Sunday 12 May 2013

In Praise of Mr Duane & Mr Reade

James Duane (1733-1797) was an Anglo-Irish lawyer, American revolutionary leader and mayor of New York City in the 1780s. Joseph Reade (1694-1771) was a member of the Governor's Council of the province of New York and a warden of Trinity Church.  We may assume they knew each other, if only as nodding acquaintances of the Georgian colonial kind.  But apart from their time, location and status they may not, in life, have had much in common.  In death, as befits city notables of yore, they have streets named after them.  As it happens, parallel streets in lower Manhattan. That's nice; and that might have been it - if the three Cohen brothers had not sited a pharmacy business on Broadway between these two streets in 1960, on the edge of the now edgy district which has become known as Tribeca.  They called the business Duane Reade - after the two neighbouring streets.

The business grew - rapidly in the pre-crash decade - and now has over 250 retail outlets in New York City and its suburbs.  To the visitor, Duane Reade stores seem to be simply everywhere. Think of the ubiquity in the UK of Boots, multiplied perhaps by as much as three or four; but each store with the floor area of a medium-sized supermarket and the lower-end feel of Superdrug. They are like Aladdin's caves: I have been to New York many times, and even now I can hardly pass one without going in.

A Duane Reade store near Times Square

In recent years, they have branched out into cosmetics, greetings cards, and a range of household goods including some groceries, and these "peripheral" items now dominate (there are no big food chains like Tesco or Sainsbury's to compete with). But they are at heart a drug store, dispensing prescriptions, and many claim to have a doctor on the premises.  You usually need to go to the back of the store or on to another floor to find the pharmacy section, but it is worth doing.  Browsing the shelves is an education, partly into the American preoccupation with "wellness" (vitamin and other supplements are much bigger business here than in Europe).  But how societies deal with ailments and medicines strikes me as an indication of how they regard themselves and their welfare.  As in the UK, you cannot buy most prescription-only drugs over the counter (one exception is antibiotic creams and ointments).  But everything else you can buy in as much bulk as you can carry.  Things like aspirin, paracetamol and ibuprofen you can routinely (and cheaply compared to the UK) buy in bottles of 200.  To those of us used to H&S-conscious blister-packs of 12 or 24, this seems wildly liberating.  Before I left this time I bought 600 Excedrin tablets - an aspirin/ paracetamol/caffeine combo like Anadin Extra, very good for hangovers.  I've no doubt that if I tried to buy 600 Anadin Extra in my local Boots, they would call the police.  Plus I'd need a bank loan.

And some of the brand names are great: Tylenol sounds really dangerous (unforunately it's only paracetamol). And I suppose Excedrin is fairly dangerous in that kind of quantity, ie if you Excede the recommended dose.  It all adds to a Big-Brother-isn't-watching-you-quite-as-closely-as-in-Europe feeling, and just stepping over the threshold quickens the pulse.

Duane Reade is now a wholly-owned subsidiary of Walgreens, the drugstore giant which has 8300 stores across the USA.  It was announced in 2012 that Walgreens was to take a 45% stake in Alliance Boots, which owns the 3200 Boots stores in the UK and elsewhere, and Alliance Healthcare, which supplies drugs to 170,000 pharmacies in 21 countries.  The final stage of the merger will see Walgreens take full ownership of Alliance Boots, making it the world's largest health & beauty retailer, with 11,000 stores worldwide.  While I'm a fan of Duane Reade, I do hope the staff of Boots get to keep their nice white uniforms.

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