Burns Drugs to close its doors after 62 years in La Jolla

Burns Drugs will close its door next month, after more than six decades in business on Girard Avenue. Pat Sherman photos

By Pat Sherman

Customers of one of La Jolla’s oldest independently owned retail stores, Burns Drugs at 7824 Girard Ave., are devastated to learn that the pharmacy their families have relied upon for more than six decades is going out of business.

Burns Drugs co-owner Wayne Woods said the pharmacy counter will fill its last prescription on April 15. The store will stay open until sometime next month to sell off its remaining inventory.

“It saddens my heart that this is happening, because this has been one of the cornerstones of the La Jolla shopping experience,” Woods said, noting that many high-profile La Jollans preferred the anonymity of a small community pharmacy. Burns’ clientele has included everyone from Costco founder Sol Price to Helen and David Copley, Theodor Geisel (a.k.a. Dr. Suess), famed French sculptor Niki de Saint Phalle and baseball legend Jerry Coleman.

“I’ve been here 23 years, and I’ve watched families grow up, watched their children grow up,” Woods said. “The same people have been coming in day-in and day-out. I know them by their first name. They know me.”

Woods’ wife, Linda, also a pharmacist, worked in the store for 10 years, as did his daughters, Lindsay and Kaitlin, learning how to ring up sales, answer phones and interact with customers.

Burns Drugs employee Liz Nelander, owner Wayne Woods, and employees Liz Rogers and Nicole Caulfield share memories of their time working at the beloved, dog-friendly community pharmacy. Pat Sherman photos

In a letter to customers, Woods said his impending retirement and the financial viability of an independent drug store on Girard Avenue were the driving forces behind his decision.

Prescription records for Burns customers will be transferred to CVS Pharmacy at 7525 Eads Ave. Woods said CVS management has promised to provide the same high level of personalized care, including Burns’ house charge program and local delivery service.

Through an agreement with CVS, many of Burns’ 38 fulltime and part-time employees have been offered jobs at CVS.

“You will continue to hear familiar voices on the phone and see familiar faces at the prescription counter (there),” Woods assured his customers, adding that serving the community has been “a dream come true.”

“You are a small town full of great people,” he wrote to customers. “My family will miss your family. When we meet on the sidewalks of La Jolla, I hope to embrace you as you have embraced the Burns Drugs family for so many years.”

During a recent visit to the shop on Friday, April 4, plush Easter bunnies and other seasonal gifts lined shelves as customers wandered in and out, many yet unaware of the impending closure.

“This is really sad news — sadder than sad,” said longtime customer Charlotte Baum.

(l to r): Former owners Orrin Gabsch and Art Keever; founders Bob Burns and Strother Kay; current owner Wayne Woods and Jack Novak in 1991.

Woods said insurance companies are driving business away from independent pharmacies. Despite the robust business last Friday, Woods stated, “In recent years insurance companies have narrowed the profit margins such that the pharmacy is no longer a profitable business. When the pharmacy was purchased in 1991 there was five independent pharmacies in the la jolla area. Since then, mail order pharmacy and insurance reimbursement have taken its toll such that it is no longer a viable business model. We were the last independent pharmacy in La Jolla.

“We as a group have decided that it’s time to go out on top,” Woods told La Jolla Light. “This is an expensive piece of real estate to have a drug store in. There just comes a time when it doesn’t make sense anymore.”

The fact that Woods and his partners owned the building made it possible for them to stay open as long as they did, he said.

Lineage of a La Jolla legacy

Robert Burns and Struther Kay founded Burns Drugs in 1952 in a two-story building constructed in the early 1900s that once served as a grocery store, Masonic lodge and U.S. post office. Woods and his partners bought the store from Orrin Gabsch and Art Keever in 1991, with Woods becoming its managing partner. The store has sold everything from cards, gifts and cosmetics to wheelchairs and walkers, specializing in pharmaceutical compounding services, immunizations and travel vaccines.

Woods noted Burns’ longstanding, symbiotic relationship with adjacent Warwick’s Bookstore, another longstanding La Jolla business founded in 1896 that is believed to be the oldest continuously operated, family-owned bookstore in the country.

Pam Berger-Lellouche (left), who splits her time between Las Vegas and La Jolla and has been a Burns customer for 11 years, was saddened to learn of its closing. Employee Nicole Caulfield offers her dogs a treat.

Owner Nancy Warwick called Burns closure “a tremendously sad loss for the community.”

“The direct impact will be felt by many of us, as some of our basic routines will have to change” she said. “I’m not only losing the pharmacy that I’ve frequented most of my life, but I’m also losing a wonderful neighbor. Warwick’s and Burns have been joined at the hip since Burns opened in 1952. How fortunate we have all been to have had Burns as our neighborhood pharmacy, where the regulars are greeted by name, and the staff is always kind and caring.”

Employee Nicole Caulfield said Burns was as popular with its canine clientele as it was with humans. The establishment’s staff made it a habit to welcome four-legged visitors with biscuits and other nibbles.

“The dogs themselves have become part of our entourage,” Caulfield said. “They come in first with their leashes pulling their owners. Some owners bring in special diet biscuits. We’d save them (at the counter) with the dog’s name on it.”

Woods, who lives in La Costa and has made the 50-mile, round-trip trek to La Jolla for 28 years (previous working at University City Pharmacy), said he’ll continue to work a few days as a pharmacist closer to home, and use his semi-retirement to play golf and spent time with his wife.

Woods said the new owners have retained the rights to use the Burns name in the future if they choose, either to highlight the building as a landmark or for any other purpose.

“We don’t know what it’s going to be yet,” he said. “The buyer hasn’t come up with their plans, but they’ll probably do a lot of tenant improvements and make it another, glowing nice symbol of La Jolla.”