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Bridget Wingert: Happy to Be Here — Perseverance laced with kindness

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When Regina Young wrote a story about the Bear Apothecary Shoppe in 2011, owner Morton Barnett was already 10 years past the standard retirement age of 65. In 2021, he is not quite retiring, just cutting out part of the business.

After 88 years, the pharmacy in Lambertville, N.J., has closed its prescription filling service, but Mort (as Lambertvilleans know him) is still working “up front,” where all kinds of sundries, magazines, newspapers, cosmetics, lotions, cards and books are sold.

Just as Regina did 10 years ago in late May, I walked down Union Street to Bear Apothecary admiring the flowers and buildings in the charming and walkable city. It’s easily one of the prettiest towns in New Jersey. Bear Apothecary has been part of Lambertville’s charm, with real people in white lab coats standing behind the counter, no barriers as in big city stores, no Internet screens to block the way.

Mort’s father, David Barnett, gave the shop its name – nothing to do with local history. Bear was the name of a chain of stores in New York City where David Barnett once worked. He had moved from Philadelphia to Lambertville during the Great Depression, and with the help of his brother, he established the first shop. It was in the Mackler Building, across Union Street next to the Acme Market, where the pharmacy shared half of the hardware store.

A fire in 1959 destroyed the shops and Bear Apothecary moved to its present location at 9 N. Union, where it’s been ever since. Mort joined the business in 1960, after he attained a pharmaceutical degree at Rutgers. That was 60 years ago, a remarkable amount of time for anyone to spend in a business. When his father retired and moved to Florida in 1969, Mort became the proprietor.

Early in the Barnetts’ time with Bear Apothecary, Mort and his wife, Janet, lived in an apartment over the store. They have a daughter, Rebecca, and still live in Lambertville .

“We ran a very personal business and we’ve tried to maintain that over 50 years,” Mort said in 2011. And pharmacist Richard Goldenbaum and bookkeeper Irma Fuhr, also a local artist, have worked with him for almost 40 of those years.

The stalwart independent business held out over all that time as pharmacies everywhere were selling out to major corporations or simply dying. It endured the rise of insurance dominance, health care changes, physicians’ partnership consolidations, and online sales. And the complexities of drugs and government requirements continued to grow. Besides that there’s a CVS with a big parking lot at the intersection of North Union and Cherry streets in Village Square. The shopping center faces N. Main Street (Route 29).

Finally, this spring as the COVID-19 pandemic was waning, after dealing for years with insurance companies, mail orders, slow payments by insurers, and endless paperwork, Mort said, “There’s a point when it’s time to move on.”

He said, “Running a small business isn’t easy.”

But he is so much appreciated in the town where he grew up. Pat Kurlin, who has starting working in the shop, couldn’t help interrupting as Mort and I talked. “This is the most generous man I know,” he beamed across the room.

Then a customer walked in. “This is the kindest man I know,” Frank Fortunato said. He went on and on about Mort, the only person he could find to replace batteries that keep his wristwatch alive.

Surely locals and tourists will continue to appreciate the presence of a place where they can buy aspirin, batteries, nail files, eye drops, Lambertville hats and bags, hand lotion and laundry detergent – and they don’t have to have a car.

Mort said at age 75 that he loved his job too much to retire. Ten years later, the pharmacist still is on duty at Bear Apothecary but his role has changed.


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