The cream of New York
New York, 1838: Pharmacist Dr. Galen Hunter opened the doors of the Village Apothecary Shop in Greenwich Village, selling in-house lotions and potions to treat a variety of ailments. Fast-forward to 1880, and Clarence Otis Bigelow, one of the store’s employees, becomes the owner and gives the shop its current name. New York, 2015: The current owner, Ian Ginsberg, has since transformed C.O. Bigelow into an Aladdin’s cave for beauty addicts, and the firm’s products now line the shelves of some of the world’s most well-regarded stores – Colette in Paris, Liberty in London, Isetan and Hankyu in Tokyo… Those two dates stands like bookends for a 177-year success story, with America’s oldest apothecary playing the starring role. In 1902 the Bigelow building was built on New York’s buzzing Sixth Avenue, the first outward sign of success. Featuring the red brick and arches so characteristic of the late Victorian period, it has since become one of the Big Apple’s most recognizable historic landmarks. Over the years, well-known faces such as Mark Twain and Eleanor Roosevelt visited the store, their names featuring on the endless stacks of carefully preserved ledgers.
The current owners of this legendary institution are direct descendants of William Ginsberg, who bought the business in 1939 after the Great Depression. Like so many other immigrants fleeing Eastern Europe, he arrived in New York at the tender age of 16, initially finding employment as a tailor and taking evening classes to retrain as a chemist. In the 1950s, C.O. Bigelow was run as a family business, with uncles, cousins and nieces all doing stints behind the counter. As in villages the world over, the apothecary became a natural meeting place. Locals would stop to chat whilst sipping a drink at the soda fountain counter, akin to an old-style bistro. Having originally opened in the 1920s, the soda fountain’s closure in 1984 was much lamented by Village Voice magazine, another New York institution. The Ginsbergs’ other great love was music. Growing up in 1950s Manhattan, Jerry, William’s son, had jazz running through his veins. His parents, however, forced him to train as a pharmacist to keep the business in the family. History was to repeat itself a few decades later with his own son, Ian, who grew up in the 70s and 80s when Greenwich Village was the epicentre of the booming New York music scene. A talented drummer, he spent his whole childhood rubbing shoulders with his idols at Bigelow… before eventually training as a pharmacist. He joined his father’s business in 1985, eventually taking the helm in 1996. He stood firm against buyout offers from large cosmetic firms and decided to focus on premium beauty products, compiling his own
carefully selected range that he sourced from around the world. Ian has a preference for brands that share the same multi-generational heritage as his own: the Florentine Martelli family (Proraso shaving products, Marvis toothpaste), and more recently, Turkish firm
Gulsha with its ultra-pure rosewater…
In 2003, C.O. Bigelow launched an in-house cosmetics and skincare range in partnership with Limited Brands (Bath and Body Works). A number of the products were inspired by some of the pharmacy's oldest formulas, such as the Lemon Body Cream, whose recipe dates back to 1870. Combining vintage logos and retro packaging with natural essences and cutting-edge technology, this delicate, plant-based range simply flew off the shelves. Many of C.O. Bigelow’s clients are ordinary people, but plenty of celebrities are known to frequent the store, including Calvin Klein, Liv Tyler, Diane von Furstenberg, Elvis Costello, Susan Sarandon and Sarah Jessica Parker…Having always gone to great lengths to protect his famous clients’ privacy, Ian remembers one longstanding regular with great affection: Lou Reed, a legend of New York’s rock scene and the Village, where he lived until he died. “He was an angry man. But also extremely loyal. He loved coming in here.” Jumping from the past to the future, Ginsberg, the “XXIst century apothecary”, as he likes to call himself, is a man with his own ideas. “The health and beauty business is radically changing. It’s becoming increasingly technical, expensive and impersonal. But we intend to keep on swimming against the tide.” Today the Ginsbergs continue to have fun as a family, be it at Bigelow or pumping out rock ’n’ roll. Ian was eventually forced to give his drum kit to his youngest son, deciding to try his hand at the guitar instead… His eldest son Alec, a singer and guitarist, is currently finishing his pharmacy degree: the 4th generation of Ginsbergs is already waiting in the wings. Now they just need to keep hitting the right notes.
The pharmacy of choice for many actresses, musicians and stylists.
The Ginsberg family have been running the C.O. Bigelow pharmacy since 1939.
Ian Ginsberg (left) is the third generation to manage the store. Eleven years ago he launched a line of products (right) inspired by 19th century pharmaceutical formulas.
C.O.Bigelow delved into the archives to create a retro/trendy design for its bottles – simple flasks and very detailed labels.
Official supplier of Pullman hotels around the world, C.O. Bigelow is also the pharmacy of choice for many New York celebrities: the designers Calvin Klein and Diane von Furstenberg, the actresses Sarah Jessica Parker, Susan Sarandon or Keri Russell (pictured above).