By Margie Smith Holt
Ivan is so nice and so helpful—a good resource for the neighborhood.
Yes! Ivan is absolutely the best!
West Side Rag readers have spoken. Coming in at the top of the Rag’s Thanksgiving contest of neighborhood favorites (neck and neck with Zabar’s in the Best Small Business category) is Ivan Pharmacy at 691 Columbus between 93rd and 94th.
Just don’t call it Ivan’s—with an “s.” Pharmacist and proprietor Ivan Jourdain says that puts too much focus on him when, in fact, it takes his whole team—and a fantastic neighborhood—to make the business a success.
“My story would not be possible unless it was the Upper West Side,” says Jourdain.
Ivan Pharmacy has been on the Upper West Side since 1991; Ivan the pharmacist has been in the neighborhood more than 50 years. But their story begins in the Caribbean.
Growing up in the Dominican Republic, Jourdain knew from an early age he wanted to be a pharmacist. He got his first chemistry set when he was seven, a treasured gift from his mother’s sister, his Aunt Justina, who was a pharmacist in Santo Domingo. He saw how appreciated she was by the community, how much she helped people.
“I just looked up to her so much. She was my role model,” he said. “I wanted to be like her.”
She never made much money, but she was satisfied with what she did. She was happy. Not like some of his other relatives—the engineers, architects, doctors, and lawyers.
“They were all very unhappy. But my aunt? Very happy. So I said, wow. Happiness seems to be where it’s at.”
Jourdain was “lucky enough to come to this country,” moving to New York at age “9 or 10” with his mother. They lived in a fourth-floor walk-up apartment with a bathtub adjacent to the kitchen and a shared toilet in the hallway. He had a view of his new school, PS 145 on 105th Street. He didn’t speak a word of English.
His dream never wavered. When he was old enough to get a job, he only applied at pharmacies. At 16 he found work sweeping floors and making deliveries at a drugstore just blocks from where Ivan Pharmacy is now.
“My English was poor. And Mr. Jacob [the pharmacist], I can only imagine what he saw. I had a big Afro. I had tight polyester bell-bottom pants, a wide belt with a big buckle, and an Afro pick on the back of my head. I had hair then. And he didn’t care. He just said, ‘Can you sweep? Can you make deliveries?’ … He trusted me. I saw in Mr. Jacob that he was doing the same thing that my aunt was doing.”
Jourdain studied at City College and Long Island University. A registered pharmacist since 1983, he started out as part-owner of Martley Drug at 96th and Columbus. When that partnership dissolved, he opened Ivan. Today, more than 30 years later, he’s on a first-name basis with most of his customers. Some families he’s treated for three generations.
“It’s easy to remember them when you consider them friends,” he says.
“I still get all of these offers from the chains to sell. It has never been tempting. As it is, I come in in the morning, I open up the store, I put in my 10 or 12 hours. And I never regret a day putting the key through the door. The day just flies by. Because I’ve been here so long, I know everybody by name. They know me by name. It’s not really a job.”
In addition to that one-on-one attention, Ivan Pharmacy offers something else special: A children’s book and toy section, personally curated by the boss. The father of three and grandfather of three more has read every book in the collection—some to his kids when they were young, some to his grandkids, some while relaxing after work. Each book has to meet his criteria.
“And my criteria is simple,” he says. The book needs to teach a kid a lesson. Or evoke an emotion. “If it makes me laugh, if it makes me cry, then I buy it.
“The book section is really my pride and joy because I love doing that. I love ordering the books. I love it when parents say, Oh, you have a great book section! I love it even more when teachers come in and say, You have the greatest books! Not a single book is in that section unless I read it.”
Ditto for the toys: The LEGO and the Playmobil that his kids grew up on. The unicorns, stuffed dogs, and masked giraffe that greet customers at the door.
“Everything in that toy section I selected myself,” he says. “It all tends to be very family-oriented, very educational, very hands-on. And the stuffed animals are just cute.”
The books and toys also serve a practical purpose, helping to balance the books. To be sure, there are big challenges owning a small independent pharmacy in an age where there seems to be a Rite Aid* or Walgreens on every corner. Ivan Pharmacy stays competitive by offering delivery, regularly checking prices on the shelves of the stores around them, and selling specialty products. But Jourdain says the biggest challenge isn’t the chain stores, or high rent, or even the shoplifting that’s become especially problematic lately. It’s the PBMs—the pharmacy benefit managers that act as middlemen between insurance providers and drug companies.
“The PBMs are out to get small, independent pharmacies. But now, they’ve gone beyond that. Now, they are limiting the access that the patient has to the medicine,” Jourdain says. “They are constantly cutting back on reimbursement … 40% to 60% of the prescriptions that I do are below cost … these PBMs have gone out of their way to make sure that independent pharmacies go out of business. And they don’t hide it. They don’t hide it. That’s why just about every state out there has decided to sue them.
“It’s definitely not the shoplifting, and it’s not the other big chain stores. And the rent could be met if we were to get the proper reimbursement whenever we fill a prescription. It’s that simple. Just give us a proper reimbursement whenever we fill a prescription, and then we can be out there to serve the community, instead of having empty stores in every other block.”
Jourdain is determined to keep fighting, but don’t call him a hero. Ivan Pharmacy was a refuge during the pandemic, but he insists it’s his staff who should get the credit. And their customers.
“People go out of their way to come in… I get a lot of people from 97th Street. They literally walk by Rite Aid. They walk by CVS (on Amsterdam). And they walk by Walgreens to come here. So how do I compete? Because the neighborhood refuses to see me go down … It’s amazing, and it’s very, very humbling because I know they have a choice.”
Jourdain is 66 now and not thinking about retirement. None of his children are interested in taking over the “family pharm,” as they call it, but he’s had staff members become pharmacists and he’s proud of that legacy. And he’s still not interested in those couple of offers a month to sell. He likes his job. He’s happy. He’s done his aunt proud.
“It’s just so rewarding. I have never regretted a single moment of being here. Not one second,” he says. “If you enjoy what you do, it’s impossible to get burned out. And you will put in 7 days a week, 10 hours a day, and you cannot get burned out if you enjoy what you’re doing. And before you know it, 36 years have passed and you’re still doing it and you’re happy.
“You cannot put a price tag on happiness. Period. You just can’t.”
* Rite Aid on W. 97th Street, the last one on the Upper West Side, recently announced that it will close at the end of January.