Walking into Merz Apothecary at 4716 N. Lincoln is like stepping into a time machine.
And that’s just the way Anthony Qaiyum planned it. The shop looks just like you’d expect a drug store that opened in 1875 – the year of the first Kentucky Derby and a year before Custer’s Last Stand.
Along the shelves are time-honored homeopathic remedies as well as $300 shaving sets and the original 1792 formula Eau de Cologne. It’s probably one of Chicago’s few remaining places that stock Huckleberry Leaves, Irish Moss Speedwell and Stinging Nettle (for arthritis) and Valeran Tea (for “nerves”).
“We’ve got something for everyone,” said Qaiyum, noting that Merz’s 14,000 item inventory ranges from $200 high-end fragrances to $8 candles.
But the business is also so contemporary that Qaiyum estimates 60 to 65 percent of Chicago’s oldest drugstore’s business is online since Qaiyum started Merz’s website in 1997. Qaiyum estimates his shop ships 1500 to 2000 packages a week and 1200 to 1500 a day during the Christmas holidays.
Qaiyum’s father, Abdul, a pharmacist from India, bought the business from the last surviving Merz in 1972 when it was at Lincoln and George. Back then, that was the heart of Chicago’s “Nord Seite”(North Side auf Englisch) German community, right around the corner from places like the Lincoln Turner Hall, Zum Deutschen Eck, and St. Alphonsus Church (which still holds German masses once a month).
When a lot of the neighborhood’s Germans started moving north to Lincoln Square, Merz followed, and picked up a lot of new American customers who’d become increasingly enamored with “natural” products. While the Europeans favored the 200-300 herbs Merz kept in stock, “the Americans liked to take their medicines in capsule form to avoid the herbs’ sometimes bitter taste.
In many cultures after dinner drinks are usually bitter, Quiyum said, adding “there’s some science behind that because tasting the bitter makes your liver and gall bladder function at a high rate, so you produce bile and digest fats and alcohol faster. They were on to something even before they knew the science.”
Over the years, Merz remained a drug store (with registered pharmacists able to fill prescriptions) while expanding their operation to include a men’s grooming store in the building next to the Lincoln Square drugstore.
Qaiyum, his father, and their business partner and on-site pharmacist Michael Winter turned down offers by would-be investors wanting to bankroll a chain of Merz stores.
“We’d have to dumb down what we do here. We’d rather keep it unique than change that just because there’s a money opportunity,” Qaiyum said.
But he said he wouldn’t rule out opening “maybe a few men’s stores in key communities throughout the country.” Qaiyum sees it as “an opportunity to become the leader in the wet shaving area.”
4716 N. Lincoln Ave.