By Reggie Nadelson
Sept. 18, 2018
In this series for T, the author Reggie Nadelson revisits New York institutions that have defined cool for decades, from time-honored restaurants to unsung dives.
Twice a month, usually on a Tuesday, there’s bluegrass music at my drugstore. At Thompson Chemists, around 7:00 in the evening, Sheriff Robert Saidenberg — musician and record producer — and his band set up alongside the Advil, Pepto-Bismol, Italian toothpaste and French shampoo. The quartet swings on “Me and Bobby McGee.” Dozens of locals crowd in, and there’s plenty of foot tapping and some baby bouncing.
This has been SoHo’s drugstore for 25 years, or its “alchemists” as the owners, Gary and Jolie Alony, prefer to call it. And it is magic, a quintessential New York neighborhood drugstore. On hot days, Jolie gives the FedEx guy a cold Coke. Rego, the large Alony mutt, lies around on the floor, desirous of attention.
“I come for the atmosphere,” says the customer Linda Milhorne, who goes by “Squirrelly.” A pretty, fine-boned blonde who works in marketing and high-end design resale, she’s been a regular at Thompson Chemists since she arrived in SoHo 20 years ago. It puts her in mind of her small-town childhood — she’s from Oak Ridge, Tennessee. “I come for toothpaste, for prescriptions, I come to cry, to laugh, for a glass of champagne. They’re like family,” she says.
One Saturday morning, Marvin Gaye doing “Grapevine” is on the sound system and four or five regulars are kibitzing with Jolie, who rules the cosmetics, gifts, face creams and cannabis-infused salves she swears by.
Chad Sipkin, who has a film editing company nearby, picks up his prescription from Gary, and says, “I love that it’s the two of them running a pharmacy. There’s good music, opinions on products. It feels like old SoHo.”
Suspended above the counter is a sculpture, a couple of papier-mâché puppets of Gary and Jolie made by their friend, the late artist Edd Fenner. Paintings by neighbors are propped all over the place, including one in orange by Susan Strauss who lives next door and was the store’s first customer.
There are soy-wax candles that Gary makes in his home kitchen in Battery Park City; my favorite — cedar, pine and vanilla — is “Sweet ‘N Downtown.”
Gary Alony was born in Briarwood, Queens, to Israeli parents. He graduated from the LIU School of Pharmacy, and he met Jolie at a party on the Upper East Side, where she was raised. He was impressed. He borrowed his mother’s car and he took her to 150 Wooster, a now long-gone but very hot SoHo restaurant. The neighborhood was clearly in their stars. They married, had three children and Gary worked as a pharmacist in Greenwich Village. Twenty-five years ago they saw a “for rent” sign on Thompson Street, just below Houston. With Gary’s uncle, a construction guy, they put the shop together.
“You can’t do those things anymore,” says Gary, describing the stranglehold the big chains have on indie drugstores. So intent on serving the whole neighborhood was he that Gary gave artists 10 percent off, and when certain locals asked him to sign a petition stating that Vincente “The Chin” Gigante, who lived on Sullivan Street, was an O.K. guy, he obliged.
Later on (Aretha is singing “Natural Woman” now), a young couple from Holland stops in. She’s had an emergency appendectomy and needs a prescription filled. Gary produces chairs. Jolie offers coffee. When they leave, the guy says, “This is just like home.”
“Call Gary,” everyone says if your kid’s got a sore throat or if, like a fool, you’ve tripped on the street and fallen flat on your face, as I had one winter day. More humiliated than hurt (the worst of falling, if you don’t die, is that so many people stop to help), I got up and high-tailed it to Thompson Street. Gary checked for a concussion and gave me an ice pack. Jolie produced arnica and ordered lunch.
Gary’s great-grandmother, a Yemenite Israeli, was a healer; the bronze mortar and pestle she used to make her potions sit on a shelf. Her daughter, Gary’s grandmother, always told him, “You’re born into this world to make things better, to help without expectation of anything.”
For real New Yorkers, born or naturalized, the local drugstore has always been vital. For me, as a kid, it was the Romanoff Pharmacy on the corner of 10th Street and University Place, near where I grew up. It’s a fancy gelato joint now, but once its window contained a thrillingly large cardboard Arpège bottle. Inside the shop were drugs, of course, but also a treasure trove of goodies: Revlon Fire and Ice nail polish, Breck shampoo, Whitman’s Samplers. The soda fountain served a very fine black and white.
Even today, we cling to our independent drugstores as to a life-raft in a grim alien sea of chain stores. My friend James shops only at NuCare Pharmacy in Chelsea. “The chain stores smell like rancid Halloween candy,” he says. Then there is Bigelow’s, the great Greenwich Village drugstore, or apothecary, a word that implies a certain elevation, a veneration for fancy toiletries, that is perhaps more Santa Maria Novella than Walgreens; a certain venerable age. One of the oldest drugstores in the country, C.O. Bigelow, on Sixth Avenue between Eighth and Ninth Streets — 10 or so blocks north of Thompson Chemists — opened in 1838; it has seen customers from Mark Twain to Lou Reed. I’m fond of imagining Villagers like Edgar Allan Poe scuttling over at night for his laudanum, or Edna St. Vincent Millay nipping in for a fresh candle. With its wooden shelves, library-style rolling ladders, and gilded chandeliers once lit by gas, Bigelow’s is gorgeous.
“But Thompson Chemists is my drugstore.”
“But Thompson Chemists is my drugstore.”
“Reggie, I have the Philip B. shampoo,” Jolie calls out. The Alonys know their customers by name, and often their favorite product. They’re pleased but rarely impressed (and always discreet) about celebrities who are customers, though I know Whoopi Goldberg is a regular, and Patti Smith a friend. But when Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead came in, Gary, a lifelong Deadhead, went nuts. Jolie tells me, “So I’m trying to get Gary’s attention, he’s saying ‘Can’t you see I’m busy?’ Then he looks up, he’s like, ‘Oh my God.’ And Phil says, ‘I heard you play my music.’ ”
A quarter century ago, on the day Thompson Chemists opened, there was a party to celebrate. Gary’s mother dragged people in from the street. He recalls her saying, “ ‘My son just opened a drugstore here.’ She told everyone, ‘I brought the hors d’oeuvres.’ ”
People moan about the end of the city’s mom-and-pop shops, but they often shop the chains, thinking them cheaper; maybe you get the city you pay for.
A little ruefully, Gary says, “When we go, what will be here instead?”