Today, guest blogger Joan Warner fires off a rant. Thank you, Joan!
Permit a New York native a moment of nostalgia.
Once upon a time, when people in this great city needed a bottle of aspirin or a jar of Vaseline (don’t ask why), they ran down to the neighborhood drugstore. In my case, this was a tiny Yorkville establishment owned by a smiling man in a white smock called Mr. D. To the kids on the block, Mr. D and his wife were like a second, more permissive set of parents, pretending not to see when you shoplifted a candy bar or “borrowed” a lipstick for a quick beauty experiment. If you got sick, your mother made two phone calls: the first
to the pediatrician, who came to your bedside with his black bag, and the next to Mr. D, who delivered your medicine in person—within minutes of getting the anxious maternal call.
It should be obvious from this reminiscence why New Yorkers despise Duane Reade as intensely as we do. For one thing, we’ve seen it metastasize from a relatively harmless warehouse in the financial district into an inescapable blight polluting nearly every block. My friend Bruce, also a Manhattan native, recalls that during the store’s most egregious expansion, he could look out from the entrance of the Duane Reade on Broadway and 57th Street and see not one but two more Duane Reades, mere steps from where he stood. That’s crazier than Starbucks in the 90’s.
For another, the business model is based on the same creepy lie with which Barnes & Noble put scores of independent book sellers out of business: Bigger stores can offer a bigger selection (“Everything You Need! Duane Reade!”), and superior efficiency (so-called economies of scale) translates into lower prices. Consumers soon learned the truth. Chain stores carry only items from suppliers with whom they can negotiate advantageous terms. That’s why Duane Reade doesn’t stock your favorite organic skin cream, any more than Barnes & Noble stocks your favorite East Village poet.
Here are some other people who hate Duane Reade.
As for lower prices, fuhgeddaboudit. Yesterday afternoon I did a quick comparison-shop in Washington Heights. At homey little Farmacia La Fé on Broadway and 179th Street, an 8.2-oz. tube of Colgate costs only $3.99, and you get to listen to Merengue while you shop. The
Duane Reade on 181st near St. Nicholas doesn’t carry 8.2-oz. toothpaste sizes. Instead, they sell 6.2 ounces of Crest for $4.19, and you have to listen to Muzak.
What about the pharmacy? I’m glad you asked. As a rule, I adore pharmacists. Most are far more knowledgeable than doctors, and unlike doctors they don’t take bribes from drug companies. But in my experience, Duane Reade pharmacists tend to be aloof, and
occasionally they’re actually hostile. This may be because of Duane Reade’s notoriously despicable labor practices. In the mid-2000s, the company was accused of firing employees who tried to join a union; keeping millions of dollars that were by law supposed to go toward employees’ retirement, health, and vacation benefits; and paying unfair wages. After an investigation by the National Labor Relations Board, Duane Reade settled some of these charges, but press accounts (and the eyewitness evidence of anyone who has ever interacted with a Duane Reade cashier) suggest the store remained a miserable place to work.
Meanwhile, Duane Reade’s CEO and CFO were cooking the books. Both were indicted for securities fraud in 2008, and within a couple of years the stock had been hammered so badly that Walgreens was able to snap up the chain for a song. Employees were relieved. Many of the shabbiest and most redundant locations closed, and others got a makeover, complete with cosmetics consultants and, God help us, “fresh” food.
Yet New Yorkers still harbor a deep, visceral loathing for the place. It’s not the big-box phenomenon that we find so offensive—we love Costco, and we boast about spending Sunday afternoon at Target. It’s Duane Reade’s inauthenticity that ticks us off, perhaps best summed up in this promotional image, courtesy of Walgreens… As every local knows, Duane and Reade don’t intersect. They’re parallel.
I realize that capitalism marches on, and nothing can bring back the days of Mr. D. But when a national chain invades Manhattan, it should at least try to learn the street grid.
Jane here again! To help you combat the big, overpriced, and boring, here’s a short guide to some NYC pharmacies that AREN’T Walgreens, CVS, Rite Aid, Duane Reade or…yep, I think that’s it.
There are lots more neighborhood pharmacies in the 5 boroughs. Everyone has a favorite, so this is just to get you started.
Apthorp Pharmacy Pricey and upscale – but they have some offbeat items you’ll never find anywhere else – like Ponaris Nasal Emollient – used on the space station!
Hilltop Pharmacy No website, no online. Just a great neighborhood pharmacy with quirky gifts, helpful pharmacy staff, and a variety of health and beauty products. Plus, your dog is welcome inside.
City Drug Three uptown locations. A great neighborhood resource.
Kings Pharmacy Also has three locations. They’ve got some surgical supplies, and the staff is helpful.
Village Apothecary A standby in Greenwich Village for decades.
Cherry’s Pharmacy Specializing in customizing prescriptions for children (pets too). You want peanut butter or bubble gum flavor in that?
Block Drugs Possibly the oldest drugstore still in operation in New York City. Opened in 1885 and still going strong.
Windsor Pharmacy Expensive, and in a touristy part of town, but it’s fun to drop by and look around if you’re on 6th Ave & 58th,
Joan Warner, a professional business and finance writer, has lived in New York City since birth. Read more from Joan on her blog