In 1875, Peter Merz, a Chicago pharmacist, opened Merz Apothecary on the city’s North Side. In a way, it was not much different than the other corner drugstores which existed in every American neighborhood and town at the time. It was a place to fill prescriptions and, more importantly, it was a source of information and remedies for common ailments. The pharmacists were consulted like family doctors and they would hand mix formulas for each customer’s specific conditions and problems.
However, there was a major difference between Merz Apothecary and a typical drugstore. The clientele at his shop consisted mainly of European immigrants from the surrounding neighborhood. For that reason, and because Merz was of Swiss descent, he decided to call the store an “Apothecary” in the European tradition. Like his overseas counterparts, he focused heavily on herbal medicines and traditional formulas, which were already popular and familiar to his international customers.
Although Merz Apothecary was a humble store, it served as a gathering place for the community. Comfortable leather chairs allowed patrons to sit and chat as they waited for their prescriptions to be filled or their remedies to be prepared. Merz and his pharmacists spoke many languages allowing customers to shop and seek advice in their native tongues. It wasn’t long before the store’s reputation spread.
Over the next 85 years the business continued to grow and the store was passed on; first, to Merz’s son, Lee, and later to Lee’s sons, Ralph, Melvin, and Earl. The store retained its international focus and developed a loyal following among Europeans throughout the Midwest.
In the early 1960s, corner drugstores throughout the United States began to die off. Low margins on prescriptions and competition from large chain drugstores drove independent pharmacies out of business. The American pharmacist was quickly reduced from a trusted source of health advice to a mere pill-counter. But such was not the case at Merz Apothecary. Its loyal customer base and traditional herbal approach to health allowed it to thrive during this difficult period. As the majority of the country sought salvation through prescription drugs, Merz Apothecary maintained its unique balance between modern (allopathic) medicine and traditional remedies. Its customers continued to seek out the advice of its experienced pharmacists and requested their hand-mixed formulas from the vintage Apothecary bottles which lined the shelves.
Despite the success of the business, in 1972 Ralph Merz was ready to retire without a successor. The store, which had been in the family for three generations, was about to close permanently. One month before the scheduled closing, a 26-year-old Indian-born pharmacist named Abdul Qaiyum walked into Merz Apothecary after hearing about it from his German in-laws. He immediately fell in love with the store. As a recent pharmacy school graduate, Qaiyum had quickly become disenchanted with his job at a large drugstore chain and was ready to leave the field altogether. But Merz Apothecary, with its focus on traditional natural remedies, reminded him of his family’s business and the healing traditions in his homeland. He purchased it a few days later.
Over the next few years the extinction of the independent pharmacy continued, yet Qaiyum managed to expand Merz Apothecary’s business dramatically, developing a significant mail order business across the country. He also noticed that more and more American customers were seeking out the store because they needed a quality source of natural products and information. So in 1982, he moved Merz Apothecary to its current, larger location, only a few miles from the original one. The new store was custom-built to replicate a turn-of-the-century European Apothecary, complete with a hand-carved wooden exterior, leaded glass windows, parquet floors, tin ceilings, and solid oak cabinets. The store’s original antique pharmacy jars and herb containers (which were still in use) now had a fitting home.
The shift in the Apothecary’s location was matched by an important shift in its wellness approach. With the move, Qaiyum expanded the store’s inventory to include homeopathic remedies, vitamins, supplements, and other natural medicines. This expansion was part of the larger vision of health and wellness which he began to develop at the time. Qaiyum realized that true health involves feeling good mentally, physically, and emotionally. In order to meet those needs, he began offering natural skin care, bath, aromatherapy, and other personal care products from around the world. Promoting external and internal health along with physical and emotional well-being was unheard of at the time and the store’s popularity grew enormously among Americans and international customers alike.
These days, Merz Apothecary is a Chicago landmark (tour buses from around the Midwest make regular stops at the Apothecary) and a mecca for people who want unique and natural products for their bodies. The store sends packages to customers around the world and has been featured often in local, national, and international media. Over the years the careful product selection has continued, and now the shop boasts, among its impressive product assortment, the largest collection of natural and luxury soaps from around the world under one roof.
Despite the growth and attention, the store has not lost its focus on the original Apothecary concept. The staff hails from around the world and collectively speaks seven languages. Although international customers no longer make up the majority of the Apothecary clientele, their numbers continue to grow and now draw from all around the world. Customers seek out the well-trained staff for the 140 years of health and product knowledge it has inherited. The location and people have changed over the years, but the Apothecary’s goal has remained the same: providing superior and personal service for each customer’s total well-being.
It was out of this sense of history and mission that Qaiyum and his son, Anthony, founded Smallflower.com in 1998. They saw the opportunity to offer an expanded vision of health and personal care on the Internet.
Our challenge here at Smallflower is to meld the Old World approach and knowledge of Merz Apothecary with the New World technology of the Web, without losing the vision and character that make Merz Apothecary special. We’re quite proud of the path we’ve taken so far. When you shop at Smallflower you can be confident that you’re dealing with a staff that has intimate knowledge of the products and deals with in-the-flesh customers every day. We’re listening to our customers, and that knowledge directly shapes the information and product selection on the site.
Our view is that your health is too important to take chances with. We believe that you’re better off with a product selection that has been carefully honed over more than a century. We believe you’ll be healthier if you use the finest products from around the world; products that promote external and internal health, and mental as well as physical well being. And finally, we are sure you’ll be better served by a staff that has 140 years of accumulated experience and constant interaction with people in need of help. Our goal is still the same as it was on opening day in 1875: to provide the best service and products to help our customers lead happier, healthier lives. If that seems a bit grand, it’s not. It’s only what you deserve. Please let us know if there is anything we can do to serve you better.
If you’re ever in Chicago, please stop by our stores and say hello!