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MARCH 7, 2023
Former owner and School of Pharmacy alum, John Woodard, BSPhar ’68, tells his story about the Franklin Street mainstay
On an evening in 1982, the Tar Heels were to play the University of Maryland Terrapins in Carmichael Auditorium, then the home of the UNC men’s basketball team (which included a guard from Wilmington named Michael Jordan). The arena fit just under 7,000 guests – about a third of what the Dean E. Smith Center holds today – meaning getting a ticket was “virtually impossible,” says John Woodard, the former owner and pharmacist of Sutton’s Drug Store in Chapel Hill. And yet, he had a ticket to the game.
Virginia, a young woman who worked for John at the time, told him “you have to meet this girl,” referring to her friend, Kim, who would drop into the drug store from time to time.
John called Kim one night after she and her friend had stopped into Sutton’s for lunch. Kim had just graduated from Carolina the year prior, in 1981. “I said, ‘I know this is late notice,’ and asked her if she wanted to go to the ball game tonight,” John recalls.
Kim declined the offer at first, as she had dinner plans with her boyfriend, Allen, that night. She called John back saying she’d go with him, but would need to leave afterward and meet Allen for dinner. UNC would go on to beat Maryland that night at home. John and Kim celebrated afterward with friends at the now-closed Spanky’s.
“She never saw Allen that night,” John recalls with a chuckle, sitting in a booth alongside Kim, now his wife, and the current owner of Sutton’s, Don Pinney.
John graduated from the UNC School of Pharmacy in 1968 and purchased Sutton’s nine years later, in 1977. He kicked around the idea of pharmacy school for a while, despite having his father, an uncle, and five cousins pursue the same career path. When Elliott Brummitt – who owned Sutton’s prior to John – entertained the idea of selling the drug store, he asked John if he’d ever want to own his own pharmacy.
“Never in a million years,” John would reply. Little did he know that he would end up building Sutton’s into an iconic Chapel Hill landmark.
Elliott approached John while he was working in Henderson, NC, at W.H, a wholesaler that supplied pharmacies with drugs. “One day, back in 1975, he came into the store where I was working in Henderson, and I’ll never forget it,” says John. “He said, ‘I know you told me you never would want to have your own drug store or anything like that, but what if I told you it was on the 100 block of East Franklin Street in Chapel Hill?’ I’m not going to tell you what I called him.”
Two years later, in 1977, John would buy the store from Elliott. Franklin Street looked much different at the time than it does today. It was an offer John couldn’t pass up.
“Being on the 100 block of Chapel Hill, having the pharmacy school, that’s like hitting a major league home run with the bases loaded … in the World Series,” says John.
Despite the many changes Franklin Street has seen over the year, Sutton’s has proven itself a mainstay since Lynwood and Lucy Sutton opened the store in 1923. This year it celebrates 100 years of continuous operation in the heart of downtown Chapel Hill.
For almost 40 years after he purchased the drug store and took over Elliott’s pharmacy files, John dispensed drugs in the back while people like the present owner, Don Pinney, worked the soda fountain up front. The two roles overlapped more often than not.
“When I first bought the drug store, the prescription business [at Sutton’s] had really gone to pieces,” says John. “I wound up working [in the pharmacy] as much as I did taking orders. Everybody teased me all the time because I was over here with my white coat on, taking orders and learning how to cook.”
Running an independent drug store was difficult at times. John recalls having to battle insurance companies regularly. When asked if he lost a lot of customers to chain drugstores, John expertly deflects. “Well, I’m at the soda fountain,” he replies. Sutton’s, as a soda fountain and not a pharmacy, hadn’t lost to any competitors.
A year before John’s license expired in 2015, he decided to hang up his white coat. “I didn’t want to,” says John. “It was just the writing on the wall.” Between a lack of parking in downtown Chapel Hill and large chain retailers like CVS popping up on Franklin Street, it became impossible for an independent to survive. In 2014, while he sold the pharmacy portion of the store to CVS next door – which has since closed – he sold the soda fountain to Don Pinney, whose family’s story is at the heart of Sutton’s. Don’s father worked the soda fountain and his mother worked cosmetics.
As the deal came to a close, CVS personnel came to collect all of John’s CDs, prescription files, and drugs. Don went to work the next day, rearranging the store and filling the since-emptied pharmacy. “It would have broken his heart to see the shelves so empty, and I was not going to let that happen,” says Don.
Don also hung a new decoration on the wall – a “Woodard” jersey to honor the long-time owner of Sutton’s. The jersey still hangs there today.
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