Nostalgic downtown pharmacy offers more than medicine

On most days, you’ll see Nick Harrel III, a third-generation pharmacist who owns the store, behind the counter filling prescriptions for his longtime patients.

On most days, you’ll see Nick Harrel III, a third-generation pharmacist who owns the store, behind the counter filling prescriptions for his longtime patients.

KINGSVILLE, Texas — Walk into Harrel’s Kingsville Pharmacy, and take a step back in time.

Newspaper stands carry the daily paper. Odds and ends and knickknacks are scattered to tempt you to buy. A soda fountain serves fresh ice cream treats with the sound and smell of burgers cooking in the back. Community members meet for lunch to catch up on the goings-on — and a raised pharmacy is the center of the store.

For the month of October, the U.S. celebrates the American Pharmacist and Kingsville has three generations of pharmacists as community leaders.

On most days, you’ll see Nick Harrel III, a third-generation pharmacist who owns the store, behind the counter filling prescriptions for his longtime patients. Founded by Nick Harrel Sr. in 1916, the pharmacy has been owned and operated by the Harrel family since its inception. Nick Sr. and Nick Jr. also were bank directors and members of the school board in Kingsville.

At a time when independent pharmacies are declining, Harrel’s Pharmacy prospers. In fact, state officials on Sept. 8 proclaimed Harrel’s Kingsville Pharmacy a “Texas Treasure Business.” Harrel III contributes his success to the diversity of the store. Offering one product is a problem, especially when people need more things, he said.

“We offer specialty items, things people can’t get anywhere else,” Harrel III said. “We need to sell what someone is looking for in order to keep their business.”

Harrel’s serves up lunch, desserts and gifts to patrons, as well as necessary medicines. If you’re searching for a unique gift, the pharmacy has it. From Willow Tree art to Dallas Cowboys paraphernalia, the shelves have something for your collections. You can even find special candy treats or cards that say just the right message.

Employees and customers feel like Harrel’s Pharmacy is their store. “When they tell me when something’s wrong, I get it fixed,” Harrel III said as he sat at his cluttered desk that is made from the original front door of the pharmacy. “Employees treat customers the way they want to be treated, and they have the freedom to fix a problem.”

Born and raised in Kingsville and a graduate of H.M. King High School, Harrel III  attended Texas Tech University to complete his pre-pharmacy course work and graduated in 1976 from the University of Texas as a registered pharmacist.

In 1990, Harrel III purchased Kingsville Pharmacy and learned how loyal customers were. “To this day, I have customers from that store mention how they trusted Gary Ellis and Al Gonzalez; it was their pharmacy,” he said. “They developed a trust with them that I am only starting to gain after more than 23 years.”

Harrel’s Pharmacy has served generations of families in the Kingsville area, and Harrel III has developed those same ties to at least five generations he serves.

In the 1940s, patrons shopped at a pharmacy based on political affiliation, Harrel III said. But the three pharmacists on the block had to maintain relationships to serve their customers, no matter which way they leaned.

“If we were out of medication, we’d go to one of the other pharmacies in order to fill the prescription for the customer,” he said. “Nowadays, you can’t do that. I have to send a customer to the store that has the medication, and I risk losing them as a customer. I need to keep my customers happy and build loyalty.”

Harrel III serves patrons from days old to decades old and knows them by name.

In the community, Harrel’s Kingsville Pharmacy delivers to nursing homes and to patients who otherwise might go without medications. For example, on an average Monday, more than 50 deliveries are made in the Kingsville area.

“Some people live 10 minutes from downtown,” said Philip Krueger, an employee who makes deliveries. “Sometimes, I am the only person they see that day.”

Harrel III believes there is a need to serve those patients who cannot drive to pick up needed medication. Medicaid used to cover the cost of deliveries but no longer does after mail scripts became available.

“My guys help people when they deliver to them,” Harrel III said. “We meet needs as pharmacists, and this is one that I see necessary.”

Harrel III has 25 employees serving as pharmacists, technicians, clerks, delivery drivers, cooks and servers. On a typical day, the pharmacy services 200 to 300 patients.

There is ample opportunity for younger pharmacists to take over businesses of independent pharmacies, as most are about to retire, Harrel III said.

“You start at the top as a pharmacist rather than working your way up,” he said.

To help him run the store, Harrel III hired a business manager about five years ago.

“One day, my staff suggested that I should spend more time managing the store, but I am a pharmacist, not a business manager,” he said. “Other places hire managers, so that’s what I did.”

Besides serving as a pharmacist and community leader, Harrel III participates in the Texas A&M Health Science Center Irma Lerma Rangel College of Pharmacy in various ways. He spends a few days each year interviewing prospective students, shares his advice in panel discussions and he serves as a preceptor, or experiential instructor, to student pharmacists.

“The interview process is a conversation where we can glean the same kind of information you could get in a more forceful way,” he said. “But our focus is part of our mission: service.”

The interview panel for admissions typically includes a professor or staff member from the college, a practicing pharmacist from the area and a current student.

“The college encourages and teaches community service,” he said. “Pharmacists are service-oriented, and we should give back and be involved in the community we are in.”

The Harrel family also supports college students who hope to become pharmacists. Pre-pharmacy students who attended Texas A&M University-Kingsville and continue on to the Texas A&M Rangel College of Pharmacy, have the opportunity to earn the scholarship. This year 10 students matriculated from TAMUK. The Nick Harrel Scholarship Fund was set up by Mrs. Claudia Harrel, Nick’s mother, in 2006 as part of Texas A&M University-Kingsville Foundation’s “Building Our Traditions” capital campaign.

“We love the college of pharmacy,” said Claudia Harrel in a 2006 press release. “My husband was a pharmacist, his father was a pharmacist, and my son is a pharmacist. We think the pharmacy school is going to be good for Kingsville and South Texas. We are blessed to have people who could see into the future and see what a need there is for pharmacists in this area.”

The Harrel siblings contribute to the fund each year rather than give each other gifts, and the pharmacy employees donate, too.

“I have all I need, and this is a way to give back to someone who is building a future,” Harrel III said. “I like pharmacy. [Founding Dean] Dr. [Indra] Reddy has done an outstanding job, in a quiet way, to build a great program with a wonderful reputation. It is something I can be proud of.”

As more students prepare to lead communities as pharmacists, Harrel III continues to look for innovative ways to improve Harrel’s Pharmacy. He expands and remodels every 20 years, and he’s on year 17 since the last phase.

“I might look into busting out some walls and expanding the soda fountain,” he said. “I am also considering creating private rooms to counsel people in.”

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