Fifteen years after opening, Laguna Drug will ring up its final sale Saturday.
Though owner Cyndi Olsen has had two years to prepare for this, her eyes fill with tears when she contemplates closing the store that three generations of her family worked so hard to build.
“It’s bittersweet,” she said. “There’s been some good times in here.”
Olsen will continue running her two other stores — Via Lido Drugs and Coast Hills Rx, both in Newport Beach — and her husband and co-owner, David, will operate the parent Quality Drug Corp. out of its Irvine office.
The Olsens will spend the next couple weeks liquidating merchandise, dismantling shelves and getting the store “broom-swept ready” for the landlord. Then, the hulking building at 239 Broadway St. will revert back to the vacant space Cyndi Olsen found 15 years ago — though perhaps with fewer mothballs.
Laguna Drug began as a father-daughter venture for Olsen and her dad, Roger Stangeland, the son of an Illinois grocer who later became chief executive of Vons.
After leading the supermarket chain through one of the largest buyouts in grocery industry history in 1985, Stangeland knew he wanted to open a small chain of pharmacies in retirement. He opened Via Lido Drugs in Newport Beach in 1996. Olsen visited frequently from Minnesota, where she worked in wholesale, to help her father procure the items that would eventually stock the store’s shelves.
When he decided to open a drugstore in Laguna Beach, Stangeland asked his daughter to run it. They went through a two-year process to acquire a permit and set up shop in the then-vacant building on Broadway. They tore down the drop ceiling to reveal wooden beams, put up textured brick wallpaper to match the existing brick wall and painted the letters spelling “Laguna Drug.”
The goal was to “keep the integrity of the building,” Olsen said.
Fewer than two months before Laguna Drug’s grand opening on April 1, 2004, Stangeland died.
He never saw the colorful, candle-lined wall his daughter thought would have made him say, “Wow” or the sightlines his daughter had so carefully designed to his liking.
Josh Meili, Olsen’s son, came on board to help, working every job from receiving to delivery. He now manages distribution and inventories each item, down to the last greeting card, by hand.
“Who gets to tear it all down?” he said, gesturing to the once-organized shelves. “I do.”
‘It didn’t meet our expectations’
Laguna Drug’s closing was foreshadowed two years ago, when CVS attempted to purchase the store.
Olsen pushed for the sale, which she said would have loosened the city’s requirements and allowed for more health and beauty products.
She said Laguna Drug’s city permit was “very limiting” and out-of-date — designed for when the store first opened in 2004. The family decided to sell because the business was not making enough money to be sustainable.
“We thought the community would [fill] this building,” she said. “It didn’t meet our expectations. It was a hard decision to make. Once we finally put our arms around it, we said, ‘OK, this makes sense for our business.’”
The City Council denied the buyout in 2017, citing CVS’ lack of a diverse product mix.
Sheila Bushard, owner of Bushard Pharmacy across the street from Laguna Drug, circulated a petition to keep the national retail chain at bay. Her business displayed a sign Tuesday at the back entrance that read, “Welcome Laguna Drug customers!”
When city officials stopped the sale to CVS, Olsen informed the city that her store would close when its lease ended in June 2019.
Staying longer “didn’t make any business sense,” she said.
“It would have been beneficial for our business and … the city,” said Meili of the CVS sale. “That way there would have been another business here paying taxes, providing opportunities and jobs for the community. Now ... it’s going to sit vacant.”
The store’s closing underscores a sentiment among around some downtown merchants that Laguna’s regulations make it a difficult place to do business. In January, the City Council approved doing a downtown retail market evaluation to suggest ways to ease its permitting processes.
“Most people won’t try to battle Laguna,” Meili said.
‘They hate to see us go’
John McKeever walked up to the pharmacy counter Tuesday to pick up one last prescription for his wife.
With a cheerful greeting, pharmacist Doris Marengo-Krolik went straight to the fridge behind the counter where the medicine was kept.
“You just dial my number and you can get me and I can help you,” she assured McKeever.
Laguna Drug’s dozen or so employees have the option of working at the company’s other locations, according to Meili. Marengo-Krolik will float between the Newport stores and Irvine headquarters.
“I’m glad you’re not going away,” McKeever told the pharmacist. “That’s good, because you’re one of the reasons this place is special.”
McKeever, a retired Irvine High School math teacher, said he knows he can visit one of the other two locations, but as “a Laguna guy” isn’t keen on visiting Newport Beach.
“This meets a lot of needs that I don’t think will be met,” he said, fiddling with a graduation card he had picked up for his grandson. “It’s just been a one-and-all kind of place.”
Meili said the store has long enjoyed a loyal customer base, with people coming in from cities all along the coast.
Dana Point resident Janet Dohner calls Laguna Drug a “go-to spot.”
“It was always a nice place to pick up a nice gift or something — cards or holiday items,” said her friend Kathleen Croy, who lives in San Clemente.
Now, layers of Christmas, Valentine’s Day and Easter decorations spill over tables and display shelves taped with signs proclaiming, “up to 70% off everything.”