy and the tradition my parents and my wife and I have established — which is helping people.”
The Millers said family played a large part in their decision. They hope to spend more time with their four children,10 grandchildren, and future great-grandchildren.
Miller, 78, said he decided it’s time to step away from the day-to-day “nuts and bolts” management of Miller Drug and its four locations. He and Gloria will remain part owners and consultants.
In 2010, Miller Drug announced a merger with Affiliated Healthcare Services — a for-profit arm of Brewer-based Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems — that created three new branches under the Miller Drug name.
Management from the Affiliated Healthcare Services side of the merger now will lead operations and oversight of Miller Drug branches, including the State Street location.
At the time of the merger, Miller told the Bangor Daily News he had no immediate plans to retire, but said, “I couldn’t exit this business until I knew the neighborhood community pharmacy is still in existence. I realized this [merger with Affiliated Pharmacy Services] had to be the answer.”
Miller said the family-owned pharmacy is an “endangered species” in the U.S., under pressure in a tough business climate dominated by large pharmaceutical companies and big-box, chain pharmacies.
“That doesn’t mean big is better,” Miller said. “But it seems as though that’s the way things have been going in America.”
The roots of Miller Drug were planted in 1939, when Billy’s mother, Frieda, started a family variety store to help bring in some income while her husband, Abe, was ill. Her family and friends pitched in money to help her start the store on State Street so she could provide for her children while Abe recovered from surgery.
The store, then called Miller Cut Rate, became a “monumental success,” Miller said.
Doctors and nurses from the hospital down the street, as well as neighborhood kids and families, frequented the store, where they grabbed a bite to eat or sat down to have an ice cream float. The regulars had tabs, and Abe and Frieda would send them a bill once a month.
“It was the focal point of the area,” said Miller, who remembers to this day what certain customers ordered on a regular basis more than half a century ago.
In the 1950s, Billy Miller went to Boston to study to be a pharmacist. It was there that he met Gloria.
“I went into a drugstore on Longwood Avenue to get a pack of gum and came out with a wife,” Miller said Friday, shooting a grin toward Gloria, who sat across the room. There were a few dates before the engagement, he said. The first two were to Boston Red Sox games. On the third date he introduced her to Ted Williams.
He and Gloria returned to Bangor in 1957, and Billy opened a prescription drug counter at Miller Cut Rate, which changed its name to Miller Drug.
At the time, there were more than a dozen family-owned pharmacies in the city, including three “within a stone’s throw” of Miller Drug. Back then, the average drugstore filled just 20 prescriptions per day because there were so few drugs in circulation.
Today, Miller Drug averages 1,500 prescriptions filled per day at its State Street location alone.
Though the store has seen success, the business environment isn’t as friendly as it used to be, Miller said.
“The government does not want us to make any money. The government’s not interested in small business,” he said. “The government wants big business where they can have all their eggs in one basket.”
Miller expressed frustration with government support services that allow people to get diabetes supplies or prescriptions through the mail, bypassing physical pharmacies and making it difficult for community pharmacies to survive.
In spite of the struggles of recent years, the challenge has been well worth it, he said.
The most rewarding aspect of his pharmacy work has been helping in others, whether it be through filling prescriptions for drugs that help ease pain, discomfort and affliction, or just passing a piece of candy to a child who isn’t feeling well.
About 21 years ago, Suzanne Spruce, who now works at Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems, brought her 6-year-old daughter, Sarah, into the pharmacy. Sarah was under the weather and her mother needed to pick up a prescription for her after a doctor’s visit.
Miller said he didn’t like seeing the little girl sick and sad, so he handed her a piece of candy from the counter to cheer her up. Sarah Spruce is now a 27-year-old attorney.
“They don’t make them like that anymore,” Suzanne Spruce said of Miller.
Countless other visitors to the Bangor pharmacy share similar stories.
“We’ve helped people since the day [the store] opened. Millions of people,” said Miller, adding that he believes longtime employees, newcomers and management of the store will carry on that tradition.
Miller is still an active member of the Bangor Symphony Orchestra, where he has played percussion instruments since he joined in 1957. He will play in the upcoming December performances of “The Nutcracker.” He also plans to continue to work with the Kiwanis Club and serve on hospice boards.
Miller will still be around Bangor and will remain active in the community, he said. Miller is well known for a phrase he uses frequently: “If you helped someone today, you’ve had a good day.”
“In order for me to survive, I have to help somebody,” Miller said.