A New York Drugstore Nearly as Storied as the City ItselfBreaking News
tags: Greenwich Village, New York, urban history, retail
By the time Alec Ginsberg was 5, he knew he wanted to work at his father’s drugstore. “It wasn’t a decision, I just knew,” says Ginsberg, 29, who, along with his father, Ian Ginsberg, is now the co-owner of C.O. Bigelow in Greenwich Village. “I saw how he loved his work much more than my friends’ parents liked theirs,” Alec recalls. “He’d come home and tell me how he had met Lou Reed or David Bowie. My dad was like the mayor of Greenwich Village, and I thought, How cool!”
Both father and son are passionate about music. Ian, 58, recalls working at the store as a teenager with his father back when it still had a lunch counter. Musicians recording at Electric Lady Studios on West 8th Street often came by or called in for lunch. And Ian was happy to deliver. “When I figured there was a chance I’d meet Jimi Hendrix, I thought I’d just lose it,” he recalls. “I was so excited.”
Many of the coolest places — cool being a complicated concept — in New York are run by second-, third- or fourth-generation families. This is what gives them their style, their character, the feeling that they are necessary to the city and even their sense of humor. Inside Bigelow, from a small balcony at the back of the shop floor, a half-scale cloth model of Anthony Fauci — white hair, mask and all — made by Amy Henry, a set and production designer and a friend of the Ginsbergs’, has kept a benign eye on the store for the past few months. Because, of course, Bigelow has stayed open through the pandemic — just as it did in the aftermath of Sept. 11, and through Superstorm Sandy and New York’s big blackouts, when its great brass gas chandeliers (still there but now electric) were put to good use.
The store, on Sixth Avenue between West 8th and 9th Streets, is in the very center of Greenwich Village. And its landmark interior, which dates to 1902, is wonderfully preserved, with its original tiled floor and oak shelves. At the front of the space are glass-fronted counters where a dazzling array of seductive goods is kept: skin-care products from France, fragrances from Barcelona, sparkly hair bands, badger-hair shaving brushes and Bigelow’s own proprietary lotions and potions. When I go in to pick up hand sanitizer or Advil, I tend to come out with a basket full of delights that might include lavender-and-peppermint soap or a Tuscan fig candle. For the really hard-to-please, there are pill bottles wrapped in repurposed monogrammed Louis Vuitton canvas by the 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, convivial spirit than your average Walgreens, with many long-term patrons stopping in for their medicines and vitamins, and staying to chat or get advice. In a sense, this is the heart of Bigelow. Alec can look up at the wall here and see the pharmacy licenses issued to his grandfather Jerry and his great-grandfather William, who bought Bigelow in 1939. “Before he joined the family business, my father was a band leader in the late ’40s and early ’50s,” Ian says of Jerry, who performed in the Catskills one summer with Mel Brooks as his drummer. “He definitely wanted a career in music. But his father, a strict Eastern European orthodox Jew, didn’t think it was a profession.”
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