By Lisette Johnson
Photo by Bridget Batch
The debate over whether chain stores in Williamsburg are good for the neighborhood is nothing new. Indeed, Reverend Billy (a crusader for sustainable consumerism whose 2009 mayoral campaign was endorsed by L Magazine) launched a massive protest in 2001 when it was rumored a Starbucks was opening on Bedford Avenue. For nearly ten years, however, the main drag of the ‘Burg has remained relatively chain-free. Until now. Duane Reade opened a store at the Northside Piers on Kent Avenue in September, and recently a “coming soon” sign from Duane Reade appeared on Bedford and North 3rd Street— right across the street from Kings Pharmacy.
Kings opened in 2002, and co-owner and manager Anthony Baglino said they’ve maintained a regular customer base ever since. “When we first moved into the neighborhood,” he said, “there were Duane Reade bags everywhere.” That changed after Kings opened. Baglino estimates that before Duane Reade opened on Kent, “Ninety-nine percent of the people who live here were shopping either here or at Northside Pharmacy.”
Even though the Goliath of New York pharmacies is moving across the street from this David, Baglino isn’t too worried. “Do I like it? No. Can I control it? No. Has it affected me? I don’t think it’s affected me at all — but it probably will.” He said customers will shop there because it’s new, but that independent pharmacies can offer things that larger corporations can’t, like personalized service. Duane Reade, Baglino joked, has no incentive to know individual customers. “They’ll probably want fewer prescriptions to fill because it’s less work for them,” he says. “From what I hear they’re overworked and understaffed.”
Baglino also said independent stores are better able to stock items specifically tailored to the neighborhood. “You go into a Duane Reade,” he said, “and every single one is going to have exactly the same thing.” He’s able to take custom orders and have them delivered the same day. As Williamsburg and Greenpoint have changed over the past seven years, so have the products at Kings.
“There are so many different people here,” says Baglino. “The challenge is trying to make everybody happy.” When they first opened, Baglino said they had stocked a whole aisle of baby food, which their landlord encouraged them to thin out. “What you need are condoms!” the landlord told him. Baglino shrunk the baby section and started bringing in other products. Today, they stock yoga mats and jetlag medicine — items that weren’t there when the store opened. This past holiday, Baglino got a tip from a friend to order Snuggies, and they “blew out in less than a month. Duane Reade would never be able to do that,” he said.
The Northside Pharmacy, on Bedford and North 7th Street, has been a pharmacy (under different owners) since 1890. Halina Jankowski and Rachel Parker bought the firm in 1998. Jankowski said she hasn’t noticed a change in business since the Duane Reade on Kent Ave opened, though she acknowledges that Duane Reade is a bigger store and able to stock items for which tiny Northside just doesn’t have room. “But when it comes to prescriptions,” she said, “our customers have remained loyal.”
Jankowski isn’t any stranger to the mounting pressures of Williamsburg corporatization. This past summer, she was approached by CVS, which offered to buy her customer database. “When it comes to the chain pharmacy, it’s almost as if they’re trying to destroy the independents,” she said. “I feel it’s terrible that the independents have to fight these big corporations. I truly think that service at an independent is better.”
This is something Jankowski’s customers agree with. Stephanie Palumbo, a 25-year-old, who’s lived in Williamsburg for three years, says she goes to Northside “because it’s cheaper for the most part, and I love them.” Palumbo wrote in a Yelp review that pharmacist and co-owner Rachel Parker is one of her favorite people in Williamsburg. She concedes that it may be possible to have a relationship with a chain store pharmacist like the one she has with Parker, “but not as likely. The environment is more conducive [in an independent store] to really getting to know the clientele and to be really involved in their lives.”
Because she works in Manhattan, Palumbo occasionally shops at Duane Reade, and has been to the new store on Kent once. “I found it really creepy,” she said. “It’s huge and empty, and there are ten million employees with nothing to do … like they were expecting this population to go to the Duane Reade, but it just didn’t exist, at least it doesn’t yet.”
Duane Reade does not permit its managers or employees to be interviewed, and its spokeswoman did not have sales figures for the new Kent location to back up Palumbo’s claim. As for the upcoming Bedford location, “I can’t comment exactly why Williamsburg now,” the spokeswoman said. “But the company’s strategy is that they try to be where New Yorkers are and where they need services.” Most Williamsburg residents, she said, rely on public transportation, and can’t get to the suburbs to get the large selection Duane Reade can offer.
“I don’t think that we’re necessarily planning to attract customers from one pharmacy to ours,” said Duane Reade’s spokeswoman. “We’re not aggressively in the practice of going after someone else’s business. But we do offer our rewards cards, and we try to offer the best pharmacy service possible that we can.” Duane Reade is currently undergoing a customer service overhaul, she said, to personalize customer interaction with pharmacists. The chain is also attempting to cut down on prescription-fill wait time.
The spokeswoman stressed that Duane Reade does stock stores according to the needs of neighborhoods. She cited the beauty section at the location near Macy’s in the city, and the sandwiches sold near Penn Station. Duane Reade locations in high-tourist areas stock maps and trinkets. She didn’t know exactly what was planned for the Bedford Avenue branch. “But what we try to do, to the best of our ability, is to understand the neighborhoods around New York and cater to those.” Any suggestions for a Williamsburg Duane Reade? More No-Doze perhaps?
Sarah Fruchtnicht is a graduate student at the New School for Social Research, and stops at a Duane Reade near school about once a week. But she remains a loyal Kings customer when shopping near home. “One important draw to Duane Reade that can’t be overlooked is the Chase ATMs inside,” she said. “This new Duane Reade is going to mark the first time someone who banked with Chase walked down Bedford and didn’t have to pay an ATM surcharge,” she said. Yet Kings provides personal touches that Fruchtnicht won’t overlook. “When Duane Reade opens on North 3rd, I will still shop at Kings. I’d hate to see a longstanding staple of Williamsburg be stamped out. I have a feeling the first time I go into that Duane Reade it will be for the ATM. Afterwards, I’ll go across the street and get my things from Kings,” she said.