Pharmacist and entrepreneur
Born c. 1962; son of a pharmacist, Jerry. Education: Earned pharmacy degree from Long Island University, 1985.
Addresses: Office —Bigelow Chemists, 414 Sixth Ave., New York, NY 10011.
Pharmacist and buyer with Bigelow Chemists since 1985.
Ian Ginsberg became the third generation of his family to work at the family pharmacy, Bigelow Chemists, a historic landmark in New York City that dates back to 1838. Ginsberg brought the business into the twenty-first century by introducing its personal-care products to a wider audience, and they quickly emerged as cult favorites to rival another venerable New York City pharmacy with a comparable line, Kiehl's. In 2005, Ginsberg's company signed on with Bath & Body Works to sell its vintage-recipe balms, lotions, and other skin-care products at hundreds of stores belonging to the retail chain. "We couldn't play the chain-discounter game, " he explained to Crain's New York Business journalist Laurie Joan Aron about the direction the business took once he came on board. "I figured we should just be ourselves."
Born in the early 1960s, Ginsberg was musically inclined and had once hoped to pursue that as a career, but satisfied his parents by enrolling in pharmacy school. His father, Jerry, had worked at Bigelow Chemists since graduating with his pharmacy degree back in 1952. Jerry's father, William, was also a pharmacist who bought the Greenwich Village business, then called C.O. Bigelow & Co., back in 1939. The name dated back to another pharmacist, Clarence Otis Bigelow, who owned the business from 1880 to 1922. The store, located at 414 Sixth Avenue, was even older than that, however. Galen Hunter, a pharmacist from Vermont, opened the first pharmacy at the site in 1838 as the Village Apothecary Shop, and ran it himself until 1863. George L. Hooper ran it after that before selling it to Bigelow in 1902.
Long known for its personalized customer service, Bigelow Chemists was a Manhattan fixture with a devoted customer base. Over the years, it had amassed a long list of famous customers. Mark Twain was one, and company legend claimed that when Thomas Edison burned his finger on a new invention he was working on called the light bulb, he hurried over to Bigelow's for a salve. In the mid-twentieth century, the pharmacy had a soda counter that sold fountain drinks and ice cream treats, a commonplace fixture in many drug stores of the era, and Ginsberg's first job was as its dishwasher there when he was a teenager. The counter, which dated from 1902, was removed in a 1984 remodeling of the building, and still had its original gas lamps until the renovation.
After graduating from the pharmacy college of Long Island University in 1985, Ginsberg joined the business full time. He eventually became its buyer, searching for the overseas personal-care products his customers requested, such as Phyto shampoo from France, Italian toothpaste, and Chidoriya's Gold soap from Japan. He also ventured into the company archives and came up with new products. These were modern reformulations of old skin-care remedies from the nineteenth century. Like Kiehl's, another vintage Greenwich Village pharmacy with a line of personal-care products, Bigelow's items became a favorite of magazine editors and fashion-industry insiders.
The new direction was necessary for Ginsberg, he said, along with his business partner, Joel Eichel, after they took over the business from his father, Jerry. "The big change for us happened in the 1980's, when all the chain pharmacies started coming, " he said in an interview with SmartBiz.com, a Web publication. "We freaked out. But then we said to ourselves, we can't play that game—we'll never win, and it's not our game." Under his guidance, Bigelow Chemists launched a catalog operation in the mid-1990s, which enabled it to reach a larger audience. Ginsberg also hired a makeup artist to create a makeup line called Alchemy, launched in 1998, and even opened a second store, an in-house boutique at Jeffrey New York, an upscale clothing retailer. By the end of the decade, Bigelow Chemists products were available in more than 200 specialty stores across the United States, and had sales estimated at sales of $20 million in 2000.
In 2005, Ginsberg and Eichel struck a deal with Bath & Body Works, a major mall retailer with more than 1, 500 stores, to sell their specialty wares under the vintage brand name of C.O. Bigelow & Co. Packaged in glass bottles with a retro feel, the line includes favorites such as Rose Wonder Cold Cream and 1838 Herbal Balm, scented with calendula, clover, and ginger. The Bath & Body Works deal also included a few new freestanding Bigelow stores, which totaled seven by the end of 2005.
Legendary in Manhattan for its personalized customer service, the original Bigelow Chemists still boasts messenger deliveries for prescriptions, house accounts, and even flavors the occasional pet medicine for its devotees. Famous names still shop there, including Greenwich Village denizens Sarah Jessica Parker and Robert De Niro. Ginsberg's business still has its original molded ceilings and oak cabinets from 1902, features found in none of the CVS, Rite-Aid, or Duane Reade stores chain drugstores that are a ubiquitous Manhattan presence. "I love chains, " Ginsberg said in the interview with Smart-Biz.com. "What they do and what I do is completely different. I love to go into the big chain pharmacy near my house, because every time I go in, I have a horrible experience, and I walk out with a smile on my face knowing my business has at least another ten years in it."
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Drug Topics , July 18, 1988, p. 66.
Record (Bergen County, NJ), November 2, 2005, p. B1.
Vogue , March 2005, p. 450.
WWD , July 30, 1999, p. 11.
"Ian Ginsberg, Bigelow Chemists, " SmartBiz , http://www.smartbiz.com/article/articleprint/ 394/-1/1 (April 23, 2006).
— Carol Brennan