‘Folk pharmacy’ is in tune with community
BY JANE HEIL USYK | Does your pharmacy offer a medicine show? Mine does. It’s an amazing ongoing event: concerts two or three Tuesdays a month inside the pharmacy.
We are talking here about Thompson Alchemists, at 132 Thompson St. between Houston and Prince Sts., not some wayward CVS or Duane Reade. (“Alchemists” makes reference to the old and honored practice of concocting remedies.)
Gary Alony, who owns Thompson Alchemists and is the pharmacist, has only one drugstore, and this is it. His wife Jolie runs the front of the pharmacy; that is, everything except the prescription drugs.
The neighbors like that it is small and very much a part of the community, that Gary is an excellent pharmacist who always has time to answer drug-related and wellness questions, and that, upon request, he might mention alternative solutions to your problems, if there are any.
Seventy-five or a hundred years ago, well before the chain stores, you could confide in your local pharmacist, and he might come up with solutions for your problems; Gary and Thompson Alchemists hark back to that time, when the pharmacist was a first line of defense for your continuing good health.
Gary provides not only a personal relationship and advice; he also makes a space for a bluegrass, country and popular music concert several times a month, with outstanding local musicians.
On concert nights — every second, fourth and fifth Tuesday of the month — he moves the benches and chairs to one side of the store. He clears out the other side, between the high-end creams and the socks. That’s where Sheriff Bob and Deputy Kat, plus about five other musicians, set up. They drift in at about 6:45 p.m., Captain Bob on guitar and vocals, Matt Quinones on bass, Michael Donovan on violin, occasionally Trip Henderson on harmonica, Jeffrey Rowland on mandolin. Phyllis Elkind and Emma Turoff sometimes appear on guitar and mandolin, respectively.
Sheriff Bob a.k.a. Bob Saidenberg organized the group and brings them together. He plays the Dobro, which is a kind of resonator slide guitar. Bob is a lifelong Manhattanite who grew up in the Village, went to Friends Seminary on 16th St. and MIT. The Deputy, Kathryn Minogue, a former archeologist, plays guitar and sings.
One of her influences is Loretta Lynn. She is also a songwriter, and wrote the show’s theme song, “Thompson Street Medicine Show”:
Give me one shot of the Sheriff,
One dose of the Deputy,
Pass that bottle ’round and ’round
Good times for you and me.
At the Thompson Street Medicine Show.
The audience sits quietly, enjoying the music. Occasionally, someone dances.
The concerts began as a 25th anniversary celebration, in October 2017, of Gary and Jolie’s marriage; that one was so much fun, they just kept on going.
Headgear is important; each musician has several hats, ranging in goofiness from serious to off the rails, as with Sheriff Bob’s Tibetan hat, which he wears, very purposefully, kind of cockeyed.
Sheriff Bob also leads a “Goodtime Jam” at the Zinc Bar on W. Third St. one Wednesday a month. Another name he uses is “The Sheriff of Goodtimes.” A film was made about him last year.
He lives on Thompson St. just north of the pharmacy, where he has a very busy recording and rehearsal studio. He goes back to the ’50s and calls Pete Seeger his first important influence. Pete came to his school and performed, and that inspired Bob to become a folk singer.
Their songs on a recent Tuesday included, “Pick Me Up On Your Way Down,” “Nadine,” “Someday You’ll Call My Name,” “Cryin’ Time,” “Hey, Good Lookin.’” The musicians have a huge and varied repertoire. The musicianship and arrangements are fast-moving and upbeat.
On a recent cold Tuesday, Jolie offered hot chocolate and black-and-white cookies to the audience. On another Tuesday, herbal people from Vermont came to the pharmacy and gave out free samples of mushroom chai tea and a balm of some kind.
One guest musician was an Italian Elvis type, with precise and accurate versions of Elvis’s gestures, voice, guitar playing and presentation. He was uncanny. But he had to go back to Bologna. He can be seen on one or two of the many videos of the show on YouTube; search for “Thompson Street Medicine Show.”
The store is filled with various ever-changing artistic touches: strange silver folk, possibly left from a previous window display; a golden figure that seems to be an old-time alchemist; charming representations of Jolie and Gary, the work of Soho artists who are customers. The windows are always interesting, combining imaginative artistry with the drugs and lotions.
Until a few years ago, Edd Fenner, a local artist and friend, did the windows in a very fantastical manner, with colorful production numbers and sweeping themes. He died, and the windows went back to being just original and interesting, with several personal items in them, like photos and articles along with the drugstore items. The windows have two themes: feeling better and country music.
There is an old Life magazine cover with Johnny Cash on it in the window right now.
For the very few small pharmacies left, personal communication and advice still create a bond between pharmacist and customer, and that provides a space for improved health and well-being. That it’s also a space for beautiful music is an extra-special benefit. This is something only places like Thompson Alchemists can provide, and we are richer for it.
The writer would like to thank Frances Illuzzi and Michael Usyk, who helped with this article.