Curating Quality at Family-Run NYC Institution, C.O. Bigelow Apothecaries
On Sixth Avenue in the heart of Greenwich Village, a family-run apothecary has loyally served the storied neighborhood with personalized service through nearly 200 years of changing skyline and trends in both the pharmacy industry and customer demand.
Inside the historic façade of C.O. Bigelow Apothecaries, Mark Twain’s credit slip and Eleanor Roosevelt’s hand written note are part of an archive of ephemera from notable New Yorkers customers across many eras that also includes 1970s punk-rockers The New York Dolls and Saturday Night Live legend John Belushi.
From an office above the shop, up several flights of stairs with ornamental wrought iron railings dating back to the 1800s, third-generation President and CEO Ian Ginsberg PH’85 splits his time between tailoring the shop’s in-store experience and planning trips abroad to source inspiration for products unavailable at any of the thousands of chain pharmacies across Manhattan.
C.O. Bigelow Apothecaries is a historic New York City institution, but even such a prestigious label sells it short. Similarly, to call Ginsberg anything less than an innovative entrepreneur at the helm of a storied, independent business is to tell only part of this fascinating story.
The business that became C.O. Bigelow began as a small apothecary and neighborhood store in 1838. It was passed from owner to employees until 1939, when Ginsberg’s grandfather, William, and his brother-in-law Arthur Gross purchased the business. William’s son, Ian’s father, Jerry Ginsberg PH’52 enrolled in the Brooklyn College of Pharmacy, which later became LIU Pharmacy, and took over the family business in the 1960s.
Although he grew up in the store, Ginsberg was reluctant to become a pharmacist, instead setting his sights on a career as a professional musician. His parents encouraged him to get a professional degree just in case his music career did not end up providing for his family goals. Ginsberg enrolled at LIU Pharmacy in 1983, gigging as a jazz drummer on the side.
After graduation, Ginsberg found he had no natural role at the family business. “I had to figure out how to not get in the way of everyone doing their jobs,” he said. But the mid-1980s saw the rise of the chain pharmacy, a phenomenon that posed a direct threat to C.O. Bigelow Apothecaries. Seeing an opportunity, Ginsberg decided to focus on tailoring the in-store experience of C.O. Bigelow’s customers.
“I saw that the person-to-person interactions that were a major part of the history of our profession were being discarded,” said Ginsberg. “At that time C.O. Bigelow had one hundred and fifty years of experience being the place where customers personally consulted with their pharmacist to improve their health and well being. That was something that no chain could offer.”
Ginsberg spearheaded a number of in-store customer experience initiatives, including adding and training staff, moving all pharmaceutical and cosmetic products behind the counters to encourage face-to-face interactions, and re-releasing new versions of beauty products with centuries-old C.O. Bigelow recipes. He even recreated the store’s World War II-era window display on the importance of penicillin. “By being who we were, we were able to survive and thrive,” Ginsberg said.
Think of the experience of being sick and going to the doctor, Ginsberg said, “It’s awful. You wait forever, you have little interaction with doctors and nurses, you pay your copay, and go to the pharmacy where you wait some more, pay another copay, and leave with some pills. That’s the experience that we work every day to disrupt.”
Ginsberg knows that the ability to provide such a personalized experience starts with high-quality employees themselves, particularly in a profession that combines healthcare and beauty. To that end, he keeps a close eye on LIU Pharmacy graduates. “The caliber of students today floors me. I walked into LIU in cut-off shorts and a T-shirt when I started. The professionalism and even clinical aspirations of today’s students is really impressive.”
Today, C.O. Bigelow Apothecaries occupies the sweet spot between high-end beauty products, international cosmetics, and personalized neighborhood pharmacy. From the pharmacist counter, customers used to look out on the Sixth Avenue elevated train line, long since decommissioned. In its place the colorful life of the Village streams by; streaks of yellow taxis, construction vehicles erecting luxury condos, tourists and university students eating brunch on the weekends. But while the neighborhood continues to change and grow around it, one gets the impression that C.O. Bigelow will remain a neighborhood fixture through the constant NYC evolution, as it has for nearly two centuries. When asked about the company’s future, Ginsberg smiles: “We offer an experience that people don’t want taken away. I’m optimistic.”