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First in an occasional series

Jignesh Sevak, Rph, is manager of Highlandtown Pharmacy, a privately-owned drug and convenience store that was hit hard during the riots back in April that followed the Freddie Gray funeral. They suffered about $60,000 in damages and have since updated their security system, fixed their security doors and keep only one item of each kind on the shelf at a time. (The Daily Record/Maxmilian Franz)

Freshly opened when the riots hit, Highlandtown Pharmacy is staying put

When Chetanya Chittimalla was looking to expand his pharmacy business, he chose Eastern Avenue in Highlandtown.  He signed a lease in January, convinced that he had found a great place that would benefit from his services.

Highlandtown Pharmacy now keeps only only one item of each kind on the shelf at a time. (The Daily Record/Maxmilian Franz)

Highlandtown Pharmacy now keeps only only one item of each kind on the shelf at a time. (The Daily Record/Maxmilian Franz)

Three months later, after the death of Freddie Gray from injuries sustained in police custody, looters broke  into Highlandtown Pharmacy’s front window. They stole items off the front shelves, prescription drugs and cash from the store’s register.

“We never thought it (the rioting) would (reach up to) this point,” said pharmacy manager Jignesh Sevak. Several other businesses on Eastern Avenue, including a Walgreen’s down the street, also sustained riot damage.

The pharmacy was damaged in the April riots. (Submitted photo)

The pharmacy was damaged in the April riots. (Submitted photo)

All told, around 400 businesses reported damage from the riots that affected several sections of the city following Gray’s death. In August, the Maryland Insurance Administration said insurance companies paid $12.9 million in claims related to the riots.

The stories of those 400 business are different in many, many ways, and yet they are the same. The men, women and corporations that owned them had a decision to make: Stay or go.

In Chittimalla’s case, it was an easy call.

“We were in shock for a while,” said Chittimalla. “It takes time to come out of it. We’re coming out of it now.”

Of the businesses that reported damage, around 30 were pharmacies. Many pharmacies re-opened within a week after April’s unrest, while others, such as two CVS locations, needed to be completely rebuilt.

Highlandtown Pharmacy, which sustained around $60,000 in damage, was only closed for a few days to give the pharmacy time to board up the front window and get a handle on its inventory. Most of the shop’s damages were covered by liability insurance.

Now the pharmacy has much stronger security measures, including cameras that can be monitored remotely. The pharmacy’s inventory has also been significantly reduced. The store’s shelves only carry one of each product, whether it’s over-the-counter painkillers or shampoo.

“If we sell item we order more the next day,” said Chittimalla.

The store also has a panic button, in case someone come in with a gun to rob the place. The button sends a signal to the alarm company and Baltimore Police.

Highlandtown Pharmacy after the riots. (submitted photo)

Highlandtown Pharmacy after the riots. (submitted photo)

It’s unknown whether the people who looted the pharmacy have faced any criminal charges. But police told the store management that the looters were targeting pharmacies.

“They knew what they were looking for,” said Sevak, while filling a prescription for a customer.

Chittimalla has another shop in Newcastle, Delaware, and owns Riverview Pharmacy in Essex with a business partner. He decided to open a Highlandtown location because of the area demographics.

“There is a lot of population density and the pharmacies are in relatively less numbers,” he said.

In his experience, it takes at least a year and a half to two years to develop a loyal customer base, a process that was hindered by the riot damage.

“We lost our rhythm with that. We couldn’t do a lot of marketing,” he said. “We have (revenue) goals but I don’t think we’re going to meet the goals this year.”

One of the pharmacy’s biggest struggles now is bringing in foot traffic, people coming in to purchase over the counter medicine or toiletries.

Before people make Highlandtown Pharmacy their regular location to pick up prescriptions, Sevak said, the pharmacy will have to earn the community’s trust. But even though his store was a newcomer to the neighborhood, Chittimalla said, local residents came to help clean and board up the pharmacy in the aftermath of the riots.

“The community showed a lot of support.”

(The Daily Record/Maxmilian Franz)

(The Daily Record/Maxmilian Franz)

Now the challenge is to turn that local support into a loyal customer base.

Even after such a shocking experience, relocating the pharmacy or shutting it down were not viable options. Chittimalla had a building lease.

“We are small business people, we can’t afford to just move,” he said.

With the upcoming autumn flu season, Chittimalla is optimistic that business will pick up.

“Time will recover everything.”