Beauty Store Business

SEP 2014

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46 September 2014 | Beauty Store Business: Please tell us about how C.O. Bigelow was established. GINSBERG: The store was founded in 1838 as The Village Apothecary Shop by Dr. Galen Hunter, a Vermont native. In the 1830s, in post-Colonial America, most apothecaries were founded by doc- tors; these were places you could get diagnosed and treated. You'd tell the doctor what was ailing you, and he'd make up some concoction in the back. But the apothecary also became a gath- ering place for people. In old indepen- dent pharmacies, you'd see glass bowls with different colored water in them either hanging or sitting on a pedestal called show globes. The color of the water indicated the epidemic that was prevalent at the time such as typhoid or influenza. We still have them hanging in our window—though we don't signal diseases nowadays! After Dr. Hunter, the business was passed from employer to employee. In 1880, Clarence Otis Bigelow took over and changed the name to C.O. Bigelow. In 1902, the shop moved two doors north, and Bigelow himself built the building we're still in today. We've been in the same location for 112 years. This is a landmark building. Inside, there are ornate columns and a canvas ceiling; the tile and woodwork are original; and we still have an old sliding ladder and chan- deliers that used to burn gas. It's really something to see. How did your family enter the business? Bigelow died in 1922, and the busi- ness continued to be passed on from employer to employee. The business was run down during the Depression, but my grandfather came across it in 1939. He'd emigrated from Eastern Europe at 16 years old and was a tailor, but he studied at night by candlelight, went to Columbia and became a pharmacist. He owned a couple of stores and was a very ethical pharmacist, and he bought C.O. Bigelow with his brother-in-law when it was 101 years old. The family business was born. My father was 11 years old at the time. Everyone kind of grew up in the business. My dad was a musician, a bandleader who played the sax and the clarinet. He played in the Catskills, where he met my mother, a concert pianist. His dad didn't understand music, certainly not jazz, and forced my dad to go to pharmacy school. He did, though it took him quite a few years to graduate! Then he joined the business in the '50s. I grew up in a musical household and was a musician myself; I went to music school my whole life and wanted to be a musician as well. My parents were a little bit cooler about it, but they still said, "Why don't you go to pharmacy school so when you're starving later on, you'll have something to fall back on?" My father always believed you needed a license of some kind so you could make a living. What were your earliest experiences in the business? I grew up in the business and started working here when I was seven years old. We had a soda fountain back in those days. I filled jelly cups, washed dishes, delivered food, cleaned shelves, swept the floor, ran the crank elevator, drove the delivery truck—I did every- thing. I worked here probably every weekend my whole life. As a teenager, I'd go after school and on the weekends. I also started working as a musician when I was 16, making a little money. Until I was 24, I played for clubs, wed- dings, parties, studio work, jingles— anything to make money. Meanwhile, how did C.O. Bigelow evolve under your grandfather and father? Through the years the Village was afflu- ent, and before there was major travel, we took care of the who's who of New York [City]. Thomas Edison, Mark Twain and the Roosevelts shopped here. My grandfather was the neighborhood pharmacist, but as a musician my father came in with more creative ideas and made the place kind of a cooler place for beauty. In those days, you'd buy your prestige cosmetics—brands such as Scandia, Charles of the Ritz and Borghese—at drugstores, and he started delivering. He also opened up a store in the Americana Hotel—at that time the largest hotel in the world, built to open with the 1964 New York World's Fair—that was a fancy and classic pharmacy and cosmetics spot ahead of its time. My father ran that for many years and then came back to the original C.O. Bigelow, where many of our family members worked. How did you enter the business? I got out of pharmacy school in '85, but I didn't know if I wanted to spend the rest of my life in a white coat; I was a club kid and musician. Also, the chains, including Duane Reade and Rite Aid, were coming fast and furious at that time. All of the independent pharmacies were freaking out. Everyone started running circulars with low prices. I thought, "These chains have mega buying power, and we're not going to win that game." But we had something they didn't have—a business that at that time was 146 years old— and I thought we could capitalize on that. No matter how young or old, everyone remembers going to the pharmacist with his or her mom. That's a memory that con- tinues to get taken away from people, and I believe that's something people don't want taken away. I said: We can focus on being who we are—that's something we can own. We can't chase the price of TYLENOL; we'll lose. That philosophy has always driven me: When everybody's going one way, I go the other way. How did you work to differentiate C.O. Bigelow? I first focused on the in-store experience, what happens from the time a person walks through the door. Both young and old customers want to rely on the local pharmacist to help them. Also, a lot of great products were getting lost in a sea of planograms. We wanted to offer one-on-one explanations. To this day, if you want TYLENOL in our store, you have to ask for it. On the pharmacy side we have drug clerks; you come to the counter and talk "I want people to say, 'I want to go to C.O. Bigelow.' It has to be a 'want to,' not a 'have to.'" All images courtesy of C.O. Bigelow Apothecaries

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