A few miles away from the setting of “Cheers,” there’s another mythic place where everyone knows your name after a visit or two. To be fair, it’s probably best for a pharmacy to know everyone’s name for the sake of filling out prescriptions, but Skenderian Apothecary treats a first-name basis like a common courtesy, not a requirement.
“I’ve been blessed with a fairly good memory,” Robert Skenderian, pharmacist and manager of the apothecary, says. “If someone comes in here more than once or twice, I pretty much know their name.”
Robert opts to chat in one of the pharmacy’s aisles. He’s perched on a fold-up walker, while I claim a raised toilet seat display nearby. Conversations around the store fluctuate between how to properly take certain medications and how things are going around the house.
While the store on Cambridge Street has been passed down through two generations, the business itself has lasted three. Robert’s father was trapped in the apothecary during the Blizzard of 1978, kept the store safe during a major power outage in the 1980s, and witnessed the myriad changes in the Cambridge neighborhood over a half century. Robert and his brothers, Thomas and Joseph, experienced Cambridge from the vantage point of the store.
“I would come from grammar school to here, put things away, vacuum the floor, file things, and take out the trash,” Robert says. “I probably started when I was 8 or 10 years old. I got a dollar an hour.”
Over the years, the Skenderian family business evolved from a corner stop to a full-sized apothecary (which, for those who are wondering, is essentially the same as a pharmacy but comes from a Latin word meaning “storehouse”). Robert’s father purchased the additional space from a neighboring pharmacy sometime in the early 1960s and kept expanding through the ’70s and ’80s as business continued booming. Despite the store’s success, Robert wasn’t always planning on taking over his father’s business.
“When I was a kid, I read James Herriot’s ‘All Creatures Great and Small,’” he recalls. “It’s this whole series of books on being a veterinarian. I was brainwashed.”
Robert went as far as to join a pre-veterinary program at the University of New Hampshire, but the self-proclaimed brainwashing ended while assisting veterinarians over summer breaks. The intense, unpaid workload on the basis of it being “a privilege to work for them” quickly burnt Robert out. After graduation, he went to pharmacy school and took up co-ownership of the apothecary with his brothers.
“There’s no real typical day here. It’s a typical day in that it’s helping people with problems,” Robert says. “People think of pharmacists as the people who take big bottles of pills and put them into little bottles of pills … that’s not what it’s about. Pharmacy is all about problem solving.”
Practically every customer that comes through Skenderian’s doors falls into one of three categories, according to Robert: people who are sick and unsure of what to take, people who are sick and unsure how to take their medicine, and people asking for directions around Harvard Square.
When asked about the threat of big chain pharmacies, Robert remains surprisingly cheery.
“I love the chain stores. I think they’re great,” Robert says. “If I didn’t have something, I’d just call CVS or Walgreens to get a prescription filled. There’s always been trading back and forth so that people can get taken care of.”
What does affect mom-and pop-apothecaries, Robert adds, is whether or not they can take a person’s insurance.
“The reimbursement has gotten so bad with so many of these plans,” he says. “I don’t take Harvard Pilgrim or some of these national plans anymore. The ones I do take, I have to be very careful with what they’re doing because [sometimes] they don’t pay enough to cover the cost of the prescription.”
Between insurance plans that are, in Robert’s words, “going insane,” new rules and regulations that impose on pharmacists’ abilities to carry certain prescriptions at all times, and seismic changes in healthcare legislation, a pharmacist’s ability to problem-solve gets harder every day, even for a family with decades of experience, he explains.
But Robert regularly returns to the fact that he’s an educator as well as a problem-solver. It’s a point he especially drives home when discussing the ever-growing opioid epidemic sweeping the country.
“I don’t like to use the term ‘crisis.’ It’s like saying we’re at war, like a war against drugs. It’s not a war; it’s a social problem, a social ill. It needs to be dealt with through proper social supports,” he says.
Robert acknowledges that he has to take on new information to remain a support in the local health care sphere. Case in point: a recent training informed him that white, middle-aged men are a rising demographic affected by opioid addiction.
“It was totally off my radar screen,” Robert admits. “This 41-46-year old demographic are also [one of] the highest demographics for suicide by gun … what speaks to me there is that we’re in a country that has taken away middle-aged people’s hope.”
Still, Robert remains positive and hopeful for his community.
“Cambridge has fabulous supports,” he continues, “but you have to know where they are and how to access them. The [Cambridge] Health Alliance has all kinds of people working there that do a really good job, but a lot of times, people don’t even know they’re there.”
Although his children are slowly getting involved in the business (for now, their role is keeping tabs on the business’s Yelp reviews), Skenderian Apothecary is a business of brothers. Friends and family playfully call them “the Three Stooges,” but Robert sees their dynamic in a more historical light.
“Are you familiar with the original Roman governmental system of the Triumvirate? Back before there was an empire, before the Republic … the Romans [had] three leaders, a triumvirate. Things ran pretty smoothly with three and nobody got assassinated … that’s kind of what we have here,” he says. “The three of us, we have our thoughts, we share things that are going on because all of us can’t be here all of the time, and we make decisions based on the information we get.”
The amicable back-and-forth among Robert, Thomas, and Joseph is, in part, what has kept the Skenderian business thriving amid Cambridge’s ever-changing landscape.
“The thing about being in a business like this is you actually have that one thing that very few people get anymore: control of your destiny,” Robert says. “You can make a living, take care of your family, take care of your employees, and control all that because it’s yours. That is probably the biggest and best part about having your own business, for sure.”