BAR HARBOR — Buying locally from independently owned businesses is a hot topic. Small Business Saturday, which follows Black Friday on Thanksgiving weekend, has become a national movement. In Bar Harbor, the chamber of commerce promotes “buy local” with campaigns and events like the Early Bird Pajama Sale and Midnight Madness.
Supporting local businesses fosters community and ensures that the money spent stays in the local community. It also means personal service: the person providing the goods or services knows the buyer’s needs and expectations.
For 100 years, West End Drug, owned by the Gilfillan family, has exemplified the ethic and value of buying locally.
One longtime patron recalled receiving a bill in the early 1980s that included a charge of “cash for daughter.” When she asked her daughter about this charge, the daughter explained that she had gone to West End before swim practice to purchase something. They didn’t have the item, and she didn’t have any money with her, so they advanced her some and put it on her family’s bill.
That kind of attentiveness has always characterized West End Drug and its staff.
Gordon and Gilfillan
On Oct. 15, 1918, Dr. William Rogers, one of the first physicians in Bar Harbor, sold what was then the Rogers Pharmacy to Harry Gordon and James Gilfillan, grandfather of present owner Michael Gilfillan.
Gordon had managed the store for several years, and Gilfillan, after graduating from pharmacy school, had worked there in the 1916 and 1917 summer seasons as a pharmacist. At the time of the sale, he returned from Skowhegan, where he had been working as a pharmacist.
When they first purchased the pharmacy, it was located across from the Village Green in the front part of what was recently Butterfield’s and is now Sailor and Hook. Butterfields, or Fanueil Hall Market as it was called then, was in the same building but behind the drugstore and with an entrance off Albert Meadow.
Gordon and Gilfillan named their new venture the West End Pharmacy. But shortly after their purchase, there was a fire in the Butterfield building.
On Nov. 19, 1918, the business moved to its present location across from the First National Bank. The pharmacy was located on the north side of the building in what had been the Mt. Desert Nurseries Flower Shop. Bar Harbor and Union River Power Company occupied the other half.
According to an April 19, 1919 article in The Bar Harbor Times, “Gordon and Gilfillan, the new proprietors of the business, have spared no pains to make their new store as attractive as possible.”
When they purchased the Rogers Pharmacy, Gordon and Gilfillan wanted the pharmacy to have name recognition and an affiliation with other pharmacies. They elected to call it West End — the same name as the brands distributed by J.E. Gould and Company, a Portland wholesaler. In late 1918, Gordon and Gilfillan also purchased drugs, patent medicines, chemicals, toilet articles and store fixtures from J.E. Gould.
In 1922, Gordon and Gilfillan bought what was then Montgomery Drug Store in Southwest Harbor, and by 1928, West End also had a branch in Seal Harbor. The Southwest Harbor store was later sold.
A Jan. 11, 1928 article in the Times notes that Gilfillan and Gordon acquired “the last word in soda fountains,” a 12-foot-long fountain with verde antique Italian marble top and Tennessee pink marble on the front and ends. The same article states that a new feature of this soda fountain was hot running water with four containers for ice cream, each of which could hold 10 gallons.
And the ice cream was homemade. Among the memorabilia that Michael Gilfillan has are his grandfather’s recipes for eight flavors of ice cream: chocolate, vanilla, coffee, strawberry, maple walnut, peach, butter pecan and pineapple. Recipes call for using fresh fruit for strawberry and peach ice cream, as well as chocolate, caramel and butterscotch sauce for sundaes.
Like the previous fountain, the Frigidaire 1928 fountain was installed by the front window, and the old fountain, also a Frigidaire, was moved to the Seal Harbor store. The marble countertop gradually wore down and was replaced. Some of the old marble top, however, can still be found in the basement.
These days, the soda fountain uses Maine-made Gifford’s ice cream.
When the Seal Harbor store closed in the late ‘30s, its patrons became patrons of West End.
James Gilfillan bought out Gordon in 1939. Just a few years later, in 1942, he died.
Jim’s wife, Edith, ran the business following the death of her husband, since son Bob was in the Navy and finishing college. Beginning in 1951, when Bob became the sole owner, he began to expand the store and moved the soda fountain to its present location. His 1955 wedding to Barbara Blanchard was on the front page of The Bar Harbor Times.
Edith continued working at the pharmacy under Bob’s leadership, a position she retained until 1970.
A hallmark of the business has been the family’s involvement and its commitment to serving its patrons. While in high school, Bob Gilfillan began working in the store, serving his classmates ice cream. His siblings Bonnie, Sandy and Karen also worked at the store.
Like his father, current owner Michael Gilfillan began working in the store while in high school, in 1973, and then returned to the store as a full-time pharmacist in 1980 after graduating from the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and becoming licensed.
By spending so much time in the store at young ages, Michael had a leg up on his fellow students in pharmacy school.
“It made it easier already knowing the drugs,” he said. “It was nice to learn all the theory in school, but the practical implications I learned right here.”
Until she left for college, Michael’s daughter Danielle also worked in the store, as did his sons Andy and Alex (who continues to work summers).
In 2006, Stacey Gilfillan, Michael’s wife, took over the bookkeeping duties.
“I’ve always personally felt that it was important, but not an obligation, to keep the West End Drug Store in the family for as long as we could,” said Michael. “Despite government regulations and changes in insurance, we have retained the loyalty of the people we serve, people who want to continue to patronize our pharmacy and who appreciate the quality of the health care we provide.”