By Genia Gould
This is a story that doesn’t end in tragedy. The Northside Pharmacy, run by two outstanding pharmacists for 15 years, was facing displacement from gentrification when the business’s 15-year lease was up for renewal, this past June.
Aware that there would be a staggering rent increase, partners Halina Jankowski and Rachel Parker, who took over the 100-year-old pharmacy in 1998, never asked their landlady what the new rent would be.
“We’re sitting on what’s being called the ‘epicenter of hipster Williamsburg,’” said Rachel.
(It was well known to them and most everyone in the neighborhood that Khim’s Millennium Market across the street was paying about $28,000 a month in rent.)
The two elegant women in their 50s had no intention of retiring or a desire to leave the neighborhood. Being forced out of the neighborhood has been an all-too-common fate for many other local fixtures, including Trojanowski Wine & Spirits, which moved to Park Slope, and La Villita Bakery, which moved out of state, along with dozens of other businesses priced out of Bedford Avenue locations, over the last few years.
Dedicated to the community, and with several generations of loyal clientele who love and rely on them, they knew they would need to buy a building where they could put the business.
It would be their loyal following that enabled them to do just that. A longtime customer learned of their plight, and he graciously offered to sell them a building he was about to put on the market, but at a reasonable price.
He, too, had a desire to preserve the disappearing fabric of the neighborhood he knows and cares about.
Another hurdle they had to overcome was securing a construction loan from the local Citibank, which turned out to be a lot harder than renting a Citibike. Once again, a longtime neighborhood resident (and our state assemblymember, Joseph Lentol) intervened on their behalf.
Not unlike when the two partners first started, they invested their savings in the business. And with the expertise of Halina’s husband, Jack, a contractor and the owner of Artenova of New York, they transformed the Driggs Avenue space into their permanent, new home, infusing it with Victorian embellishments. What once was an accountant’s office was gutted to make way for a vision of mosaic floor tiling, antique-style chandeliers, and decorative apothecary jars.
(Rachel’s husband Jay is the owner of Ben’s Best, a third generation kosher deli in Queens. He provided sustenance on occasion to get them through the nine months of construction.)
Without missing a day of business, they opened at the new location, 559 Driggs Avenue, on June 10.
“It’s a dream for any shop owner to own the property where they do business,” said Rachel, “we’ll never have to worry about the issue of rent and leases again.” Another benefit, she added, is that Driggs Avenue is a quieter street.
When the women were talking about the move, they also revealed the story of how another mainstay in the neighborhood influenced their lives, and how they became known as Harrico’s Honeys.
It would be another illustration of the importance of neighborhoods where people really do know one another.
The two women have a wonderful story to tell. They’ve known each other since the 1970s, when they were teenagers from Greenpoint: Halina from Diamond Street; Rachel had family on Dupont Street. They met while working at Harrico’s Pharmacy (now a Duane Reade) in Greenpoint. It was the Harrico’s owner, Edmund Charno, who mentored and guided them into their future professional careers—even sending them to pharmacy school.
“He actually took me by the hand into Queens, to St. John’s School of Pharmacy, and walked me into the registrar’s office,” recalled Rachel. Halina was pursuing studies in economics and working for an airline, but would come back and work for Charno again. He worked out their schedules so they could go to school by day and work at the pharmacy by night. Halina attended pharmacy school at Long Island University.
There were six women Charno would mentor altogether, and whom he encouraged to enter the pharmaceutical profession. One was Johanna, and it was from her that Halina and Rachel would buy the Bedford Avenue business. Two of Harrico’s other Honeys were Dorothy and Bonnie, who work part-time for Northside. Finally, Yola, continues to work at the former Harrico location, which became a Duane Reade in 1997. It was also in 1997 that, sadly, Charno passed away of cancer at a young age.
Charno’s magnanimity would benefit not just the many young women, but himself, too. He could trust the girls to fully manage the store, which allowed him to reduce the number of hours he worked. He was living on Long Island at the time. So, if, for instance an alarm went off in the middle of night, and occasionally the rattling from a subway underground would do that, recalled Halina, she would be able to go in to the pharmacy, and turn the alarm off.
The women also remember that there were some rigorous rules to follow. Charno, who always wore a suit and tie, imposed a strict dress code on his employees. He required them to wear lipstick, a sticking point for some of the girls, Halina recalled. “Remember that!” she says to Dorothy. “He would say, ‘We sell lipstick, and you will wear lipstick.’ We sold drawers and drawers of it. Every color.”
They strike an excellent balance, Halina the financial and technology person, and Rachel, the products buyer. It’s a small store, which they describe as a “niche wellness pharmacy.” “Other than the national brands, about 90 percent is a result of somebody asking me for a product,” said Rachel. “I can point to almost every item in the store and tell you who’s responsible for it being there.”
The main strength of the pharmacy, aside from beauty aids, shampoos, and soaps, is the drugs they carry. They are very well-stocked when it comes to pharmaceuticals and prescriptions. “It’s very rare when we don’t have something,” said Halina, “Chain stores usually carry only the most popular drugs, whereas we have two deliveries a day, one at 11 am, and one at 5 pm. If we don’t have something in the morning, we’ll have it by the end of the day.”
Halina and Rachel, while starting afresh in a new location, can also envision a future when they will retire, and in the same influential spirit, hope to sell their business to one of their employees.
Do they sell lipstick at Northside Pharmacy?
Yes, but employees aren’t required to wear it.