1961 was a long time ago. To put it in perspective, John F. Kennedy was inaugurated as the 35th president that year. It was also the year Suburban Pharmacy was founded by local pharmacist and entrepreneur, Tom Shanos. The community pharmacy remains a Warwick, RI fixture thanks to Tom’s son, Nick, who has carried the mantle since 1986.
We recently spoke to Nick Shanos about assuming control of the family store at a young age, his outside-the-box approach to providing the COVID-19 vaccine to his community, and why he compares his east coast pharmacy to Hotel California.
Shanos often has recollections of walking around his dad’s store as a child, fronting shelves, cleaning, taking orders, organizing, and running the soda fountain. He loved watching his father interact with the customers and admired the respect and friendships that were created. Nick was profoundly affected and influenced by seeing his father care for the community while forging long-lasting bonds.
“I always wanted to own the place and run it,” Shanos said. “That was a dream from very early on.”
In 1986, Shanos earned his pharmacy degree from the University of Rhode Island, a school known for having a good pharmacy program. Sadly, Tom Shanos lost a five-year battle with cancer that same year, passing away two months prior to his son’s graduation. Nick took over the store in September of 1986, just a few months after earning his degree.
Shanos quickly began modernizing the store, implementing innovative technology to make the store run more smoothly. Additionally, he spearheaded a three-year remodeling effort in the late 1980s to maximize the store’s modest 1600 square foot space. Shanos handled the construction himself, installing everything from new electrical and A/C to the drop ceiling. During this time, Shanos would work as a pharmacist from 9am to 8pm, then work until well after midnight on the renovation.
Rather than hire contractors, Shanos continues to handle all building issues himself. He also owns rental properties and plays “property manager,” as he describes it.
“I feel if somebody else can do it, I can do it,” Shanos said, regarding building maintenance.
Shanos’s can-do spirit and problem-solving abilities have been key during the pandemic. In March of 2020, Suburban Pharmacy was one of the first in the area to import masks. When hand sanitizer became scarce, Shanos and his 10-12 person staff quickly pivoted and began making their own. Additionally, the store sourced toilet paper from companies that supplied schools and commercial business, places that were closing.
“We were the only store in town that had unlimited rolls of toilet paper,” Shanos said. “In fact, my big slogan was ‘Let the Good Times Roll!’”
People came from all over to get household staples and PPE supplies. Suburban Pharmacy also offered gloves sourced from nearby restaurants that were closing.
A year later, the pharmacy had to get creative again. After several petitions, the state finally allowed Suburban Pharmacy to provide the COVID-19 vaccine in mid-March. At first, Shanos and his staff administered vaccines during store hours only. Struggling to satisfy the high demand, Shanos launched a vaccination clinic on Sunday afternoons after normal business hours concluded at 1 pm. Pharmacy staff would set up chairs up and down the aisles, allowing them to treat hundreds of people eager to get the vaccine.
“It’s been such a great feeling, and everybody is extremely happy,” Shanos said, summarizing the vaccination effort.
The deep connections he has made with patients during the vaccination campaign have been very fulfilling to Shanos. He recalls an interaction he had with an older customer: “One person I vaccinated started crying after I vaccinated him,” Shanos said. “I asked, ‘Are you ok?’ And he said, ‘This feels like the beginning of my life again.’”
Many customers have walked into Suburban Pharmacy with initial hesitancy about getting the vaccine. Shanos has been able to alleviate their concerns by simply taking time to listen and talk things through.
“I can’t tell you how many times that has happened,” Shanos said.
His vaccination clinics have been run primarily by volunteers, many of whom are past employees. Two former staff members have helped check in patients while another, in pharmacy school, has volunteered as an additional vaccinator. These are just a few of the many former Suburban staffers Shanos maintains close relationships with.
“It’s like the Hotel California,” Shanos jokes. “You can check out, but you can never leave!”
After 35 years of serving as the pharmacist-in-charge and ‘general contractor’ for Suburban Pharmacy, does Shanos have plans to leave anytime soon? His answer should not surprise you.
“I’m going to keep going until I can’t move anymore,” Shanos said. “Suburban Pharmacy is not just a job to me, it’s part of my DNA. It’s part of my fabric.”
Suburban is part of Rhode Island’s DNA, too, woven into Warwick since 1961.
Learn more about Suburban Pharmacy by visiting their website.