Andrea Ruse

Ottos closing Hillside Pharmacy after five decades in Manhattan Beach

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Ron and Lyndall Otto, owners of Hillside Pharmacy. Photo by Andrea Ruse

Hillside Pharmacy, the city’s oldest pharmacy, will close on Monday, after 55 years. Owner Ron Otto is selling his patient list to the new Walgreens on Sepulveda Boulevard near Marine Avenue in Manhattan Beach, where he and his staff will begin working.

His wife and co-owner Lyndall will continue operating the current location, at Artesia and Sepulveda boulevards, as Hillside Gifts through the end of December.

“We like that Walgreens wants to be a community pharmacy and be in the Chamber of Commerce and support local organizations,” Otto said.

Ron Otto was in sixth grade when he got his first job at Parnin’s Pharmacy in West Los Angeles. It was 1941 and customers had to remember their prescriptions numbers. Pharmacists kept voluminous files of patient information. Just one percent of prescriptions were paid by insurance companies.

Today, Otto and his staff find themselves being undercut by mail-order services and haggling daily with health insurance companies, who pay for 99 percent of prescriptions.

“We spend a lot of time on the phone trying to get drugs approved,” Otto said. “There may be five or six categories of a drug, but the insurance companies want us to use only one or two of them because the others cost more.”

“When what you love to do is talk to people, administer drugs and make them feel better, it’s not fun anymore when you find yourself becoming an administrator,” wife and co-owner Lyndall Otto said. “Ron used to talk to the insurance companies once a day. Now we’re constantly on the phone, every day working as customer advocates. It’s so much harder to do business.”

Despite industry changes, the Ottos have retained a small-town pharmacy feel, with friendly employees who know most customers by name, tailor-made prescriptions, and hand-picked decorative and gift items. Lily Noir, the couple’s 10-year-old black poodle, lounges around the store all day.

“She’s been here every day of her life,” Lyndall said. “She has a collection of fans you wouldn’t believe. A family with four girls came in today just to see her.”

Even the carpet makes the store homier than chain stores.

“One lady was in yesterday and said, ‘Do you remember my granddaughter?” Otto said. “I said, ‘No, but I remember when you didn’t have any kids.’”

After serving as a U.S. Navy corpsman during the Korean War, Otto earned a doctor of pharmacy degree from USC in 1964. The Ottos, both Los Angeles natives, moved to Manhattan Beach in 1975 and bought their first of five pharmacies in the city, Marina Pharmacy, which was located on Manhattan Beach Boulevard. In 1986, they bought Hillside Pharmacy — which opened in 1955 at Marine Avenue and Sepulveda Boulevard — when the former owners retired. Later, the Ottos’ daughter, Lisa, joined the staff as a pharmacist.

“It was a really exciting time for us,” Lyndall said. “We were getting to know new people. We must have had 20 years worth of photographs of kids from Little League and soccer teams.”

The Ottos entrenched themselves in the community, supporting plays and sporting events at Mira Costa High School and selling tickets to American Martyrs Church’s Sophisticated Snoops tours.

“In a [chain] pharmacy, things are fairly formal,” said John Calhoun, senior pastor at Manhattan Beach Community Church, which the Ottos attend. “But [at Hillside] they’re your friends. They reach out to you and take the consideration of your health personally. It’s like an old-time family pharmacy.”

In 2001, the Ottos moved Hillside to its current location. Almost 100 percent of their customers followed them.

Lyndall filled the store with European bath soaps, colorful glass globes and other luxuries for the home and body. She is especially proud of specialty items the store carries, including emu oil, acid mantle and Tanner’s Tasty Paste, a flavored kid’s toothpaste developed by Manhattan Beach dentist Dr. Janelle Holden.

But competing with large chain stores with huge advertising budgets and mail-order prescription services has made it difficult for the Ottos to meet expenses. Last year, Otto started to consider selling when offers began coming in from some of the largest names in the industry, including Rite Aid and CVS Pharmacy.

The Ottos wanted to sell to owners who will serve the community much in the same way they did.

“Walgreens is a very positive move,” Lyndall said. “We are very excited about it. They are people who want to be a community pharmacy.”

Lyndall said that Walgreens agreed to offer many of the same products and services as Hillside, such as compounding, in which pharmacists custom mix “pills, potions and lotions,” Lyndall said. When compounding cat medicine, Otto often mixes in tuna juice.

“You can always tell when a cat owner’s been here because we eat a lot of tuna sandwiches around here that week,” Lyndall said.

The pharmacy manager at Walgreens could not be reached for comment.

Five Hillside employees, including Ron, will transfer to Walgreens after Hillside Pharmacy closes.

“Part of the deal was that I go so the patients will follow,” Otto said.

It was important to the Ottos that Walgreen’s dedicate the first six months after the transfer doing extensive community outreach.

“It you take care of somebody’s health, family and kids for 35 years, this is a trust you’re handing off,” Lyndall said. “Walgreens treats customers well and their employees well. Those were the two most important things to us. You can make a pharmacy warm. It’s the people, not the pills, who have a real regard for what people are going through.” ER