A New York Drugstore Almost as Storied because the Metropolis Itself
In this series for T, author Reggie Nadelson picks up on New York institutions that have defined cool for decades, from old restaurants to unsung dives.
When Alec Ginsburg was 5 years old, he knew he wanted to work in his father’s drugstore. “It wasn’t a decision, I just knew it,” says 29-year-old Ginsburg, who, along with his father, Ian Ginsburg, is now a co-owner of CO Bigelow in Greenwich Village. “I’ve seen him love his job a lot more than my friends’ parents loved theirs,” Alec recalls. “He came home and told me how he met Lou Reed and David Bowie. My father was like the Mayor of Greenwich Village and I thought, How cool! “
Both father and son love music. Ian, 58, remembers working in the store with his father as a teenager when there was still a lunch counter. Musicians recording at Electric Lady Studios on West 8th Street often stopped by or called for lunch. And Ian was happy to deliver. “When I thought there was a chance to meet Jimi Hendrix, I thought I was going to just lose it,” he recalls. “I was so excited.”
Many of the coolest places in New York – cool is a complicated concept – are run by second, third, or fourth generation families. This gives them their style, character, feeling that they are necessary to the city, and even their sense of humor. In Bigelow, from a small balcony at the back of the workshop, half a sheet The Anthony Fauci model – white hair, mask, and everything – from Amy Henry, a stage and production designer and friend of the Ginsburgs, has been keeping an eye on the store for the past few months. Because, of course, Bigelow stayed open during the pandemic – just like after 9/11 and through the major blackouts of Superstorm Sandy and New York when its large brass gas lights (still there but now electric) were put in good use .
The Sixth Avenue store between West 8th and 9th Streets is in the center of Greenwich Village. And its striking interior from 1902 has been wonderfully preserved with its original tiled floor and oak shelves. At the front of the room are glass-fronted counters that hold a dazzling array of tempting goods: skin care products from France, fragrances from Barcelona, sparkling headbands, badger shaving brushes, and Bigelow’s own lotions and potions. Most of the time, when I pick up hand sanitizer or Advil, I come out with a basket full of delicacies, which could include lavender and peppermint soap or a Tuscan fig candle. For the really dissatisfied, there are pill bottles that have been wrapped in a reused monogrammed Louis Vuitton canvas by artist Sarah Coleman. But you can also find Pond’s Cold Cream and Alka-Seltzer.
At the back of the store is the pharmacy, which has a more communal, sociable spirit than your average Walgreen. Many long-term guests stop to buy their medication and vitamins and to chat or get advice. In a way, this is Bigelow’s heart. Alec can look up at the wall here and see the pharmacy licenses issued to his grandfather Jerry and great grandfather William, who bought Bigelow in 1939. “Before joining the family business, my father was a band leader in his late 40s and early 50s,” says Ian of Jerry, who played drummer in the Catskills with Mel Brooks one summer. “He definitely wanted a career in music. But his father, a strict Eastern European Orthodox Jew, did not consider it a profession. “
Nowadays it’s Alec who oversees much of the day-to-day business operations. From the age of seven he spent his free time filling shelves and wrapping gifts in the store and he always loved the idea of the business, but Ian told him he had to qualify as a pharmacist before he could work full time. And so he spent seven years earning a bachelor’s and an advanced degree in pharmacy from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, graduating in 2016. “It worked really well,” says Ian. “Alec was the only one of my kids who wanted to work here – but all of my kids are brilliant at math.” (Alec has two siblings: a brother, Reed, who works at SpaceX in Los Angeles, and a sister, Wendy, who works at a London bank.) In January, Alec set up and frequently manages the company’s Covid-19 vaccination program the shots themselves. But when it comes to routine medication, he’s not superior to making bespoke flavors for his customers. “Children like grapes and watermelons,” he says. “Cats go for tuna and chicken, while dogs go for bacon.”
I’ve been visiting Bigelow since the late 50’s when my mom took me to the Louis sherry ice cream by the soda fountain (it was removed in 1984). But of course the history of the business goes back much further. The facade is lit by a neon sign announcing 1838, when a Vermont doctor, Galen Hunter, opened the Village Apothecary Shoppe a few doors down from the store’s current location. Clarence Otis Bigelow, who had worked for Hunter, bought the business in 1880, renamed it CO Bigelow, and moved it to its current address in 1902.
In New York, the corner drug store has always been the place to go with a sore knee or swollen wrist. And Bigelow is a haven for the lightly injured and those in need of the guidance of a friendly pharmacist. All kinds of Greenwich Village residents came by over the decades: Mark Twain, who lived on West 10th Street in 1901; Eleanor Roosevelt, who rented an apartment on Washington Square West in the 1940s; the New York Dolls; the artist Frank Stella; and attorney William Kunstler, who defended the Chicago 7 in 1969 and ate lunch in Bigelow every day.
Ian took over the shop in 1985. Like his father, he had considered a career in music – as a drummer – but instead made Bigelow his art form. “I knew that we couldn’t keep up with the big drugstore chains,” he recalls. “So I thought we’d make this a feel-good experience like the European pharmacists I’ve always loved.”
Since then he has established partnerships with the Florence-based toothpaste brand Marvis, the fragrance company Carthusia in Capri and the Turkish rose water producer Gulsha. He stocks products that are often difficult to find elsewhere in New York. “I like that these companies, like us, are all generations and have histories,” he says. It is therefore not surprising that Ian kept an amazing archive of the records and ephemera of the business, some of which he keeps in his office on the third floor of the building.
The room is crammed with relics from Bigelow’s past: age-yellow prescription pads, ceramic apothecary jars, and old vials and powder jars – containers from a time when chemists sold cocaine eye drops and heroin to suppress coughs. (The shop is rumored to have sold alcohol during Prohibition as well.) Ian shows me a small bottle of lime tonol – a snake oil of its time believed to cure everything from weak ankles to epilepsy and yawning – with a Star of David, which is clearly stamped on it. “It’s from E. Schering, a Berlin pharmacy,” he explains. “It was partially owned by Jews, and in early 1938 Nazi officials defined a Jewish company as one that contained people of Jewish or mixed ethnicity in managerial positions.”
“You can see here that there were recipes for hot fudge, coffee syrup and suppositories on the same page,” he says as he opens one of the hundreds of old books. From time to time the company will Dig up an old recipe from its archive and reintroduce it with a few modifications. The brand’s hand cream, for example, which was launched in its current form in 2003 and is made from lemon oil and extracts, as well as shea butter and kukui nut oil, is based on a lotion that was first introduced in 1870.
Back on the first floor, Ian waves to Alec, who works at his desk on the balcony overlooking the store, and remembers his early years there pacing up and down an old waiter who is now boarded up.
It is true that Bigelow has seen his fair share of the good and great, the famous and the infamous. And it is true that the store sells rare and wonderful toiletries. But, as Dolce Gonzalez, one of Bigelow’s pharmacy assistants, says, perhaps what defines the place most is that “there’s warmth and magic in the store.” Many of her relatives, including her sisters and children, have worked at Bigelow for the past two decades. “It’s very familiar,” she says. “Ian treats everyone so well. The moment I walked in, I fell in love with her. “She started on June 1, 1999 and soon met Eddie Gonzalez, the facility manager. Six months later they were married.