Editor's Note: This article is part of an occasional series profiling South Bay businesses that are thriving.
When Walgreens offered to buy Hillside Pharmacy’s patient list in 2010, you would think Ron and Lyndall Otto would have taken the money and run.
They didn’t. The Redondo Beach couple, long entrenched in the South Bay, called the shots instead.
Ron Otto, nearing 80 at the time, wanted to continue dispensing medications to customers he had served for more than 50 years. His wife, Lyndall Otto, wanted to launch her own gift shop. Previously, she had run a gift shop alongside her huband's pharmacy at Hillside Pharmacy & Gifts in Manhattan Beach—first at Sepulveda Boulevard near Marine Avenue, and later at Sepulveda and Artesia boulevards, a location that drew fans from Redondo and Hermosa Beach.
Walgreens listened to the couple’s stipulations—everything from the necessity of greeting Hillside patients by name at the drugstore’s Manhattan Beach pharmacy to carrying specialty items such as emu oil and Tanner’s Tasty Paste, a flavored kid’s toothpaste developed by local dentist Dr. Janelle Holden.
Not only that, Ron Otto and one member of his pharmacy team were to carry on at the new Walgreens, which was located right across the street from where the original Hillside once stood. Today, Ron, 81, works three days a week at the job he loves, filling prescriptions for people and pets.
“One of our conditions to selling to Walgreens was that they would make this a community pharmacy,” said Ron, who had also asked that he be allowed to continue compounding drugs, a process of mixing pills with creams and lotions, according to a patient’s individual needs.
“They agreed to do it here,” he added, indicating the tools of his trade laid out on a counter inside the pharmacy. “And they put all this equipment in for me to use.”
His pride and joy at Walgreens is his unguator, a machine that mixes (or compounds) medications such as testosterone cream. Demonstrating how the machine worked (something like an old-fashioned milkshake machine), he said "unguator” reminded him of Governator and Terminator, terms associated with Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“So we named the unguator ‘Arnold,’” he said, a slow smile spreading across his face as he peered over his steel-rimmed specs in amusement.
Pharmacy manager Shereif Sorial, 37, said the acquisition of Ron and his team has been a boon to the store: “We have pretty much all of the patients Ron used to take care of, a testament to the relationships he had built up over the years. It’s one of the most successful transitions Walgreens has ever seen.”
'It was like our dream sale'
Up on Sepulveda Boulevard near Second Street, Lyndall Otto, verging on 70, presides over her independent enterprise Hillside Gifts. But she feels almost as much a part of Walgreens as her husband.
Of the merger with the drug chain, Lyndall said: “It was like our dream sale, everything we worked for. When you look at a huge, gigantic corporation like Walgreens, and you think that they listened to us and actually did what we asked them to do, I really admire the company for allowing that to happen.”
Although she lacks the 6,000 square feet of space she used to have when the pharmacy/gift shop was located on Sepulveda and Artesia boulevards, Lyndall still carries many of the same greeting card lines; children’s books; European soaps; and Michelle, Thymes and Olivia body lotions and fragrances.
“We don’t have a huge number of body products, but we carry the things I really believe in,” she said as she led a tour through her colorful shop, praising this or that company or artist and extolling the three gals who work for her, Lisa Barbra, Sheena Kinslow and Shirley White.
In the front of the store in her seasonal display, Lyndall paused at a small white tree hung with decorative glass hearts for Valentine’s Day. The hearts were each handblown by artisans at the Glass Eye Studio in Seattle, she said.
“They use as much reclaimed glass and gold as they can, and the ash they use to make glass with is all from Mt. St. Helens,” she explained. The company also makes stunning paperweights and snow globes, which—at Hillside Gifts—are really beach globes.
The theme of the shop, “The Art of Coastal Living,” which is inscribed on Lyndall’s business cards, is represented in everything from the whimsical sculptures of 1920s beach beauties that occupy a wall of shelves to the throw pillows and hand towels decorated with sea shells and such.
But Lyndall, who holds an MFA in theatre and costume design from UCLA and has worked as a set and costume designer (not to mention a TWA flight attendant), stocks merchandise that strikes her artistic sensibilities, things like Chinese-lacquered jewelry boxes that picture scenes reminiscent of Van Gogh and Matisse paintings and quirky greeting cards written and illustrated by Susan Mrosek.
“I was the second place ever to have her cards,” Lyndall said, indicating one Pondering Pool card that shows a despairing, chubby cheeked woman and the inscription, “Seems I’ve lost my rainbow.” Lyndall, who has drawn and painted all her life, calls the Arizona-based Mrosek “so incredible, so universal … and full of truth.”
The pairing of pharmacist Ron and artist Lyndall began with their marriage in 1972, when the Los Angeles natives lived in Torrance. A year later, they bought the first of their five drug stores, Marina Pharmacy. In 1986, they moved to Redondo Beach and purchased Hillside Pharmacy, which had been in business in Manhattan Beach since 1955.
In 2001, the Ottos moved Hillside to the Artesia location, and as would happen with the sale to Walgreens, almost 100 percent of their customers followed. While Lyndall concentrated on stocking 35 lines of greeting cards, full sets of china, cookbooks and gift-wrapping paper, Ron dispensed his medications—for pets as well as people.
Lyndall particularly recalls a certain ailing parrot. “It was either a parrot or a cockatoo,” she said, explaining that the birds live for 40 years. “Its owner had passed away and it went into a deep depression and pulled all its feathers out. Here was this little naked bird, so they started (prescribing) mood enhancers.”
Ron whipped up a compound that included Prozac, she said, one the bird could tolerate. “It altered his mood and got him out of that depression. His feathers started growing back, and he has a new owner” he bonded with, she said.
Since both Ottos are heavily involved in the Manhattan Beach Chamber of Commerce and support events at Mira Costa High School and Manhattan Beach Community Church, which they attend, Lyndall tries to bring the same sense of community to the gift store, where she and her three employees “laugh all the time (and) have so much fun,” she said.
Her customers, meanwhile, are encouraged to “Zen browse,” meaning they can look around, chat with friends “and never have to buy anything.”
Another staple at the gift store is Palladio, a large white male poodle that replaced Lily Noir, a black poodle that passed away shortly after Lyndall opened her new store and Ron went to Walgreens. Lily Noir had “legions of fans” at Hillside Pharmacy, Lyndall said.
“I had so many people who would just come into the pharmacy, not to shop, not to pick up drugs, but because Lily was there,” she said. Palladio, Lily Noir’s nephew, was an unexpected gift when his owners were forced to find a new home for him.
Palladio proved him wrong
Back at Walgreens, Ron talked about his beloved dogs. “People just loved Lily,” he said, leaning back against the counter. “She’d lie down on the floor and people would pet her while waiting for their prescriptions.” Although he thought Lily could never be replaced, Palladio proved him wrong.
“When I get off work here, I go down (to the gift store), and he’s waiting at the door. When I go to the bank (for Lyndall), Palladio goes with me, and everybody stops and comes over to say hello.”
A U.S. Navy corpsman during the Korean War, Ron earned a doctor of pharmacy degree from USC in 1964. Of his two children by a previous marriage, his son, Alan Otto, is an artist, and his daughter, Lisa Johnson, who once worked for her father at Hillside, is a pharmacist at Raindrop Pharmacy. Where? In Manhattan Beach, of course.
Manager Sorial, who joked that Ron “has been a pharmacist longer than I’ve been alive,” said many of the doctors who write perscriptions for Walgreens' customers “went to USC with him.”
A manager of the Walgreens in Hawthorne and Inglewood before transferring to the Manhattan Beach store when it opened three years ago, Sorial also said that Ron “is the hardest working pharmacist I have ever seen, harder working than a lot of younger people.”
A tall, gentle-spoken man with a wry sense of humor, Ron has no plans to retire and is most gratified that so many people followed him to Walgreens. “Ninety-five percent of our customers came to Walgreens and they stayed. (Management) said that’s never happened before.”
He credits Sorial, “who takes such good care of the patients. He is just a good, conscientious pharmacist.”
That goes for Ron as well, a man who knows how a delayed refill can spell disaster for a patient. One customer, whose son has attention deficit disorder, couldn’t get his prescription refilled because the doctor’s office was closed, and the backup was of no help.
“The poor man was crying, he couldn’t get his son the medicine and his son was uncontrollable,” Ron explained. The pharmacist knew the individuals involved and was able to tide the boy over until the doctor could be reached.
The point is, Ron—who was in sixth grade when he got his first job at Parnin’s Pharmacy in West Los Angeles in 1941—said he is in the people business, not the pill business.
Likewise, Lyndall cherishes her customers. “They’re coming in to buy a card, supporting us,” she said, clasping her hands together, her smile radiant. “It just makes my heart sing, to think somebody comes in to just buy a card!”
Hillside Gifts, open Monday through Saturday from noon to 6 p.m., is at 120 S. Sepulveda Blvd. in Manhattan Beach. Call 310-374-8444 for more information or visit the website at hillside90266.com.
Walgreens is located at 2400 N. Sepulveda Blvd. in Manhattan Beach. The pharmacy, which is open seven days per week, can be reached at 424-241-1950. See website for hours.