'Mac' made The Pillbox a fixture
By Catherine E. Toth
Advertiser Urban Honolulu Writer
By Catherine E. Toth
KAIMUKI — Not much has changed at The Pillbox Pharmacy in Kaimuki since it opened in 1974.
It's still a charming neighborhood pharmacy stuffed floor-to-ceiling with vitamins, earplugs, pills, sunscreen and shampoo.
The only thing missing?
James Lee McElhaney, known as "Head Pill" or "Mac," who passed away March 9 after battling leukemia. He was 79.
Not many of the pharmacy's 6,000 customers even knew McElhaney was sick.
Some still wander into the shop on 11th Avenue looking for the man in the paper hat.
"Mac was very good," said Lillian Walker, 85, of Mo'ili'ili, who's been getting her prescriptions filled at The Pillbox Pharmacy for about 10 years. "They don't rush you here. That's what I like about it."
One day last week, there was a steady flow of customers waiting for refills or chatting with Mac's son, Stuart, who's keeping the pharmacy open.
Though The Pillbox fills an average of 130 prescriptions a day — just a fraction of what a single Longs Drugs might fill daily — it has remained a fixture in Kaimuki, mostly because of Mac.
"He really cared about the people he served," said Stuart McElhaney, 43, who earned his pharmacy doctorate from the University of the Pacific in 1990. "He always made the extra effort that other people simply wouldn't do."
Like stay open from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 7 to 11 p.m. on Sunday. (The store now has shorter hours.)
Or mail refills to customers who have moved and don't want to change pharmacies.
Or deliver medication to nursing homes.
Or charge just $40 to customers to issue medication on an emergency basis, 24 hours a day.
"It was remarkable, everything he did," Stuart McElhaney said. "He went the extra yard to counsel, to talk to people, even to tell them not to buy something."
James McElhaney grew up in an Irish neighborhood in Chicago. He met his wife, Rosemarie Pirl, at a piano bar and quickly married her.
While on vacation to O'ahu, Rosemarie decided she wanted to raise her family in the Islands.
McElhaney reluctantly agreed, closing his pharmacy in Chicago and moving their three children to O'ahu. They bought a home in Kahala for $41,000.
In 1974, McElhaney opened The Pillbox Pharmacy on 11th Avenue, filling prescriptions and serving fresh sandwiches and ice cream the way he did back in Chicago.
"It's a time warp," Stuart McElhaney said. "That's what (my dad) would always call it. And that's what we're after."
The 1,550-square-foot space is packed with everything from shaving cream to flashlights, from denture cleaners to instant ramen.
While some things have changed — McElhaney stopped serving sandwiches and store hours have shortened — most haven't.
Stuart McElhaney isn't the only family member who works at the pharmacy. His sister, Kathy, a homecare nurse, comes in once a week. Their younger brother, Michael, is moving back from San Francisco to help out. Their mom, Rosemarie, takes care of the books. And their uncle, Andreas Pirl, a pharmacist, works at least twice a week.
(Their sister, Dr. Heidi Ferguson, works as a general practitioner at Schofield Barracks.)
To honor James McElhaney, the family put up a framed photo of him next to the register.
In the store, Stuart McElhaney plays Irish music in the morning and Frank Sinatra in the evening.
With no formal advertising, the pharmacy has enough loyal customers to keep it going, Stuart McElhaney said, despite the growing competition.
"It doesn't surprise me (we're still in business) because I've watched my dad work all these years," he said. "He always said if you work every day, you don't have to worry about anything."
Reach Catherine E. Toth at firstname.lastname@example.org.