By Assunta Ng
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Bartell Drugs is closing its location in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District (CID) at 4th Avenue South and South Jackson Street.
“I knew it was coming, given the number of robberies we had in the store,” said a Bartell’s employee who was not authorized to speak on its behalf. “But I am still sad and shocked. We have already built our relationship with customers.”
Bartell parent company Rite Aid said in a statement that the decision to close the store is based on factors including “business strategy, lease and rent considerations, local business conditions and viability and store performance.”
Ironically, Bartell was founded on the same street, South Jackson Street, more than a century ago. In 1890, George H. Bartell Sr. bought the Lake Washington Pharmacy at 2711 South Jackson Street, its first store in Seattle’s Central District.
Sam Chan, owner of Luke’s Pharmacy in Chinatown, was unaware Bartell was closing.
“Even though we have no business dealings, I feel sad about the news. I feel sad for the community’s loss. Why does it have to be this way? The closing of Chinatown businesses is just like downtown. We all see that the community is suffering. But we don’t know what to do.”
“It’s so unfortunate,” said Florette Lam, owner of Dr. Lam Sing medical clinic. “We lose a convenient spot in the neighborhood for me to buy snacks, cosmetics, and products for our daily needs. Most of our clients go to Luke’s Pharmacy, but we do have a small portion of clients who use Bartell’s service.
The two pharmacy stores carry different merchandise.” She was also surprised about Bartell’s closing.
Don Blakeney, former executive of Chinatown-International District Business Improvement Area, recalled that he and others had “advocated for the developer to bring in an active-ground-floor” retail “to better serve the tens-of-thousands of commuters and residents who are in the area daily. Bartell was selected by the developer … because there were not many pharmacy options in the neighborhood at the time.”
Bartell is not only affected by robberies, but by homeless folks lying outside its storefront and the looting, vandalism, and graffiti on its glass doors. From Bartell’s corner all the way up to 12th Avenue South in Little Saigon, South Jackson Street has become a place for the homeless to congregate and sell stolen goods during the day and sleep at night.
“While drug stores offer an important community amenity, they also act like a fortress, because they are regularly being targeted by retail theft rings,” said Blakeney. “They have to fortify their exteriors and as a result, they can pull the life and activity off of a sidewalk, by blocking their windows while leaving long stretches where there are no eyes on the street.”
Lam said the homeless problem is a major headache for many CID businesses. She pointed out that the community has already lost Starbucks in the CID due to safety and crime concerns.
“If you are homeless, I do understand you need a roof over your head at night,” Lam said. “But you sleep and leave in the morning and not disturb peace before the businesses are open and residents awake, no one would care. And we pretend we don’t see. But if your action affects public safety, that’s not acceptable.”
“The homeless people are aware that police won’t come if you call the police,” said Chan. “Or they (police) come an hour later after the disruptive folks are gone.”
The shortage of police in the city is another challenge, Chan said.
“This city seems to be anti-police. If someone has a choice, they might not even consider joining the Seattle Police. They are in demand in other cities, including Bellevue.”
Both Chan and Blakeney said Bartell’s closure is a national trend. Major drugstore companies like Rite Aid, CVS, and Walgreens are rethinking their need to be so heavily represented in big cities, as well as the role online service plays.
Chan said corporations would close the less successful store “if there are two stores close to another, and one is not performing with less volume of businesses. This will reduce costs.”
The Bartell store will close on Sept. 14, and 14 workers will be reassigned to other Bartell locations, in different parts of the city. Customers have been informed to pick up their medicine by Sept 13. Presently, most of the merchandise is 50% off at the CID Bartell store.
The last time the chain closed a location was in 2019 in downtown Seattle, before Bartell was bought by Rite Aid for $95 million in 2020. At the time, the company blamed crime and regulations for the closure.
Assunta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.