Village Apothecary: Expanding yet keeping the personal touch

Village Apothecary staff members, from left, Arnel Molina, Shaili Patel, Norman Saban, Eric Lora, Alex Chavez, John Kaliabakos and Himanshu Patel. Photos by Gabe Herman

BY GABE HERMAN | The Village Apothecary has been a West Village fixture since opening 35 years ago. Its ownership is proudly independent, and the store is known for its personalized care and being on the frontlines in battling H.I.V. and AIDS since the 1980s.

Now the pharmacy, at Bleecker and W. 10th Sts., is trying to continue that legacy as it expands to offer new health programs, remodels its store and tries to evolve with the times.

The business boasts a staff of about a dozen, and several of them have been there for decades and become reliable faces in the neighborhood.

“There’s a definite connection,” said pharmacist Norman Saban, who remembers the exact day he started at the Apothecary: May 14, 1985. Saban recalled recently running into several customers at a concert and everyone saying hello.

“Back in the ’90s, I remember I was once on a beach in Spain and somebody came over and said, ‘Hey how are you!’ recognizing me from the store,” Saban said. “The Village is just a small, little enclave, so everyone gets to know one another.”

When Saban first started at the Village Apothecary in 1985, it was the early days of the H.I.V. crisis in the Village. He remembers hundreds of people coming to the pharmacy for AZT, the new drug that many other pharmacies wouldn’t carry.

Saban said the store’s founder, Michael Konnon, wouldn’t turn anyone away. The pharmacy ordered the drugs through the state’s AIDS Drug Assistance Program (A-DAP), a program the store still works with to ensure that people can afford and receive medication.

Saban remembers opening hundreds of boxes of AZT medication from A-DAP every day in the ’80s.

“It was scary,” he said. “A lot of sick people.”

In the decades since, the Village Apothecary has continued to provide medicine and personalized care to H.I.V. and AIDS patients, often coordinating with local doctors and hospitals. For this and its general health services to the community, Mayor de Blasio issued an official proclamation this Jan. 18, dubbing it “Village Apothecary Day.”

The Apothecary’s latest effort to continue its tradition of helping those with H.I.V. and AIDS is involvement in a new state initiative called PEP 4 H.I.V. Prevention. This pilot program allows people who fear recent exposure to H.I.V. to go to their local pharmacy for prevention medication, which must be started within 72 from possible exposure. The pharmacy can then give seven days’ worth of medication and refer the person to a local doctor for consultation and longer-term treatment.

The Village Apothecary is a participant in the PEP 4 H.I.V. Prevention pilot program, which treats people who fear recent exposure to the virus. The medication must be started within three days of possible exposure.

John Kaliabakos, the Apothecary’s director of pharmacy services, said that although people can already go to walk-in clinics for such treatment, the idea of the new program is that some may be uncomfortable going there, or unwilling to wait many hours, or might feel embarrassed. Going to a local pharmacy may be an easier and more comfortable experience.

The program, run through the state Department of Health and the AIDS Institute, just started a couple of months ago and will run through September. Its success will then be assessed to see if it should be continued and expanded.

Kaliabakos, who has been at the Village Apothecary for 25 years, said the goal now is to spread the word about the program because awareness is still lacking. He said word of mouth can help, and the program is also advertising to increase awareness.

“It’s very early,” Kaliabakos noted of the pilot program. “There have only been a very small amount of people that have come in for that. But even if you prevent one case, it’s a success.”

Kaliabakos hopes the program will show good results and be able to expand to many pharmacies, just as syringes are now widely available, including at the Apothecary. The pharmacy has participated in the state’s Expanded Syringe Program since its start in 2000.

Kaliabakos is proud of the Apothecary’s legacy of fighting H.I.V. / AIDS.

“We’ve always been on the frontlines in the sense that we were one of the first places to stock AZT,” he noted. “As soon as a new H.I.V. drug is available, we have it that same day. We’re coordinating with doctors that are always trying to get the newest thing out there, so any doctor that prescribes that knows that if there’s 30 H.I.V. drugs out there, we have it on the shelf, no matter what. If it’s available, we have it. So in that sense, we always try to be ahead of the game.”

Just across the street on W. 10th St., Todd Rigby and Catherine McClarin, longtime co-owners of the flower shop VSF (Very Special Flowers), are regular customers of the Village Apothecary, valuing what they call its “personal service.”

The Apothecary worked with the nearby St. Vincent’s Hospital until it closed eight years ago, and still coordinates with Bailey House, a Village-based nonprofit that provides housing and care for people living with H.I.V. and AIDS. 

The pharmacy checks up on people to make sure they have the medication they need and are taking it. They also deal with insurance companies to ensure people can get their prescriptions.

“A lot of our stuff is fighting with insurance companies for people, unfortunately,” Kaliabakos said, with a laugh. This can include any customer, but Kaliabakos noted that costs can be especially high for H.I.V. patients.

“We’ll try to either get them covered with supplemental A-DAP, or we’ll try to deal with the manufacturers to get them coupons, or some kind of supplemental coverage,” he explained. “We try to take the cost out of the equation, to make sure they get what they need.”

The Apothecary’s bond with the neighborhood includes relationships with the Police Department’s Sixth Precinct just around the corner and the Bomb Squad. The pharmacy has been there through 9/11 and Superstorm Sandy, when it continued to provide medications and stay open, even without power.

Just across the street on W. 10th St., Todd Rigby and Catherine McClarin have co-owned the flower shop VSF (Very Special Flowers) since 1983 and have been regular customers of the Village Apothecary.

“It’s very personal service,” said McClarin, who adds that compared to chain pharmacies in the area, “there’s no comparison. It’s integral to our lifestyle.”

The Village Apothecary, which is completing a renovation, has been a part of the neighborhood since 1983.

Rigby said the pharmacy handles all of his medication needs, including Kaliabakos doing battle with Rigby’s insurance company.

“If I need something filled, they will call the doctor for me and get it filled,” said Rigby, who is also a neighborhood resident. “I can’t remember a time they weren’t here.” He added that the Apothecary even takes care of his two cats, providing insulin for the diabetic one and showing him how to use the needle.

Vijay Desai has owned the Apothecary since 2012 and is intent on maintaining the shop’s values.

“We want to keep that family, community-owned presence here in the Village,” he said.

Desai discussed recent expansions that include a new location in Chelsea, called the Chelsea Apothecary, and medication delivery available anywhere in Manhattan below 110th St.

The deliveries started during the pharmacy’s recent renovations, when people couldn’t come into the store.  Even though people can now come inside as the remodeling continues, the deliveries are expanding and Desai sees them as a permanent part of the business.

Even with all the changes on Bleecker St. that have included soaring rents and vacant storefronts, including several next door on the pharmacy’s block, Desai said the Apothecary is in good shape thanks to great community support.

“I’m feeling good about us,” he said, “but what’s going on around us is disturbing.”

The Apothecary’s renovations are nearly complete, including not just a dark wood aesthetic inside but an expanded pharmacy area and upgrades to all systems, from fridges to computers.

Keeping the business open during construction was a challenge, Desai admitted.

“It made it tough on us and also our customers. But they’re so loyal to us that, we got to this point, we’re good,” he said, laughing. “I’m very happy with how it’s looking, and I think it sets us up for the next 30 years of the Village.”

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