The cream of New York

Phar­ma­cies

The Pullman Magazine - - Profiles -

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).

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