In junior high school, Phil Kaser got sick on a trip to the coast and there wasn’t a doctor available. His experience with the pharmacist inspired him to help others in the same way and to open Harvard Avenue Drugs and Gifts with his wife, Jo Kaser.
“The druggist said, I think he has food poisoning,” Jo Kaser said. “They lived above the drugstore, so they said, leave him with us overnight and we’ll give him some medicine and you’ll come back in the morning and he’ll be fine. In the morning he was fine and on the way home he said, when I grow up, I’m going to go school and be a pharmacist so I can help people like that guy helped me.”
Now, 60 years later, Kaser’s store is closing so the couple can focus on their health and enjoy their retirement.
“He didn’t start it so he could make money, he started it so he could help people,” Jo Kaser said.
He graduated from Oregon State University in 1953 and married Jo Kaser shortly before he was deployed to Germany with the U.S. Army. When they came back, Phil Kaser worked at a pharmacy in Prineville. Then an old colleague’s wife, Florence Groshong invited the couple to help her open Harvard Avenue Drugs and Gifts in Roseburg.
They were almost ready to open in 1959 but rushed to open earlier when the Roseburg Blast shook the city and damaged or destroyed the four downtown pharmacies. Jo Kaser said city officials asked them to open early.
“Our drug salesman drove to Portland and picked up our drug supply early on Sunday and brought it down so we could open on Monday,” Jo Kaser said.
Just a month before the 60th anniversary of the blast, the pharmacy half of the store closed and transferred its records to the Rite Aid at 444 SE Stephens St on July 1. The gift shop half will close on July 31.
Their daughter Suzie Wagstaff was born after they opened the store and she has helped run the business on and off through the years. After it closes, she said she will go back into retirement so she can see her own children and grandchildren.
“It’s been hard on all of us,” Wagstaff said. “It’s older than I am. It was my second home. We’ve had so many people come in here in tears because we’re closing. They’re just sobbing and hugging our employees.”
Phil Kaser said the store was the first to have a drive-thru pharmacy in Oregon and is the last independently owned pharmacy in Roseburg.
“When they were building the building, Dad said ‘I have to see the sky every day if I’m going to be in here 12 hours a day,’” Wagstaff said. “So they put the window in and somebody said ‘you ought to make it a drive up, it’s the perfect spot.’”
The pharmacy started in the west third of the building and expanded twice to take over the whole space. He worked twelve hour days, six days a week, and nine hours on Sundays when they opened, but he always made a point to see his three daughters as often as he could.
“We spent more time together as a family. I was the only pharmacist in town that saw my girls as many times a week as I did,” Phil Kaser said.
Jo Kaser said her husband prioritized people getting the medicine they needed over his own convenience or their ability to pay.
“It was a different world back then,” Phil Kaser said. “I knew what people needed. Of course the doctor was writing the prescriptions, but there weren’t that many doctors and I was very, very close with the doctors that were here. They would call me at the house. I’d pick up the phone. That always meant I had to come down for something.”
The Kasers’ daughters help out when they can but can’t take over the store. Jeannie Hooten became a pharmacist and flies from Montana to help 10 days a month, and Marilyn Langholff lives in New Jersey, but came out when she could to help the family close the business.
Wagstaff said they tried to sell the pharmacy to another independent owner, but couldn’t find a buyer. Wagstaff attributed the decline in independently-owned pharmacies to the way Medicare operates and Roseburg’s economy, pointing to the closing of Roseburg Book and Stationery and Hanson Jewelers.
“I told Mom and Dad, you’ve been too successful, no one can afford to buy it,” Wagstaff said. “We wanted to make sure that our Mom and Dad would be taken care of.”
The Kasers sent letters out to everyone who had a prescription filled at the store in the last year letting them know the store would close.
“After 60 years, we have to retire,” Jo Kaser said. “We will miss all our friends and family and our crew that is more than fantastic. We want to thank everyone for 60 wonderful years. They are our family.”