Do they still know your name at Sutton’s?

Jul. 26, 2014 @ 09:57 PM

Will John still be there when we eat at Sutton’s?
The big news on Chapel Hill’s Franklin Street is the change at Sutton’s Drug Store, one of the town’s landmark businesses for as long as anybody can remember.
It is the place where attorney Bob Epting sits down for breakfast at 7 a.m. most mornings and Martha Ortega brings him the same sausage, scrambled eggs and grits as she does every other morning. He is often joined by former UNC dental school dean John Stamm, Chief District Court Judge Joe Buckner, and a host of police and other public servants who come by to touch base.
Later in the day university athletes and coaches drop by for lunch. Sometimes they have their pictures taken for display on the walls of Sutton’s.
These celebrities are joined by others of us who just drop by during the day because it is the place for us “where everybody knows your name.”
Until a few weeks ago, Sutton’s owner John Woodard stood behind the counter from where he dispensed pharmaceuticals to his loyal customers and cheerfully presided over the comings and goings of Sutton’s visitors.
Folks knew it would have to change some day and the only locally owned pharmacy would go the way of the grocery, camera store, bank, clothing store, record shop and other locally owned Franklin Street businesses that once defined our village.
Then, last month, it happened. Faced with competition from two national chain drugstores and with his reaching retirement age, John Woodard sold his pharmacy business to one of those competitors.
Suddenly the Sutton’s pharmacy section was closed, and so were the sections and shelves for non-prescription medicine, candies, magazines, greeting cards and all of the other convenience items. They were gone from the shelves. And the shelves were going too.
“Every pair of sunglasses I’ve bought for the last 30 years, I bought here,” Bob Epting told me. “I guess I’ll have to find another place to shop the next time I need a new pair.”
But, Epting assures me, the heart of Sutton’s remains, and he pointed out that the general manager, Don Pinney, had replaced the shelves that held sunglasses and other merchandise with tables to expand the breakfast and lunch business.
Don Penney and Martha Ortega were busier than ever.
Last week John Woodard came back to the store. “I’ll still be here,” he told me, and he promised he would be taking more photos of his customers and adding them to the walls for a long time to come.
Maybe Sutton’s will be different, but Epting, Woodard, and Pinney assure me that Sutton’s is here to stay.
I am keeping my fingers crossed.

D.G. Martin’s regular weekly column appears on The Herald-Sun’s editorial page on Wednesdays and online at Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. See today’s Herald-Sun Books section for more information.