Gimme that old-time prescription: 175-year-old pharmacy mixes old-fashioned business with new ideas

White label, natural and imported personal care products keep store a New York fixture

Long Island University gave its Distinguished Alumnus award to C.O. Bigelow Apothecaries owner Ian Ginsberg, a 1985 graduate of the university's pharmacy school.

C.O. Bigelow isn't just any drug store - it's the oldest one in the country, having been founded in 1838. Ginsberg's family has owned it since his grandfather, William Ginsberg, bought it in 1939. So, as one might ask a centenarian, what's C.O. Bigelow's secret?

Customers of the store, tucked away in Manhattan's Greenwich Village, have included Mark Twain, Thomas Edison and Eleanor Roosevelt, while legendary punk rock band The New York Dolls and filmmaker John Waters frequented the soda fountain. Indeed, the pharmacy's role in the city's history could be compared with another old-time business nearby, McSorley's Old Ale House, a fixture since 1854 that has entertained such luminaries as Abraham Lincoln and The Great Houdini with its homemade beer.

Bigelow has made a slogan for itself, "If you can't find it anywhere else, try Bigelow." That's because a big part of the store's business consists of high-end beauty and personal care products, often natural and organic or largely unavailable in the United States, such as Marvis toothpaste and Proraso shaving cream from Italy, La Creme Opalis conditioner and Les Fleurs de Bach perfume from France, as well as a large white-label business. Ginsberg also found recipes for 19th century balms, lotions and other products in the company's archives, and in 2003 signed a deal with Bath & Body Works to market them in the chain's stores.

At a time when pharmacy retailers are looking to distinguish themselves in order to drive greater customer traffic, Bigelow is showing that it's known all along that standing out is the best way to be noticed, and providing high-quality and distinctive products is the best way to keep the people who notice the store coming in on a regular basis. Considering that the store's customers in recent years have included the likes of Susan Sarandon, Calvin Klein and Elvis Costello, it looks like the strategy is working.


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