A native Arkansan has successfully combined her entrepreneurial interests in making money, community service and contemporary Japanese culture with two distinct and distinctive local businesses: Park West Pharmacy off Chenal Parkway and Otaku Takeout at the Outlets of Little Rock.
Gwen Herzig, 33, is a Jonesboro native and a graduate of Arkansas State University and the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences College of Pharmacy. She bought 41-year-old Park West four years ago.
There are fewer independent pharmacies in the United States than there are chain pharmacies: 19,397 independent pharmacies, according to the 2021 National Community Pharmacists Association Digest, compared with more than 28,000 chain pharmacies. Herzig said independent pharmacies like hers offer “a greater amount of customer service and flexibility” than the chains.
Park West Pharmacy and other independents cannot, however, get as good of a price as the big national chains can. They can’t buy directly from producers as their inventory needs are far less.
“Even when it comes to drug purchasing, a lot of our chain competitors are looped into having to use a primary wholesaler with no secondary wholesalers,” she said. Most pharmacies have contracts with primary wholesalers that they do most of their purchasing from; independent pharmacies can additionally join buying groups to aggregate buying power. The independent pharmacies can turn to secondary wholesalers if something is out of stock.
Herzig also emphasized that her business strategy emphasizes customer service.
Pharmacological education emphasizes pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics: how drugs interact with each other and the body’s organ systems. It teaches research skills as well, given the continually evolving nature of pharmaceuticals and patient care.
Pharmacists in some other countries are given a degree of independence to prescribe medications. For her part, Herzig said American pharmacists are “the ones who make sure everything is in line before starting therapy” — a shift from the time when they could only dispense pills and not counsel. She called pharmacists “the most accessible health care provider there is,” adding, “We do have that knowledge, and we can help curb situations that could easily keep people out of the hospital.”
She prides herself on responding to calls from customers within 5 minutes. Contrary to by-mail pharmacies or the corporate chains, she said Park West builds relationships with its customers. Protocols are coming out allowing pharmacists to prescribe birth control, and they can give immunizations. More accessibility for pharmacists allows some patients to avoid time-consuming visits to a doctor’s office for some issues.
“We might be just a tad bit more expensive, but it’s worth the convenience,” she said.
Buying a pharmacy means a pharmacist also buys an existing customer base. Park West has also allowed Herzig to work in areas of importance to her. Plan B sales are at-cost. Hormone replacement therapy medication is also cheap, and many customers pick up HIV medications and PrEP, the regimen that prevents HIV infections, there.
Park West has found a niche in the local LGBTQ community. Herzig said customers know it’s a safe space because of its rainbow decorations and estimated that around 60% of her customers are LGBTQ; she ships hormone replacement therapy drugs to trans Arkansans statewide.
Three years ago, early in the covid-19 pandemic, unprecedented strain on the American health care system and the birth of her second child with her wife, a “deeply closeted” Herzig came out as a transgender woman.
Having worked as a pharmacist before and after her transition, Herzig said she gets spoken over more as a woman. Her brother, Jesse Pruitt, works for her but sometimes gets questions directed to him instead of her, the woman who owns the business.
“I’m fortunate enough that I do pass, and I know that that’s a privilege,” she said. “Generally, the only people who know me previously are people who recognize or know that story.”
Herzig made national news in February, while testifying against anti-trans legislation, when state Sen. Matt McKee, R-Pearcy, asked about her transition. The pharmacy got hate mail and phone calls in addition to a greater number of affirming messages.
She impressed in the interview that gender-affirmation surgery for children is extremely uncommon; it’s hard enough for transgender adults to access it, even with insurance. The medications used for transgender hormone therapy are all prescribed off-label, meaning that insurance does not cover them, either.
A PASSION FOR GAMING
Many trans people have a strong connection to video games from their youth. The ability to choose a character to play in a digital world can be therapeutic to those working through gender dysphoria.
Herzig was one of them and also had a childhood affinity for anime like “Sailor Moon” and “Dragon Ball Z.”
“As games were developing, more character customizations happened, the more gender roles you could have in games,” she said. “It was like I could self-reflect more.”
Otaku Takeout markets itself as a “Japanese pop culture store,” offering figurines, toys and other collectables from the country’s famous gaming and Anime culture. (“Otaku” is Japanese slang for pop culture obsessives.) They sell a large array of Japanese snacks and drinks (including beer and sake) and instant ramen. The business began in Park West Pharmacy and expanded last October to a 3,700-square-foot store at the outlet mall.
“That store grosses $100K in sales each month,” Herzig said. “It does fantastic, with a 50% profit margin.”
She just got a loan to expand the mall store into the neighboring storefront, which she plans to set up as a Japanese arcade. Otaku Market has also done some exchange work with Hot Springs’ sister city, the spa town of Hanamaki, Japan.
A TRANS ENTREPRENEUR
Park West spends more on outreach compared to other pharmacies. It will have a table at two Pride events this month, NEA Pridefest in Jonesboro (June 10) and NWA Pride in Fayetteville (June 23 and 24). Payroll and drug inventory are the business’s two biggest expenses, with the latter constituting more than 50% of expenditures.
Herzig, who does free advocacy and consulting work for other businesses on transgender issues and hosts a yearly name-change clinic, is a customer-facing business owner distributing medication to a predominantly LGBTQ clientele in a conservative state amid a nationwide legislative campaign against LGBTQ people. She said transgender people talk about a tipping point that would compel them to move.
“Not right now, obviously, with the legislative session done,” Herzig said. “What if a bathroom law does get pressed? It would be very unsafe for me to go into a men’s bathroom. Or if I couldn’t access HRT, which is a lifeblood for many transgender individuals. I don’t know. But more and more gets pushed, and I think a lot of it is just ignorance and not understanding about the transgender community’s needs. Because, you know, we’ve been here for quite some time.”
“At the end of the day, I wanted to make sure I’m not working to live. I’m living to work,” Herzig said. “It’s just about taking care of business. It’s about taking care of your employees, taking care of your family, taking care of their families, making sure that everybody’s up and going and making sure that our patients are taken care of. It’s really an all-encompassing kind of thought process, and it really keeps you on your toes.”