By Alix Strauss
Photographs by Vincent Tullo
Ian Ginsberg stood in his West Village office above C.O. Bigelow, considered by some to be the oldest pharmacy in the United States. He was unwrapping vintage items from the early 1900s: An amber bottle filled with German Salts; a glass container of Violet Witch Hazel with a crown top; a round, pink box that once held pills. Each had been meticulously packed in tissue paper and Bubble Wrap. Mr. Ginsberg handled the objects as if he had come from an excavation site.
In many ways, he had.
“These items still give me chills,” he said. “They are an incredible treasure trove of history; a snapshot of health care through the ages.”
Mr. Ginsberg, the Indiana Jones of apothecary relics, is also the president, owner, and historical expert of C.O. Bigelow.
Established in 1838 by Dr. Galen Hunter, the store was originally called the Village Apothecary Shoppe. In 1880, Clarence Otis Bigelow purchased it and renamed it after himself, moving it 22 years later, two doors down, to Sixth Avenue and Ninth Street, where it stands today.
Mr. Ginsberg’s grandfather and his brother-in-law bought the drugstore in 1939. Over the last 180 years, the Ginsberg family has amassed more than 10,000 pharmaceutical and beauty items, including original prescription and recipe books from the 1800s; tablet rollers; old photographs; and mid-20th-century cosmetics packaging.
Earlier this month, Mr. Ginsberg invited The New York Times to photograph some of them.
Mr. Ginsberg, 56, a soft-spoken man who slightly resembles the actor Ben Stiller, graduated from pharmacy school in 1985 and purchased Bigelow from his father in 1997. “Until I got there, everything you see here had been buried in the basement. They were in boxes, thrown around like garbage. The more I dug, the more stuff I found.”
Eventually Mr. Ginsberg moved the artifacts to a warehouse in Long Island. Some of the prize possessions were distributed between his home, the store, and the company’s two offices.
The register “weighs more than 100 pounds so we don’t move it around,” Mr. Ginsberg said. “I have fond memories of this being around my entire life.”
Letter From Eleanor Roosevelt, 1942 “Before they moved to the White House, the Roosevelts lived on Washington Square,” Mr. Ginsberg said. “As a gift, my father sent Eleanor Roosevelt a bunch of Bigelow products. The letter is addressed to Mr. Bigelow, which is what people called my grandfather.”
The Original Store A painting of this photograph hangs inside, Mr. Ginsberg said. “If you look closely, in the right window you can see the image of a pharmacist, which could be Clarence Otis Bigelow.”
Mark Twain was a customer “This is a charge account ledger from 1906 with an incredible collection of notable New Yorkers,” Mr. Ginsberg said. “While we don’t specifically know what S.L. Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain, purchased, we do know that he paid his bills on time.”
“The store is an interior landmark,” Mr. Ginsberg explained. “The ceiling is an original canvas ceiling, the fixtures are original oak, the tile floor is original, the chandeliers used to burn gas and were lit during the blackout in 1977.”
Each generation of Ginsberg has evolved the store during his tenure. Mr. Ginsberg’s grandfather was an ethical pharmacist who introduced medication dispensing methods and cultivated relationships with the most important doctors, and thus, their patients. Mr. Ginsberg’s father curated the makeup, fragrance and beauty products of the ’50s and ’60s.
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“We’ve gone from making powder papers and rolling pills to robots dispensing medication,” said Mr. Ginsberg, who, in addition to creating Bigelow’s skin care and beauty brand, has watched the pharmaceutical world change drastically. “We’ve moved away from cocaine eye drops to making chocolate or banana flavored antibiotics for kids. We no longer have charge account ledgers. Instead we have phone apps that let you refill your medications.”
Forced to modernize in some ways, the store does keep some old-fashioned sensibilities, offering unique services that are not so easy for Duane Reade and CVS to match.
“We still compound liquids, creams, powders, and suppositories. If something isn’t available in liquid form we can make it liquid,” Mr. Ginsberg said. “We also cater to pets and filling their prescriptions. That accounts for five to 10 percent of our weekly prescription business. If you want tuna or salmon flavored medication, we can do that.”
The store has always had a celebrity following. Sarah Jessica Parker, Elvis Costello, Jessica Lange, Graydon Carter, Amy Sedaris, Justin Theroux and Dianne Von Furstenberg have all been spotted in the aisles. Many are hooked on the Bigelow products.
“Some of the products we offer are original formulas recreated from the archives, like our Lemon Body Cream, which is a recipe that goes back to 1870, and Dr. Galen’s Skin Tonic, named after our founder.”
After the photo session, while Mr. Ginsberg fastidiously re-wrapped and returned his artifacts into thick, plastic containers, his expression was slightly sad, as if saying goodbye to old friends.
“I’ve always wanted to do a gallery showing. It’s on my bucket list. It would be so impactful for people to see these,” he said. “We’re still an independent family business trying to survive in a modern world. But people gravitate toward things that are real. It doesn’t get any more real than these items.”