She recalls that the Pharmacy was the first store to open in the retail spaces of the newly built Gateway Plaza in 1983. “Across the street,” she says, “what was then called the World Financial Center hadn’t even opened. They had constructed only the first six floors.”
Yon Kwack and Elizabeth Kwack
Ms. Kwack’s daughter, Elizabeth, who was four years old when the store opened, grew up behind the counter, eventually taking over as the Pharmacy’s day-to-day manager. She was in her early 30s on the morning of September 11, 2001, when she and her mother were driving to Battery Park City from their home in New Jersey. As news of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center reached them, they began trying desperately — and without success — to reach her father, who was in the store that morning. “Nothing is more unbearable than not being able to reach someone through something as simple as a phone call,” she recalls.
Blocked by police from entering Manhattan, they waited and worried. Finally, more than 12 hours later, “he was able to get a call through to us. He was alive. He was taking the ferry over to New Jersey. He came to us covered in the dust from the Towers and drained. He has seen many things in his life, but this was a whole other level. He told us he heard the plane hit. He saw the plume of smoke, the fire, the swaying and then the collapse. He was in the store, not knowing what to do. The employees had fled. He was left alone to ponder what to do. The store was our bread and butter: Eighteen years of hard labor, seven days a week. Instinct said stay.”
South End Avenue in the fall of 2001
When the Kwack family were able to return to the Pharmacy for the first time, more than a week later, “we came back to a ransacked store, being watched by a National Guardsmen. It had been broken into by police, fire and other individuals.”
“We had to rebuild,” she says, “and come up with money that we didn’t have. We got a loan from the Small Business Administration, that was quickly demanded returned. Our wholesalers said they would help us rebuild. But in 30 days they were calling us nonstop for us to pay our bills. They used us at their trade show as some shining example of how great they were to help us, but left out the part where they wanted their money immediately.”
“Nothing teaches you the character of a person greater than a tragedy,” she reflects. “People I thought were worthy of trust opened my eyes to who they really were. They had failed me and my family with cowardice. I grew up a lucky kid. My parents gave me everything. I was shielded, but September 11 broke that down. I grew up quickly. I saw my father and mother beaten by having to rebuild something they worked so hard for. It was too much, I stepped in. I did as much as I could to help them rebuild, reestablish their life’s work in three months. It was hard. A lot of worrying, arguing and crying.” Looking back, she reflects, “in the end we survived. We were lucky. We are thankful. We are here to live another day. There is no greater gift.”
Ironically, a business that withstood the catastrophe of September 11, survived the financial crisis of 2008, and weathered the local devastation of 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, could not cope with a more insidious force.
“Insurance companies have changed the way they pay pharmacies,” explains the elder Mrs. Kwack. “They favor big companies, like CVS, and they discriminate against small businesses like ours.”
Josh Dalton, one of the staff pharmacists at the store, explains, “the pricing structure is almost designed to drive small drug stores out of business. Benefits managers now force many of our old customers to receive their medications through the mail, from large corporate chain pharmacies. The patient has no choice, unless they want to pay the full price for medicine, as if they didn’t have any insurance coverage.”
The result of these policies has been the closure of thousands of small, family-owned pharmacies around the United States in recent years. But the loss is measured in more than statistics. Independent pharmacies, such as the Kwack family’s drug store, have long distinguished themselves with personalized service, in which the specialist behind the counter was intimately familiar with each patient’s unique needs and concerns. This value — intangible but enormous — was the stock-in-trade of the Battery Park Pharmacy, and appears unlikely to be replaced by a corporate chain such as Rite-Aid (in Brookfield Place), which will be taking over the files for customers who have outstanding prescriptions at the Kwack’s drug store.
In a bitter twist, the market force that has dealt lethal blows to so many highly regarded Lower Manhattan businesses — the rising cost of real estate — was only a secondary factor in the demise of the Battery Park Pharmacy. “Our lease goes through November,” Mrs. Kwack explains. “But the rent was less of a problem than payments by insurance companies. Around five years ago, our margins began to shrink, and we went from making a profit, to barely breaking even, and then to losing money. For several years, we held on, hoping to turn things around. But finally, I decided that we had to stop losing money. There was just no way for us to survive.”
Glenn Plaskin, a longtime Gateway resident and the former president of the Gateway Plaza Tenants Association reflects, “here today — and for the last 35 years — and gone tomorrow is the sad story of our neighborhood pharmacy vanishing. Our 4,000 tenants have come to not only depend upon the convenient amenity of a local drug store, but also upon the friendship of its employees and the guidance of its pharmacists. Without it, we trudge off to a national chain, which offers a competent, but less personal, kind of service. And for our seniors and disabled, it’s a longer walk. One primary appeal of the Gateway complex is its proximity to essential services, providing stability and continuity. We hope not to lose any others.”
When asked what the next chapter of their lives will hold, both Elizabeth answered, “it’s not going to be easy,” while Ms. Kwack replied, “we just don’t know.”