A prescription way beyond egg creams

A prescription way beyond egg creams

The Millers, mother and son, tell the story of their Wyckoff pharmacy

This is Miller’s Pharmacy as it looked in 1948.
This is Miller’s Pharmacy as it looked in 1948.

Ninety-four-year-old Doris Einstein Miller of Mahwah has known the ins and outs of running a pharmacy since the early 1940s.

“My parents owned Einstein’s Pharmacy in Albany,” Ms. Miller said. “In addition to filling prescriptions, they served food at a soda fountain. That’s what pharmacies did in those days to supplement income. My father mixed simple syrup at home and I learned to mix the perfect egg cream.”

Her family came from Russia. “We were a religious family, with cousins, aunts and uncles in Albany who were involved in theater, journalism, politics and philanthropy,” she said.

She is proud of her family’s pharmacy, which remained in business for 34 years. Her father, Simeon Einstein, graduated from Albany College of Pharmacy and so did she, in 1948,  and so did her husband, Richard Miller. That’s where Doris and Richard met.

Richard Miller’s father, Robert Miller, who had gone to the New Jersey College of Pharmacy, opened Millers Pharmacy in Passaic in 1918. “My father-in-law was known as a kind man,” she said. “He’d take checks from people who couldn’t afford their medications and put them in a drawer. He never cashed them.”

The Passaic pharmacy went under in the late 1920s. And then the Millers heard that the mayor of Wyckoff was looking for someone to open a pharmacy, Ms. Miller said. “But since Route 208, which eventually connected towns coming from Route 4 and Route 20 to northern Bergen County was a primitive two-lane dirt road, people in Passaic didn’t know Wyckoff existed.”

The town was essentially farmland then. “You could see from one side of Wyckoff to the other,” Ms. Miller said; people would go to the Wyckoff Hotel if they wanted to spend time “in the country.”

Wyckoff presented another challenge to Robert and Hannah Zacharewitz Miller. They were used to living among Jews — Passaic had a large Jewish population, Wyckoff did not. But Mr. Miller wanted to continue to work as a pharmacist, so the family — which included two sons, Richard and Eddie — moved there. They opened Millers Pharmacy on the corner of Wyckoff Avenue and Main Street, across from the train station. Its home was a building erected in 1860 and believed to be the oldest commercial structure in town.

Doris Miller plays with a grandchild.

What followed was then a traditional business mode — it was a combined pharmacy and liquor store.

Hannah Miller helped in the pharmacy while raising the children. “She would bring my father-in-law his lunch and his dinner in a bucket,” Doris Miller said. “He worked long hours — from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. — seven days a week.”

Later, Ms. Miller got sick, so her son Eddie, a World War II veteran who had been working at Columbia Pictures in New York, came back to support his father in managing the business. “Eddie’s father was responsible for obtaining the license for the liquor store, Miller’s Liquors, which opened in a brand-new shopping center on the other side of Wyckoff Avenue. “The store remained open for close to 15 years until it was sold and continued under a different name,” his wife, Bella Miller of Wanaque, said. “In later years, Eddie and I bought a stationary store, Ramsey Stationers, where we worked until we retired.”

Doris Einstein and Richard Miller got married in 1950. “After Richard graduated, he went into the Army,” Ms. Miller said. “So I took our oldest son, David, to live in Fairbanks, Alaska, where Richard was stationed.” The Millers moved back to New Jersey in 1958 to raise their children, David, Douglas, and Deborah. “We quickly got involved filling prescriptions at Millers Pharmacy,” she said. “Richard took over the store from his father in the late 1960s after Robert died. He was the brains and I was his facilitator — doing all I could to visit pharmacies in other states to learn the concept of the pharmaceutical center.

“We worked with a creative designer, Ceil Krieger, a friend of the family, who suggested gutting the inside of the pharmacy and creating a beautiful area where customers could wait their turn to meet with the pharmacist privately. She added a new flair to the pharmacy, including artwork by then popular Peter Max.”

“The pharmaceutical center concept meant that no products were on display,” she continued. “Everything was behind the counter. A client would be greeted by a pharmacist, the client would explain what he needed, and anything that was not in prescription form would be recommended.

“It was a beautiful, personal, and well-accepted concept.”

The late 1960s were the dawn of Medicare and government regulation of prescription medication pricing. It was also a time when durable medical equipment and other assistive devices were being invented faster than they could be supplied and distributed.

Her son David Miller is a third-generation pharmacist.

“I traveled to conventions in Atlanta where new products were on display,” Ms. Miller said. “It was impossible to keep up with the inventions — cervical pillows for neck relief, specialty canes that adjusted to a person’s height, and so many walkers, walkers that folded, walkers with wheels, walkers with seats. I trekked hundreds of thousands of feet on the convention floor testing products, from electronic blood pressure machines to finger-sized oxygen saturation monitors.”

With the advent of home-care products, Ms. Miller met inventors of specialty beds for recovering patients. “My son David joked that if there was a new mattress, I had to lay on it, but if I didn’t think a product would work for our customers, I wouldn’t sell it.”

Returning from trips to Atlanta, she’d introduce specialty items, including stockings, braces, breast prostheses, and liposuction garments, to the staff. “We would enroll them in courses to become educated and accredited on bra fittings and orthotics,” she said. “The companies providing the devices offered seminars to learn how to fit, size, and sell. This period of change led to the need for space to privately fit clients for prosthetic devices and orthopedic garments.

“The waiting area grew to accommodate wheelchairs, canes, and walkers, and for a period of time, our detached garage at home became a storage site for hospital beds and larger medical equipment,” she continued. “Every aspect of home-care service followed proper policies and procedures. Everything was carefully inspected to ensure accreditation protocols were followed.”

And just as her parents’ pharmacy in Albany had provided a soda fountain to increase revenue and profitability, other pharmacies in Bergen County began to sell supplemental items, including Madame Alexander “Little Women” dolls, gifts, greeting cards, and cosmetics. The Millers didn’t join that trend; Millers Pharmacy offered only pharmacy services.

“There weren’t many Jews living in town when my father-in-law brought Millers Pharmacy to Wyckoff, but whoever did come to town, came to Millers Pharmacy because it was Jewish-owned,” Ms. Miller said. “We’d have liked to be involved in a Jewish congregation, but everyone was too busy working. Years later, we saw more Jewish people in the pharmacy than we did at Temple Beth Rishon in Ramsey.” Local synagogue presidents referred their congregants to Millers because it was Jewish-owned. ‘There was a sense of community in the pharmacy,” Ms. Miller said.

During the late 1970s, Route 208 was fully upgraded to a four-lane highway. “This brought people to Wyckoff, where beautiful homes were being built,” Ms. Miller said. “Word got out to the local community that what they couldn’t find at the chains, they would find at Millers Pharmacy.”

In 1982, Richard Miller decided to leave the business to teach at Rutgers University. His oldest son, David, a graduate of Cornell University and the Albany College of Pharmacy, took over. “I owned the property,” Ms. Miller said. “David owned the pharmacy.” David Miller, a third-generation pharmacist, and his wife, Rebecca, who had been an executive at Random House, lived in Wyckoff. Rebecca Miller became active in the business, managing personnel, overseeing regulatory protocols, and developing pharmacy policies and procedures.

Robert Miller opened the pharmacy in the early 1930s.

“My dad got the business to a place where I could begin to add specialty items to our existing array of services,” David Miller said. “After he left, we moved our DME operation to a larger facility in Hawthorne and added home infusion therapy, products for clients on hospice, and compounding services.

“My father kept extensive patient records,” Mr. Miller continued. “Before computerization, he created patient charts on index cards. Every medication label was typed using an electric typewriter with the name of the medication and dosing instructions.

“Times have changed.”

Millers Pharmacy continued to grow. “We bought the property next door, an insurance agency on Main Street called Aimone,” Mr. Miller said. “In that space we built a second laboratory for compounding.

“We also started a hospice pharmacy practice that worked closely with five hospice teams — Valley, Hackensack, Passaic Valley, Holy Name, and Morristown — offering their patients who could not swallow topical creams, suppositories, nasal sprays, and other products that would help them take the medicines they need.

“We converted pediatric medicines into forms the littlest patients could take, and created special sterile eye drops, topical chemotherapies, natural hormone replacement therapies, and much more.

Soon, Millers Pharmacy became licensed in all 50 states so it could ship compounded medications to patients at home. “We became the national preferred provider for Aetna Insurance Company,” Mr. Miller said.

He remembers an ominous warning from his father, who died in 2012. “Insurance companies will put an identification number on everything we do,” he’d said. “They will put a price tag on the industry, and eventually computerization will contribute to the decline of the pharmaceutical business model.”

Robert Miller was a civil defense warden during the Cold War.

“Back in the 1970s, pharmacies were making a 40% profit on their sales,” David Miller said. “By 2015, retail pharmacies were making a 15-17% gross margin and it was trending down from there. While we met all of the accreditation standards, insurance companies were controlling compounding. Medicare paid less than it cost to provide the medications to our patients. Mail order was established and the decreased margins were below what was supportable. The pharmacy benefit management companies were paying themselves more than they were paying us. The competition was simply unfair.”

Doris Miller left the business more than 20 years ago, but she remains very proud of what Millers Pharmacy did to serve its customers. “My family of origin ran Einstein’s Pharmacy in Albany for 34 years,” she said. “I knew that we were offering a necessary service and I was grateful throughout the years to provide it. I learned as a young girl serving egg creams at the soda fountain that a positive attitude is essential to developing relationships with customers.”

But healthcare has changed in the past decade. Ms. Miller said she believes that there are too many people who need to be served and not enough time to serve them adequately.

“Doctors are no longer doctors, they’re providers,” she said. “Personal service to patients across the board has been negatively affected. The amount of time a clinician spends during a visit is based on insurance reimbursement.”

Her son David agrees. “As pharmacists, we are at a point of transition,” he said. “We’re going from here to there, but we just aren’t sure where ‘there’ is.”

Five years ago, David and Doris Miller sold the business. The new company, Daywel, owns Millers of Wyckoff, which remains at the corner of Wyckoff Avenue and Main Street.

From the opening of Robert and Hannah Miller’s pharmacy in Passaic in 1918, to its new location in Wyckoff in 1929, to the transfer of ownership to Richard and Doris Miller in the 1960s, to the joint ownership by Doris and her son David in 1980, until its sale just years ago, the history of Millers Pharmacy of Wyckoff also is the history of the Miller family.

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