By Jaimie Julia Winters
Since 1933, Keil’s Pharmacy has been a landmark in Montclair, run by three generations of the Kiel family. Last week, however, the family announced it was selling its store to Benzer Pharmaceuticals with the transition being made by the end of the month.
Last Friday, as Led Zeppelin played on the radio in the background, Stuart Keil filled prescriptions with new pharmacist Kevin Shukla of Benzer, his son Andrew helped a customer purchase a wheelchair and Mona Keil helped a long-time customer with her prescription refill. Others perused the card and gift section or bought a cup of coffee, a paper and a bus ticket before hopping onto the bus outside the pharmacy.
Stuart, who just celebrated his 80th birthday, said the decision to sell was a mutual agreement. He was ready to retire and Benzer was looking for an independent pharmacy to take over in Montclair.
Benzer is a privately-owned company started in 2009 in Flint, Michigan, and has grown to more than 65 locations nationwide. The goal of the company is to buy and maintain family-owned, community corner pharmacies while upgrading the prescription-filling technology.
When Herman Keil opened Keil’s Pharmacy in 1933, it was the third to open in Montclair and the first to cater to Upper Montclair residents in need of a relief for an ailment. At the time pharmacists made, as well as prescribed, medicines and remained community medical counselors until the 1950s. With the passage of new regulatory laws in 1951, pharmacists then needed a physician’s prescription to dispense many medications. The store also carried sundries; when paper was rationed during World War II, Herman’s good relationship with the distributors made it possible for the store to stay stocked with Kleenex, toilet paper, feminine products and stationary supplies, Stuart said.
In the 1940s and 50s, the store expanded to include a soda fountain, and in the 1960s the soda fountain became a deli counter. Stuart, who started in the family business as a stock boy before the age of 10, took over the business in the 1960s after graduating from Rutgers University with a degree in Pharmaceuticals.
Frank Godlewski, a Montclair Academy graduate, remembers going there for the sandwiches when he was a student.
“They had fabulous, fabulous sandwiches, like liverwurst and pickles on rye bread and the good ol’ American ham and cheese, and the chocolate malts,” Godlewski said.
He also recalls how they could repair any medical equipment, like a wheelchair, that had parts missing. That job, along with all the medical and surgical supplies, fell to Stuart’s son Andrew, who can repair almost anything.
Cordelia Siporin grew up at Keil’s.
“My mother got her prenatal vitamins there and I ate my first solid food at their deli counter there – their meatballs,” said Siporin. She was also one of the many teens who Stuart and Mona took under their wings, employing them to ring up purchases or stock the shelves. Stuart’s involvement in Rotary International resulted in Siporin going to Japan as an exchange student.
“He was a superhero of goodwill service to the world. He hosted kids from other parts of the world and helped with life-saving programs like Doctors Without Borders. When I was 16, he recommended me for the exchange trip to Japan and it shaped who I am today,” said Siporin. “This philanthropy leaped into his business and the community here.”
She recalled how Stuart would not charge customers who were down on their luck but needed a prescription filled.
Siporin was just one of hundreds of young Montclairites whose first job was at Keil’s.
“My father told this story of a young college student he had hired. One day he asked him to sweep the front sidewalk. The kid said he couldn’t sweep the sidewalk because he was a college student. My father said, ‘I guess I will sweep it since I am the college grad,’” recalled Stuart.
At-large Councilman Rich McMahon has been getting his prescriptions filled and his morning coffee and paper at Keil’s for 25 years.
“It was the beginning of every day,” he said, adding that they were the last to hold on to the lost tradition of house accounts. Up until last month, both McMahon and Siporin would receive a monthly bill for their purchases made the month prior.
Delivery service by Stewart Ruffer will remain and Graham Higgins, Tom MacIntosh and Robin Young will stay on, Shukla said. Customers will have prescriptions filled within 10 minutes, have their medications synchronized for one pickup and receive text messages for refills and pickups. Services such as the lottery and Western Union will no longer be available, but a blood pressure machine will now be placed in the store. Hours will also change: Keil’s will be open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., and Saturday until 1 p.m. The pharmacy will be closed Sundays and holidays.
“We will have the same family-friendly atmosphere with a focus on filling prescriptions in a more efficient way,” said Shukla. The store will still carry sundries, gifts, cards, snacks, drinks, bus tickets and newspapers, and will also get a makeover. Med packaging and prescription deliveries will be free.