Twenty-five years after islanders Dave Willingham and Tom Langland — still known simply as “the boys” to many — bought the Vashon Pharmacy from Willingham’s father, the beloved hometown business has changed hands once again.
Pharmacist Tyler Young; his wife, Amy, and 1-year-old daughter, Alivia, who with her pigtails and four front teeth can be found running up and down the aisles, are the new owners of the 84-year-old institution. Amid the pressure of big-box drugstores, it has retained its family-owned model and it’s that quality that drew the young family to the business.
Ownership of the Vashon Pharmacy represents the realization of a longtime dream for Amy and Tyler. They both grew up in very small towns in Eastern Washington — Amy is from Colfax and Tyler is from nearby Oakesdale, both have populations of less than 3,000 people — and they have fond memories of their hometown pharmacies.
“Amy and I grew up in very rural Eastern Washington where the drug store was much more than just where you get medication,” Tyler said. “I worked at that drug store in Colfax for five years before and during pharmacy school, and every day it reminded me of the positive impact a community-owned and run pharmacy can have. Our customers are not just patients, they are our neighbors and friends.”
He said that during his time at the Colfax pharmacy Tick Klock, he “tried to soak up every piece of information” he could about how to successfully run a small pharmacy and made it his goal to one day own one. Following graduation with a Doctor of Pharmacy degree from Washington State University (WSU) in 2013, Tyler worked for 18 months at a Target pharmacy in downtown Seattle — far from the small-town feel he was hoping for.
“I’m not a city person,” he said. “I took a job at Target Pharmacy not because it was my end goal, but because I wanted to learn what they do well and better understand what we can do at the independent pharmacy level.”
It was during that time in early 2014 that Tyler received an email from a former professor.
“She had this list of a few of us (pharmacy graduates) who were interested in trying to buck the trend of becoming clinical pharmacists and return to retail pharmacy,” he explained. “She said she knew of a few communities that were still operating the old-style pharmacies and knew I would be interested.”
Vashon was one of those communities. Langland, who began working at the pharmacy at the age of 15 alongside Willingham, knew he and Willingham were ready to sell the business should the right person come forward. So Langland “made some cold calls,” he said, to the University of Washington and WSU inquiring about entrepreneurial pharmacy students.
“The University (of Washington) didn’t even call back, but at WSU, they knew exactly what I was talking about,” he said. “I wanted to know if they had someone exceptional.”
For Langland and Willingham, Tyler fit, and they brought him on as a pharmacist later that year with the intent of giving him and Amy “a year for us to look them over and a year for them to look us over,” Langland explained.
“We were thrilled to get someone not only from the Northwest, but someone bred in a small town,” he said.
And so began the ongoing process to bring the new owners aboard.
“The whole intent was that this (ownership) was the end goal,” Tyler said. “This transition started over two years ago and will continue over the next couple of years as they (the Langlands and Willinghams) begin to enjoy more time with their growing grandchildren and retirement hobbies. Amy and I can’t replace Tom, Mary, Dave and Myra, their impact on this community has been so large and positive. The shoes we are filling are very large.”
But Langland said the business is more about wearing many hats than large shoes.
“We try to do as many things for as many people as possible. We wear a lot of hats,” he said. “We’re pharmacists, but we’re also jewelers. I can’t tell you how many watch batteries we’ve changed not because we love changing watch batteries or make lots of money doing it, but because it’s what the island needs.”
The pharmacy’s large toy selection, which Langland says offers higher-quality toys than what you find at other chain pharmacies and has been managed by Langland’s wife, Mary, since its inception two decades ago, was born out of the same necessity.
“We got frustrated with the lousy toy selection on the island and started buying our own,” he said. “We got tired of having to go off-island to buy high-quality toys.”
None of those offerings are changing, both the former and current owners say, and Tyler’s wife, who graduated from Gonzaga University with a degree in advertising and public relations, will take over Mary’s retail side of the pharmacy.
“We’re incredibly lucky and fortunate to end up here,” Amy said. “It’s a blast.”
For Dave and Myra Willingham and Tom and Mary Langland, the sale is bittersweet, and they will continue to have a small hand in the business while allowing the Youngs to take over.
“We realize that this will come as somewhat of a shock to the community, but these guys (Amy and Tyler) are awesome and we’re not going anywhere,” Tom Langland said. “We don’t want to lose the connection with our customers and our patients.”
He continued to say he will stay on as a “relief pharmacist” a few days a week, Mary Langland, who said she already misses the “family” of employees, will continue to work with Amy on buying and stocking the retail side of the store. Myra Willingham, who is an avid knitter and has taken over the store’s yarn inventory, said she will continue to make appearances as needed. The store’s 40 employees will also all be staying.
“We inherited some of the best supporting staff anyone could ask for, they each bring so much to what makes Vashon Pharmacy the store that it is,” Tyler said. “Over the past few years we have developed relationships with each of them, and we can’t wait to continue working beside them every day.”
But there are also some planned changes, one of which has already taken place. Vaccines began being offered at the pharmacy in October 2015. The service is something Langland said both he and Willingham wanted, but neither of them had the proper training that Tyler has. The business also received updated cash registers, and Tyler said the community pharmacy business, like many other businesses, is becoming “more and more challenging” and will require improvements and technology for efficiency.
“The same foundation upon which Tom and Dave have built Vashon Pharmacy will continue,” Tyler said. “We do feel we have a lot to offer and in time hope we can earn the same levels of trust and respect that have been the cornerstone of Vashon Pharmacy for decades.”
Looking to the future, Langland and Willingham say they hope the island will continue to support the community business, even as online retailers and chain pharmacies threaten to make it obsolete.
“We’re looking very much to the next generation, as the last two have been good about supporting local businesses,” Langland said. “People move here for the small-town community, and I hope they realize that by picking up those phones (and ordering online) they’re voting out the lifestyle they moved here for. Tyler and Amy have a long run ahead of them, and I’m hoping the next generation embraces them.”