Enter your local pharmacist. For the past 12 years, Downtown Pharmacy has been serving the Paulus Hook hood. And “serving” is the operative word. The pharmacists behind the counter know you. They can solve that allergy issue, but you can also go home with an oven thermometer and some organic vegetables.
Back in the spring, local customers got a scare when it looked like a CVS, slated for 70 Hudson St., might put their beloved local drugstore out of business. The increasing wealth of these areas is attracting large chains. But the folks who live there think of their community as a Greenwich Village, with art galleries, restaurants, and boutiques.
Here’s the backstory: A city ordinance, passed in 2015 at the request of Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop and Downtown council member Candice Osborne, limits large retail chains in Downtown development areas that receive tax abatements from the city.
Believing that CVS would be in obvious violation, the city refused to issue a Certificate of Occupancy to the landlord. Soon after, however, the city law department claimed that the ordinance may have violated federal law and should be repealed.
Downtown Pharmacy co-owner Ariel Zaurov was on edge until a June 7 council meeting, when the repeal came up for a vote.
Zaurov was at the meeting, telling council members, “The ordinance was enacted to prevent monopoly and encourage local independent ownership. These businesses do not intend to compete with local stores; they aim to be the only game in town.”
He went on to say that independent businesses contribute to the local economy by using “local banks, local ice cream makers, and local vitamin producers.”
Luckily for him and his customers, the ordinance was not repealed.
Long Winding Road
Zaurov and his partners opened the Essex Street pharmacy in 2005. At the time, he was offering concierge pharmacy services to nearby Goldman Sachs.
“We very quickly became part of the neighborhood,” Zaurov says. “For many years, we were the only pharmacy, we made a lot of friends, and were involved in the local community.”
Though Zaurov lives across the river in Battery Park City, he says, “I spend most of my time in Jersey City. It’s my second home.”
Zaurov is a native of what used to be known as the Soviet Union. He came to the United States in February 1989, a year or two before the collapse of the Soviet Union, which was notoriously anti-Semitic. “It was hard for Jews to get into university and get good jobs,” Zaurov says.
He was only 15 when he landed in the U.S., graduating from high school in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, and, in 1997, from Long Island University’s Arnold and Marie Schwartz College of Pharmacy. He was following in the footsteps of his mother, who was a pharmacist back in the Soviet Union.
His first job was at an independent pharmacy in New York City’s West Village. “That’s where I got my first taste of what a neighborhood community pharmacy is about,” he says.
And it’s nothing like a chain.
“We’re like a family and treat all customers the same,” he says. “We may not have the big-name resources, but we provide services that you can’t put a dollar sign on. It’s a very personal level, like you’re coming to see your own personal doctor without an appointment.”
He emphasizes that of course pharmacists are not allowed to diagnose and do other things that physicians do.
“But we can meet you at any moment,” he says. “We know who you are, and we have no ‘floating’ pharmacists. We’re always there, we know your children, we know what issues you have and your life experience. It’s not a generic click-and-ship thing.”
You can have a half-hour conversation with a pharmacist, Zaurov says, and it’s free. His pharmacists are also available by email.
At various times, he’s had pharmacists who speak Spanish, Korean, and Arabic.
Two years ago, Zaurov and his partner opened another Downtown Pharmacy in the Liberty Harbor area. This one’s right at the Marin Boulevard light rail stop in a community that is fast developing.
For now, he says, “the grocery items are keeping us going. We jumped into organics, and we have things now on the shelves that are in every supermarket. That wasn’t the case 12 years ago.”
The new store is adapting to its environment. “That’s what people want and need,” he says. “It’s a young neighborhood with young families.” He’s even offering produce from local farmers as well as ice cream and other products made right here in Jersey City.
Zaurov has come a long way from that 15-year-old refugee from the Soviet Union. “It’s been an absolutely amazing experience,” he says. “The American Dream come true, and I absolutely love Jersey City. I know a lot of people in the neighborhood. I walk the streets and meet and talk with people. New York City is so big you can get lost. Here it’s like a small neighborhood, where you still feel like an individual.”
Which is why he is not yet heaving a sigh of relief. There is still a chance that CVS could sue the city if it does not repeal the ordinance. No city wants to be involved in an expensive lawsuit with a deep-pocketed plaintiff, so there is also the chance that Mayor Fulop and members of the council will tweak the ordinance until it is on the right side of the law. The election for council members is in November. Both David and Goliath will be eagerly watching the results.
Zaurov’s concern is not just for his store but for the preservation of Jersey City’s charming character. “Paulus Hook, Van Vorst, Harsimus, I love these neighborhoods,” he says. “Once they’re lost, you won’t be able to bring them back.”—JCM