EASTPORT, Maine — Five thousand miles from where he grew up in Nigeria, and more than 100 miles from his home in Bangor, Ben Okafor has an easy rapport with his customers in this small coastal city as if he’s known them all his life.
He greets many by name as they walk in the door of his pharmacy, which this fall opened in a new larger downtown location. He’ll often ask about their families or joke about the weather when they drop off their prescription orders. Later, when their medication is ready, he’ll send them a text message telling them it’s ready to pick up.
“He always says ‘Hi, Steve! How’s it going?’ when I walk in,” said Steve Dewitt, a Pembroke resident who works as a longshoreman at the local port authority. “I’m very happy he’s here.”
But it is not just the friendly greetings or added services such as the pharmacy’s new drive-in window or free deliveries within a 50-mile radius that residents and officials appreciate about Okafor’s business. For about a decade, before Okafor opened Eastport Family Pharmacy in 2014, the nearest place where residents could get prescription medication was 27 miles away in Calais. The second-closest pharmacy was in Machias, a two-hour round-trip from Eastport.
“He does my mother’s medications, too,” Dewitt said. “I like it a lot better than driving to Calais.”
Elaine Abbott, Eastport’s city manager, said recently she was “thrilled” when Okafor decided to open a pharmacy in the city. Being able to get prescription medications locally on a regular basis, she said, has made a “huge” difference for many residents.
“Ben makes you feel very special,” Abbott said. “He really grabbed onto this community with open arms, and we grabbed him right back.”
The manner in which Eastport had lost an important community service is a familiar story for many small rural towns that have suffered job and population losses.
According to U.S. Census data, from 2000 to 2015 the estimated population of Eastport shrank from 1,640 residents to 1,266 — a drop of nearly 23 percent. During that same time, Maine’s statewide population is estimated to have grown by 4.2 percent, from 1.27 million to 1.33 million, with much of that growth occurring in urban areas centered around Bangor, Lewiston and Portland.
As small towns have lost residents, locally-owned stores in rural America have faced increased competition from larger retail chains, resulting in many local businesses being bought out or closing up shop with no viable options ready to step in to take their place. Though Eastport has benefitted from some economic development and civic boosterism in recent years, residents have gotten in the habit of traveling out of town for some essential goods and services as the remaining mom-and-pop businesses continue to try to stay afloat.
Okafor, 48, witnessed this process first-hand, working for several years out of Bangor as a regional pharmacist for Rite Aid before deciding to strike out on his own.
“There used to be two pharmacies here [in Eastport] at one time, around 12 years ago,” Okafor said recently, sitting in a waiting area next to display shelves in his small store. “They closed. Rite Aid bought them out and closed them.”
His former employer also bought out a pharmacy in Lubec, he said, and moved patient files from all three to its stores in Calais and Machias.
“Usually that is what big chains do,” Okafor said. “They come to rural areas and either they can’t get someone to come and stay here and work, or they don’t see it as profitable to run a business here, so they just buy [locally-owned businesses] up. It makes it difficult for folks.”
Moving to America
Okafor readily admits that growing up in Nigeria as the youngest in a family of nine children, he did not dream of opening a business in a small town in eastern Maine. The son of a minister in the Anglican Church, he and his siblings were strongly encouraged by their parents to pursue higher education and professional careers as a way to circumvent the poverty and corruption endemic in the African country.
Okafor decided to pursue a career as a pharmacist and, after getting his degree, worked for GlaxoSmithKline in his home country for two years. In 2001, after being recruited to work for Guy’s & St. Thomas’ Hospital in London, he moved to the United Kingdom.
In 2006, he was recruited by Rite Aid to move to America, where a change in pharmacy doctoral programs created a temporary shortage in new pharmacists. In January 2007, he and his wife, Angela, a lawyer by trade, moved to Bangor.
Okafor said he chose Maine over western states where Rite Aid had openings because he wanted to be close to New York City, which he visited several times while living in London.
“But when I landed in Bangor, I was like, ‘Hold on — this isn’t close,” he said, laughing at himself in hindsight. “I like it now, but initially, I was like, ‘Really? What have I done?’”
Okafor said that despite Maine’s geographic distance from New York, he soon grew accustomed to the state’s less congested pace of life.
“It didn’t take me long [to adjust], because I was busy,” he said. “I was working flat out.”
Despite his broad smile and outgoing, friendly demeanor, Okafor’s entrepreneurial ambitions kept his nose to the grindstone. Those ambitions grew when, while occasionally filling supervisory shifts at the Rite Aid store in Calais, he realized that many of the customers were from Eastport.
“I used to see people from here,” he said. “Some things like antibiotics you need right away. It [often] was two of three days before they could pick it up. I kept asking, ‘Where is this Eastport? Why can’t they get these things faster?’”
After conducting some market research, Okafor decided to leave Rite Aid and set up shop in the coastal city. He had trouble getting a bank loan, however, and so invested much of his own money, along with assistance he received from nonprofit economic development firms and government agencies such as Coastal Enterprises Inc. and the Finance Authority of Maine.
In June 2014, he opened in a “very small space” on Water Street, and not long after, he started looking for a larger property where he could have a drive-thru window. This past summer, his business moved to where a defunct laundromat used to stand at the corner of Middle and Boynton streets, next door to a medical clinic and across the street from an assisted living facility.
Though his business has grown, making it work has not been an easy feat, Okafor said.
Like many Mainers, he lives far away from his job and puts in a lot of time on the road. He spends four nights each week away from his wife and three young children — ages 2, 4 and 6 — to tend to his business in Eastport, driving the 115-mile trip back to Bangor every Friday night and then making the return trip Monday morning. He rents a small apartment in Eastport where he stays on weeknights, often after putting in long hours to make sure his customers get what they need.
“It takes dedication and hard work to make anything work,” Okafor said. “I was prepared to do it.”
Despite his mindset, Okafor said, he was not sure how well he would integrate with the Washington County community. He and his family attend St. John’s Episcopal Church in Bangor, which has helped them get accustomed to and feel welcome in the Queen City, but he knew that as a business owner he would stand out more in Eastport. The coastal city has a much smaller population than Bangor, though both cities have populations that are more than 90 percent white, and its median age of 55 years is about 20 years older than Bangor’s.
But, Okafor said, he has been well-received, and his race and status as an immigrant have not been an issue. He said he believes his neighbors and customers can see that his family is committed to being involved in the communities where they live and work. His children all are American citizens, having been born here, and his wife plans to open a Nigerian imports shop in Bangor, he said. Both he and his wife plan to apply for full American citizenship in 2018.
“We like [Maine]. It’s peaceful and quiet. No hurricanes, no earthquakes, no snakes,” Okafor said with a laugh. “I don’t like snakes! If only they could take away the wind and snow, it would be perfect!”
On a more serious note, he added, his family’s desires to succeed and help their fellow Mainers go hand-in-hand.
“It gives me joy to make a difference in people’s lives,” Okafor said. “Money is good — it counts — but that is not my primary goal. My primary goal is to make a difference, and I know once I do it well, money comes with it.”