Volume 75, Number 39 | February 15 -21 2006

Villager photos by Jefferson Siegel

John Duffy behind the counter at Grove Pharmacy on Tuesday, the day before its closing.

Two classic pharmacies fill their last prescriptions

By Alex Schmidt

The traffic flow in and out of Grove Pharmacy in the West Village was steady on Saturday. Despite the fact he would be closing this Wed. Feb. 15, pharmacist and owner John Duffy stood behind his computer, engrossed with business details and filling prescriptions.

“I hope we served you better as a customer than I am now being able to talk to you,” he told a reporter.

Duffy assured waiting customers that the personal touch they have grown accustomed to during his 16-year ownership of Grove will continue at another pharmacy he owns at Eighth Ave. and W. 12th St., where he will consolidate the two stores. But that personal touch isn’t the only thing that’s disappearing from the corner of Seventh Ave. and Grove. The location has housed a pharmacy for 80 years, and the mahogany shelves, hanging glass lamps and atmosphere of a local Village pharmacist will now be relegated to historical memory.

While landmark laws preserve buildings and their exteriors and rent regulations protect tenants from huge rent hikes, nothing exists to protect stores — even venerated and historic ones — from being forced out of their spaces. There is no commercial rent-regulation law.

In Duffy’s case, business is fine. He said his landlord, the Nesis family, simply did not offer him “the same conditions they offered someone new,” and he was unable to negotiate the lease. That someone new is rumored to be a toy store. But this is rarely the case for pharmacies elsewhere in the city, which repeatedly fall victim to the ceaseless encroachment of major chains like Duane Reade and CVS. Another former Village landmark, Mayfair Chemists, at the corner of Seventh Ave. and 12th St., yielded to a Duane Reade that opened at the corner of Seventh and 13th St. Duane Reade actually purchased Mayfair from owner Evan Nelson several years ago and opened the Duane Reade store there nine years ago. In preparation for the closing, the pharmaceutical giant placed an intern in Mayfair last year to ensure a smooth transition of all customers to Duane Reade. Today, a sign on the closed Mayfair reads, “Just a few doors down — No interruption in service. All prescriptions transferred to our other Duane Reade Pharmacy.”

The smooth transition of accounts wasn’t enough for many residents, however.

“Everybody knew the pharmacy, and they knew everything about you right away. Now it’s different people,” said Marco, a worker at Express Café, which is located between the two pharmacies. “Most people were really upset.”

One pharmacy that prides itself on still offering the kind of service those customers miss is C.O. Bigelow Apothecary, the oldest pharmacy in America and, by most accounts, the only one that appears immune to the major chains. Current owner Ian Ginsberg, whose family has owned the city landmark at Sixth Ave. and Ninth St. since the 1930s, said that, “If you come into our place and mom and dad are far away, and you say you don’t feel good, we can make a recommendation. In my store you still have to ask for Tylenol. We teach and help people.”

Delivering an experience that Ginsberg calls “genuine, honest, trustworthy” has rewarded Bigelow with a staunchly loyal clientele. But their firm standing in the community was not always so clear. “I started here full time back in the ’80s when chains first started, and my dad was flipping out that the chains were going take over,” he said. “But I sat back and said, ‘We’re 140-something years old, and nobody can ever take that away from us, and there’s an experience we can deliver that the chains can never compete with.’”

That isn’t for lack of trying. Ginsberg says that people from the chains “come in here and they’re looking all the time and they have asked in the past. But they know it’s not a discussion.”

The proliferation of chains is only one challenge faced by small pharmacies.

“Most prescriptions are $100 and we literally get paid net cost plus a fee, which is like $2,” noted Ginsberg. “And you survive because some people pay cash. But now 80 percent-plus have insurance. It’s really, really brutal, and it’s very hard for people like John Duffy or the Mayfairs to survive. There’s just no money in pharmacy anymore.”

In order to make ends meet, pharmacists must “diversify,” offering beauty products and healthcare goods historically not offered in pharmacies. John Duffy has done this. At Grove, his Eighth Ave. location and a third pharmacy of his at Sixth Ave. and Bleecker St., he sells kids’ art supplies, cosmetic bags and a large boutique assortment of soaps and lotions.

But Grove was something special. Shopping in Grove a few days before it was slated to close, neighborhood resident David Jeffrey, reflected, “The window displays were a hallmark of this place — we’ll miss those…. It’s just not like other pharmacies.”

Ginsberg echoed the sentiment. “These were pretty strong Village icons. I was born and raised here, and Grove and Mayfair go back with me forever,” he said. “So it’s sad to see. It’s like the end of an era.”

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