C.O. Bigelow is more than an apothecary — it's a portal to vintage Manhattan.

By Jess McHugh
February 01, 2018
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Part department store and part corner store pharmacy, the 180-year-old C.O. Bigelow Chemists is something of an anomaly. Nestled on a block that sits kitty-corner to a Sprint retailer, a Starbucks, and a barre exercise studio in Manhattan’s West Village, the apothecary hearkens back to an era when the neighborhood was just that: a village within a larger city.

In the back of the store, pharmacists fill prescriptions and pass out treats to service dogs, while the front counters are piled high with cosmetics from around the world, as well as Bigelow’s own salves, balms, and lotions. Shoppers can pick up cinnamon toothpaste, Italian shave kits, or organic cleansing oil. They even sell socks infused with a moisturizer, imported from Japan.

“As you walk around the store, it’s a collection of our favorite things, as well as our own things, so some things you recognize, some things you don’t. People say it’s almost like organized chaos,” C.O. Bigelow President Ian Ginsberg told Travel + Leisure . “It’s part of discovering.”

Tom Grahsler

Ginsberg is the third in his family to lead the Village fixture, and he has lovingly maintained the 1902 building since he took over more than two decades ago. Octogenarians in high heels still titter across the original tile work, and the turn-of-the-century chandeliers illuminate the rows of glass cases and walls of elixirs. In a world that has increasingly become digitized, sanitized, and impersonal, C.O. Bigelow remains a monument to a time when pharmacists were neighbors, friends, and even caregivers, while still incorporating the advances of modern medicine.

Founded in 1838 by a local doctor, Clarence Otis Bigelow took over the business in 1880, beginning to develop some of the formulas for products that are still for sale today in the store and online, such as their lemon body cream and Dr. Keightley’s mouthwash. Over the century and a half that it has been in business, Bigelow Chemists has treated everyone from Eleanor Roosevelt to Lou Reed. It's one of the oldest pharmacies in the U.S., and legend has it that the chemists even created a salve for Thomas Edison to soothe his burned fingers when he was developing the light bulb. Mark Twain was a regular customer and always paid on time, ledgers show.

Ginsberg’s grandfather purchased the business in 1939, at which point “the family business was born.”

Keeping the original name, the Ginsbergs continued to grow C.O. Bigelow into a beloved neighborhood spot for locals and visitors alike. While many other independent pharmacies have folded under economic pressures from nationwide chains such as CVS and Walgreens, Bigelow has continued to thrive, in large part thanks to its emphasis on maintaining a personal touch, Ginsberg says.

“No matter how young or old, or where people grew up, everyone had some memory of going to see the pharmacist,” he said. “And that was an experience that the change was slowly taking way. So I really focused on what it means when you come inside, how we make you feel.”

Tom Grahsler

Long before the rise of monolithic pharmaceutical companies and chain drug stores, the level of personal care between healthcare provider and patient had already begun to dwindle in the U.S. Indeed, throughout the 20th century, as doctors increasingly took on a greater number of patients, many people had more personal relationships with their pharmacist than with their healthcare provider, according to one doctor and historian.

“Rather than the person at your bedside being your friend, being someone you knew, that person has become a stranger. And the pharmacist can to some extent fill that role,” said Joel Howell, a professor of history and medicine at University of Michigan, referencing the book “Strangers at the Bedside.”

Even residents with strong doctor-patient relationships can benefit from a caring pharmacist. Particularly in a city like New York where so many people are transplants or visitors, having the safety of a person to turn to is vital.

“So much of medical care is not just about the actual biological thing that a pill is doing to your body,” said Jonathan Metzl, director for the Center for Medicine, Health, and Society at Vanderbilt University. “It’s also about having a local connection, and knowing that somebody is there in that time of need and stress.”

Tom Grahsler

Historically American pharmacies have served as more than just healthcare providers. The apothecary-soda-shop hybrid was ubiquitous, especially in middle-class white neighborhoods.

Bigelow maintained its own soda counter serving sandwiches, sodas, and coffee up until 1984.

Everyone from members of the punk band The New York Dolls, to the Belushi brothers, to Ronald Reagan, Jr. frequented the pharmacy’s soda counter back in its heyday. With recording studio Electric Lady located around the corner West 8th Street, Bigelow attracted both residents and a number of musicians looking to take a break from long sessions.

“If you think about what the Village was like in the ’60s and ’70s — even in the ’50s — it was a gathering place for artists,” Ginsberg said.

Ginsberg practically grew up in the apothecary, and as he walked around the store he could point to cigarette burns on the counter from back in the soda shop days, or a dumbwaiter pulley system he used to play around with as a kid.

While customers might no longer be able to smoke inside or order a malt, C.O. Bigelow aims to continue its legacy of serving as a caregiver for the entire neighborhood.

“When you solve somebody’s problem for them, whether it’s a health problem or a beauty problem, you win their heart,” he said. “And it becomes a place where you want to go.”