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Career Day

Career Day: The Apothecary

By Alix Strauss

Ian Ginsberg is president and owner of C.O. Bigelow, the oldest apothecary in America, which opened in 1838 in Manhattan’s West Village.

Most people today get their prescriptions from chain drugstores. You call yourself an “apothecary.” Is that just an old-fashioned name for the same thing?
We’re a different business altogether. [In chain stores,] the pharmacy is an opportunity to keep people in the store for 30 to 45 minutes so that they can walk around and shop. Prescriptions are just another commodity, no different than candy, toothpaste, or beef jerky. We have a large staff of pharmacists, PharmDs, and pharmacy technicians who know our patients, know what their unique issues are. We want to be integral members of their healthcare team.

What additional services do you offer?
When you fill a prescription with us, we take a long look at the other medications you’re on. We look at possible side effects, at the times you’re supposed to take it. We make sure your medications are all filled at the same time on the same day, even if you’re seeing several different doctors. And we set you up with little blister bags, specifically organized for you with the date and time of day on them. We also call and check in on you. It’s our way of disrupting the healthcare system and making it more personal by adding back a role that’s been taken away.

Our early clients included Mark Twain and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Is there anything different about the way you formulate medicine?
We have our original prescription books and recipe books that date back to the early to mid 1800s. They are a treasure of knowledge into amazing formulations, some of which we still make today. We still compound liquids, creams, powders, and suppositories. We flavor medications. If something isn’t available in liquid form, we can make it liquid. 

What’s your personal connection to the business?
C.O. Bigelow is a family business. My grandfather bought it with his brother-in-law in 1939; I’ve worked here full time since I graduated pharmacy school in 1985, and purchased the business from my father in 1997. My oldest son joined the business in 2016 after graduating with his PharmD. 

How have customers changed in the years you’ve been working?
We have a sophisticated clientele, but they aren’t sure if what they’re reading is real or not. They get on the web and think they’re a Google doctor or beauty adviser, but they still need a place to validate, so they come here.

How important is the specific history of the store to your business model?
People crave things that are real and authentic. Consumers are drawn to us because we’re so old, and because of our history of working with celebrities and VIPs. Our early clients included Mark Twain and Eleanor Roosevelt. In our archives, we have a copy of a check from [Civil War] General Daniel Sickles, who slayed his wife’s lover in broad daylight right in front of the White House, and a letter from Eleanor Roosevelt to my grandfather in 1942. Today, we still have a lot of famous clients: Sarah Jessica Parker, Elvis Costello, Amy Sedaris, Justin Theroux, Sandra Bernhardt, and Calvin Klein.

Do you also sell candy, toothpaste, and beef jerky?
Of the 10,000 plus things we sell — some of which we make ourselves — we don’t sell candy or beef jerky. We do sell toothpaste, because that’s a health item. But our toothpaste is from around the world, because we love to find the coolest items.

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Alix Strauss is a four-time published author and a journalist based in New York.


Illustration by Verónica Grech

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