Running a small business in Baltimore is challenging in the best of times – and no one would say these are the best of times. People have been sheltering at home, rarely stepping out to shop. MICA students went home early after COVID-19 forced schools to close. The streets were empty most of March and all of April into May.
And so, when Park Avenue Pharmacy was robbed in early April – for the second time in about three years – some worried that it might go the way of many other independent pharmacies. In the six years between 2011 and 2017, 1,200 of the remaining 23,000 independent pharmacies like Park Avenue Pharmacy across the country closed their doors, according to a trade publication.
This year is Park Avenue Pharmacy’s 50th year. It opened in 1970 and for many of those years was run by the man neighbors all called “Dr. Joe,” Joseph Libercci, a Bolton Hill resident who died of cancer in October at the age of 72. Today the store is run by Tariq Syed, 38, who has worked there nearly five years as a pharmacist.
“Mr. Joe was a great personality. I enjoyed working with him. He always told me stories about the Bolton Hill community, and he was always excited about the Orioles and Ravens. I miss him,” said Syed. Syed lives in Hunt Valley with his wife and two children; Nihal is 9 and Sania is 3. He is a pharmacist with 15 years’ experience in community and hospital pharmacy and holds a master’s degree in clinical research from George Washington University. He also worked as a scientist for a pharmaceutical company.
Park Avenue Pharmacy is, first of all, a medical center that provides prescription services, specialty medications, medical supplies like diabetic shoes and stockings and incontinence products, respiratory products, orthopedic supplies and braces and compounding. Syed offers flu shots and a wide range of immunizations on premises or at the customer’s home, and free home delivery for all its products. He immunized the staff at Bolton Hill Nursery last year.
“Most of our business is from the neighborhood, and so for customers who cannot come to us we try to go to them,” said Syed. “The community has been very nice. We cannot compete with giants like Walmart or the big drug chains, but we will match their prices and we can provide better service every day.”
And because of a fluke in Baltimore’s weird liquor laws, Park Avenue Pharmacy can sell beer, wine and liquor when the big stores and supermarkets cannot. It also sells Maryland Lottery tickets and money orders and offers drop-off services for UPS and FedEx.
The robbery was traumatizing for the staff. “I was not there. The guy came in like a customer, pulled a gun and took drugs and money. Fortunately, no one was hurt,” said Syed. “We gave the police a picture of the man. They seem to be pursuing him, but there has been no arrest, as far as I know.” The previous robber, who also hit the Park Avenue Café several times, was eventually identified and arrested. A police official said on May 5 that they have a suspect in the April robbery and have a warrant out for his arrest.
“Business is slow right now, but we are surviving. The pharmacy has a guard stationed at the front door now, but that cannot be a permanent expense. If they arrest the guy, we can feel more secure,” Syed said. The store is open every day but Sunday and holidays.