26/4/2018 - Leanne Philpott - AJP

We caught up with Balmain Pharmacy’s Caroline Diamantis and her oldest and wisest team member Monica Jamieson.

Pharmacist and owner Caroline Diamantis and Monica Jamieson have a combined 70-year history and a passion for traditional pharmacy extending beyond the four walls of their store. We find out more …

CAROLINE: My history is very long and entrenched in pharmacy the way it used to be. I’ve been a pharmacist for 30 years, but even before that I grew up in pharmacy as my dad was a pharmacist and we lived in the house behind the pharmacy shopfront.

My father was an immigrant from the Middle East who had studied pharmacy overseas (he went to a British university) and so when he arrived in Australia in 1962 he only had to do one year at Sydney University before he had his full degree, which allowed him to open up his own pharmacy in Marrickville.

A lot of migrants had settled in Marrickville and the beauty of it was that my father spoke several languages and so he connected well with the community and became a very popular pharmacist. People would travel from many different suburbs because he could speak their language.

He had this traditional perspective where no matter what time of the day or night it was, he would be on call for the families who were struggling either with language or the limitation at the time of getting medical help for their children and themselves.

As a child growing up I remember there was a big double door from the pharmacy into our lounge room and there was no hesitation from my father when it came to inviting people through into our house to use our family bathroom or to sit and have a cup of tea.

My father even invited people, after hours, to knock on his bedroom window (he would point out which window was his) if they had sick children and he would open up. He would help administer Panadol or whatever medicine was needed at the time for this person’s sick child.

I grew up being so in love with the passion my father had for the work he was doing but also the gratitude that he got back in return. People said they couldn’t have survived this very difficult period in their lives without my father’s language skills and generosity to open his clinical knowledge and care 24-7.  I promised myself that I would be this type of pharmacist. I could only have been aged 8 or 9 at the time, but firmly decided that was the future for me.

I wanted to find myself in a community that would appreciate this type of service. I was 23 when I bought my first pharmacy but 30 years later I recognise that there are certain areas of Sydney where that traditional type of pharmacy wouldn’t be tolerated or appreciated.  There are suburbs where the demographic is price focused and price driven. They don’t care if you remember their name or how much you know, all they want is the cheapest thing they can get.

This model is, unfortunately, becoming quite popular in certain suburbs, but not in Balmain—we’re very community driven here.  What sets our ‘traditional-type’ pharmacy apart is that we have a lot of loyalty and a significant amount of trust. I own the store and I work in the store and have been here a long time. In fact, if you include the ladies who were here when I first started we probably have a hundred years of history between us.

Monica alone has 40 years of history in the pharmacy! She grew up in the Balmain community, as did her family—so our customers are, in essence, her neighbours; everyone knows Monica or at least knows of her through her family.

Part of the reason why Monica and I became so in sync is that it wasn’t strange for me to see the way Monica wanted to approach the customers or the community—because I had grown up in that same environment and practiced that way in every pharmacy that I’d previously owned.

We still practice traditional, old-style community pharmacy and I know that might sound like a bit of a cliché but our competitors, particularly the discount pharmacies, want to put a supermarket slant on things where they don’t know your name and they’re fine with that. What we’re creating is a differentiated perspective.

We are the go-to pharmacy and Monica, in particular, has a very strong standing within the community. She’s well known and very approachable; people stop her in the street to tell her about their gala day or their charity function and we do our best to participate or support them. That’s Balmain to a tee; it’s a unique community and not everywhere in Sydney is the same, so I feel blessed to be part of it.

MONICA: I started at Balmain Pharmacy in 1969 and we’ve always been a very family focused pharmacy. Our customers become extremely close to us, we get to know them well and they keep coming back. It’s still the same all these years later.

Although I’ve been here 40 years, it wasn’t my first job. When I left school I got a job in an office, which I didn’t like very much so when I saw the pharmacy job advertised in the local newspaper I applied and got the position.

I enjoyed working within the community and speaking to people. I liked it so much I stayed! I’ve seen different owners come and go over the years and they’ve all stuck to the traditional model of pharmacy, with a strong focus on the community.

When Caroline took over the pharmacy we thought it might be different but thankfully she had the same principles. We’d never had a lady boss before so we didn’t know how things would go—but it’s worked out well!

Everyone in the community knows us. I go out at lunchtime and people stop and talk to me. I pop to Woolies in the morning, before starting work, and I end up collecting scripts from people because they know I’ll take it across to the pharmacy and get it ready for them.  We have so many beautiful customers, some of whom have sadly passed away but we still have their families. I do ear piercing and people come up to me and ask, ‘Do you remember me? You pierced my ears when I was 10.” I look at them and they’re in the 20s now.  It’s such a nice place to work and all the other girls that work her are so lovely. We have a really great team. When I started all those years ago I didn’t think for a moment I’d still be here and celebrating my 65thbirthday!

Every day is different; you meet different people. We had a little boy who came in the other day with impetigo on his face and then it was my day off yesterday and I ran into him at the supermarket and he said “Look at me, look at my face” and I told him he looked much better. Today, he came back into the pharmacy with his mum to pick up the second course of antibiotics and he was so excited to see us because we made such a big fuss of him.

CAROLINE: I think what Monica loves is the continuity within the community; we all eat at the local café, shop at Woolworths across the road, we get our coffee at the nearby coffee shop. Wherever we are, we’re with our customers and they know our lives as much as we know theirs. They’ve seen our children grow up and vice versa. We talk about being a community but we’re actually a family as well, which is so precious. It’s very rewarding. I don’t know many people who would stay in a job for as long as Monica has.

It’s not always easy. Sometimes we are extremely busy and we get very tired.

MONICA: We do have our ‘impossible’ customers, but all the really nice people make us for those few difficult ones!

CAROLINE: Monica is very good at helping new staff deal with the difficult customers. She might look at the medicine they’re taking and they might be taking anti-anxiety tablets or sleeping pills and Monica knows as much as any pharmacist does when it comes to diagnosis. She’ll explain to our staff member that the person’s not well and that even though they may have spoken unkindly, the next time they come in store we’ll be as pleasant to them as we are to every other customer and we won’t hold a grudge.  She has a gift for adding the balance or the logic—she has such a kind heart.

Monica is one of the pharmacy’s originals and she fosters a good culture. New people coming into the business immediately see what our pharmacy is like. We don’t tolerate negativity, we create a positive environment and so many customers walk in and say “it’s such a good vibe in here, that’s why we keep coming back”.

(When Monica was asked how long she intends staying in the pharmacy and whether there’s the possibility she’ll be celebrating her 70th birthday at Balmain Pharmacy, she laughed and told me Caroline won’t let her go.)

CAROLINE: She’s not allowed to leave. We’ll have special throne on the side of the pharmacy when she can’t stand up anymore and people will line up just to continue to be served by Monica!

This is an edited extract of an article which appeared in the April edition of Post Script.

The two of us