It’s the end of an era: Sutton’s Drug Store, a fixture of Franklin Street for 91 years, has sold off the pharmacy part of its business to a CVS down the street.

From now on, Sutton’s Drug Store will operate just as a lunch counter, which will probably suit a lot of its loyal customers just fine.

“We just happen to be a casualty of being one of those little guys that are not able to compete with the health care industry, with the new regulations they have, as well as the reimbursement rates,” says John Woodard. “And that’s why we were able to work an agreement out with CVS to move our pharmacy department up to their location here on Franklin Street, just a few hundred feet up the street here.”

John Woodard, the owner and operator of Sutton’s since 1977, says smaller pharmacies and doctors’ office are getting squeezed by “corporate health care.”

At some point, he realized that the cost of doing business with powerful pharmacy benefit managers such as Express Scripts, which work with big companies such as CVS, Rite Aid and Walgreens, was just too high for a small drug store.

So on Tuesday, Woodard finalized a deal with the CVS Pharmacy at 137 East Franklin Street.

And just like that, CVS came and took possession of Sutton’s inventory of over-the-counter health and beauty aids, as well as the entire prescription department and related files.

Chapel Hill social entrepreneur Jim Kitchen broke the news that day on Twitter.

“He’s just such an icon, and such a gentleman, and such a wonderful citizen of Chapel Hill for so many years, it’s just sad to see him go,” says Kitchen. “But I was happy for him, at the same time, being able to make something out of his last few years in a really tough pharmaceutical environment with the big boys – big stores like Walgreen’s and CVS – dominating the industry.”

Woodard has nothing but nice things to say about the Franklin Street CVS. He praises their pharmacies for making the abrupt transition go smoothly so far for Sutton’s customers.

He also says that CVS has no problem with Sutton’s keeping the name Sutton’s Drug Store. Woodard says the place is best-known as a lunch counter anyway.

“It’s good that we’ll still be able to be up here on the block operating as a food counter, and still be going by the name of Sutton’s Drug Store.”

Woodard says he’s been thinking of retirement lately, but it’s just too much fun operating a business on Franklin Street, and seeing all his regulars from the university every day.

So, for now at least, he’ll still be a daily presence at Sutton’s, even though he’ll no longer be filling prescriptions.

“Oh, gosh, I plan to!” he says. “It’s hard to leave a place when you’ve been here for 37 years.’

Woodard says that some of the local physicians he deals with regularly were only concerned about one thing when they heard the news.

“Several of the doctors’ office called and just said, ‘Oh, no, it can’t be that you’re closing – I can still get a milkshake, can’t I?’” he says. “And I said, yeah, we’ll have plenty of milkshakes.”

The good news for regular diners at Sutton’s? The newly freed-up space makes room for more tables and chairs.