In Soho, a Family-Owned Pharmacy PerseveresCOVID-19 #SmallBizSpotlight | A downtown staple since 1994, Thompson Alchemists survived the pandemic by providing personal service in a big-box world.Published: July 27, 2021
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Soho has a reputation for luxury flagship stores, pop-up tourist traps, and scene-y restaurants-cum-Instagram stages, and that’s all largely true. But it’s not the whole story.
On a confoundingly quiet stretch of Thompson Street, just south of the blaring traffic on Houston and west of the influencer photo shoots swarming Greene, there is a little neighborhood pharmacy under a neon green awning. Oversize sunflowers beam from inside the windows, two or three retirees sit drinking coffee on benches by the door, and a dog lolls on the welcome mat. Inside, Jolie Alony is introducing her customers to each other — This is one of my favorite people in the world ... She just moved to the city ... He’s lived around the block for years — making sure that everyone who enters feels seen. Since 1994, Jolie and her husband, Gary, have run Thompson Alchemists, a pharmacy known as much for prescription refills as homeopathic remedies, hard-to-come-by French cosmetics, and the infectious warmth and generosity of the people behind the counter.
I’d heard of the shop’s magic from friends and coworkers, but couldn’t quite fathom it (how great can a pharmacy really be?) until I visited for the first time a couple weeks ago. Below are outtakes from my hour-and-a-half conversation with Jolie — most of which took place in the Alonys’ car, in an effort to keep a precious parking spot during street cleaning hour — excluding the many times she rolled down her window to greet a customer-turned-friend walking by. I left feeling buoyant: so grateful to get to live in this city, meet people like Jolie and Gary, and share their story. Keep reading for the other side of Soho. P.S. We kept the parking spot!
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did Thompson Alchemists come to be?
In ‘89, my husband graduated pharmacy school and started working at CVS in New Jersey. He worked in chain stores all over the place, and he hated it. We used to walk around Soho when we were dating, and he would say, "I'd love to open up a small store in this neighborhood." One night, it said “For Rent” at 137 Thompson Street [editorial note: the pharmacy has since moved across the street]. Gary was like, "It's really small, but I think we can do it." He and his uncle built the store from scratch, on their hands and knees. That was 1994 when we opened.
The pharmacy is so much more than a pharmacy. Was that a conscious decision?
Gary would be filling prescriptions for items such as Ambien to [help with] sleep, and I'd say, "Gary, you like vitamins more than you like Ambien. Why don't we have customers getting vitamins, as opposed to just getting prescriptions?" A lot of these things happened because our youngest daughter, who is now 22, had eczema and is allergic to nuts. Lots of steroids [were prescribed to her], and we learned to give her over-the-counter things. We learned from our own family, which is the best way to help people. If I'm taking something, I want you to use the same thing.
It’s pretty rare for a pharmacist to suggest an over-the-counter remedy in place of a prescription, at least in my experience.
There are so many things that you can do for people without medication. Just now when you walked in, there was someone in the store who is 16 and goes to school around the corner. He went to the dermatologist and was given a lot of prescriptions for acne. Gary was figuring out the copays and whatever, and then he was like, "Why don't you just speak to Jolie?" We love working with the community. We have people who walk in just to say hello. Like this morning, our friend Jessie came in and I made her a cup of cappuccino. I get a lot of models that come; I think they feel like we're a safe haven. They come for a little cup of coffee, some samples, and to say hello. I tell them, "Whatever you want to know, I'm here."
How did you support your community during lockdown?
Oh my God. Well, when the lockdown happened, we were working every single day. We couldn’t shut down, because we have the community. They need us. We live in Battery Park City, and we didn't have a car [yet]. We weren’t going to take the train or the buses; I don't even think they were working. All the kids were shut out of school. So as a family, we walked from Battery Park with our masks, coats, snowshoes, and whatever else it took to get here every single day, back and forth. We put benches outside so people couldn’t walk through, and we'd let somebody sit on one side and somebody sit on the other. It was the weirdest feeling in the world, because you just wanted to hug everybody, these are people that you’ve known for years, and now you're told you can't touch anybody. We had people who were literally afraid of their own shadow, but they did feel some kind of safety being outside of the pharmacy. And everybody who was here, who didn't leave the city, needed somebody to speak to. There was a lot of loneliness. We needed to check on people. There were a lot of elderly people who had COVID and didn't know they had COVID. Like Moe, who lives in our building [on Thompson St.].
He kept telling me, "I don't feel well."
I'm like, "Moe, what's the matter?"
"I think I have a cold."
"Well, Moe, it's been a week and you keep telling me you don't feel well. Why don't you go to the doctor?"
"I called my doctor. He didn't call me back."
"I don't believe you called. Moe, sit down. You’re going to Dr. Cohen."
"I don't want to go.”
"You're going to go."
"All right. When?"
Moe went to the doctor, and the next day, the doctor called: "He's got it."
We sent vitamins and medicine upstairs to him, and between me and Lisa, who runs Arturo’s, a restaurant down the block, we made sure that Moe had food on his table every night [editorial note: fortunately, Moe survived COVID]. But it wasn't just Moe, there were many elderly people like that who were afraid to go to the doctor who had COVID. We lost two people from COVID.
I'm so sorry.
One was Gary's stepdad. He was in the hospital for three months. The worst part was that the hospitals were locked. You were lucky if you got a FaceTime. It was such an empty hole. I could cry. We have so many stories … One lady we knew, Nancy, had a restaurant around the corner, Caffe Tina. Her son got it. She was taking care of him and his baby because his wife had died a few months before, but not from COVID. She died of COVID. Her son didn't. There are so many stories like that, because when you have a community pharmacy, everybody becomes your family.
Can you speak about the other person you lost?
At the beginning, [when] we had three young children all very close in age and a brand new business, we had to overwork in order to come through. So we had a lovely lady, Patty, [help care for the kids]. Patty was about 18 years old and from El Salvador. She went off to get married a year later, and I was like, "Who's going to help me?"
"My mom's coming,” [she said.]
So Gladys [Patty’s mom] came to work for us. We did everything with [the kids], and Gladys was always there, too. She was with us for 21 years, and then she retired to Texas with her husband, Chamba. Chamba was like a grandpa to my kids — they used to call him Papa Chamba. And Papa Chamba died of COVID. It was really, really hard because they were in Texas, and they'd call me every day to call the hospital and find out what was going on. White blood cells, red blood cells, the breathing machines. It was the same [as with] Gary’s stepfather: one day it was great, the next day it was down. Those are the two people closest to us who we lost.
Thank you for sharing; I know it must be very difficult to talk about. How did the neighborhood feel during the worst of it?
It felt eerie, like a bad nightmare. The streets were so empty that we would walk in the middle of West Broadway. But you had to walk around with a smile every day … You wanted to keep your family feeling like it was normal.
What ultimately pushed you to get this car we’re sitting in?
Gary’s mom lives in Queens and my mom lives on the Upper East Side, and we didn’t see them until August 1st, when Gary looked at me and said, "I can't take this anymore." We went to a dealership in Queens, and you are now sitting in the car that we decided to get. And we don't have the best credit in the world, so it was really funny, we actually had to call [Gary’s mom] to come co-sign. She came in her car and co-signed for our car. Then we went to my mom's house. We didn't hug and everything, but we brought them food.
The car must have been a game changer.
It was like a new life for us. Gary and I started hiking, taking the dog to the lakes of Harriman [State Park]. We had just been sitting here every day, waiting for this to be over. You couldn't even breathe. In the city, everybody was running away, nobody wanted to come near you. Then there we were in Harriman: masks off, breathing fresh air, feeling healthy. This car was a lifesaver.
Does it feel like things are getting back to normal?
Nothing is normal. Everybody keeps saying Soho is back; it's not back. None of the regular residents are here. But we're holding our own. I feel like we are the last of the Mohicans. They're ripping out all of the independent small stores and putting in these big chain stores. They're taking away New York. We need to have our special stores, our special places. You need to have a dream. You want kids to grow up and know that they can open their own store. That they can become a pharmacist, but they don't have to work in a chain store, they can be a community pharmacy. I'll keep fighting because I have kids and I have young people who work for us all the time.
What's next for the pharmacy?
Now that people are moving back to the city, I don't see our normal clients coming back. The new renters are between the ages of 23 and 27. They’ve come to live here in hopes of the New York dream. They walk in, they introduce themselves, and you can feel the loneliness, because they don't know anybody yet. So now, I think it's going to be a kind of growing up experience, [learning] to take care of a different clientele. I'm used to selling very high-end products. We also have regular products, but throughout the 27 years, I've been selling Leonor Greyl, Philip B, La Roche Posay — beautiful up-scale French items. And now from what I'm seeing, we're probably going to have to trim down a lot of the [high-end] products. We're going to keep our staples, of course, because the young girl who’s 23 will buy a $38 shampoo if you explain to her how long it will last as opposed to going to a CVS, and that buying something for $19 is bad for them. But there's going to be a lot of teaching along the way. Because we're not CVS, where somebody just walks in and picks something up. When they come into our store, they don't know where to find the toothbrush or toothpaste — we don't have aisle numbers, so they'll still ask, "Excuse me, where's the toothpaste?" And it could be right in front of them, but they don't know that, because they're at Thompson Alchemists. So we have to actually babysit that sale, all the way to the $4 toothpaste.
You’ve built conversation into the business.
Absolutely. And [people] are looking for that conversation when they come in; that's what makes us different. So for the future, I'm just learning who my new clients are, and how to treat them. And I hope my old clientele comes back too, because I love them and I miss them.
How to help:
- Visit the pharmacy at 132 Thompson St.
- Check out the live music by Thompson Street Medicine Show every second, fourth, and fifth Tuesday of the month starting at 5 pm (it’s on today!)
- Follow on Instagram
Until next time,