What Is An Apothecary?
Since at least 2,600 BC, people have made and dispensed medicines. In medieval Christendom these healers were known as apothecaries.
Apothecaries, across the centuries, took on many forms. Some travelled, selling their wares from carts and carriages; some set-up shops; some worked in the courts of queens and kings; some not only sold cures but poisons too. The ingredients they used varied from herbs to minerals to animal fats to urine and saliva.
The Precursors Of Merz Apothecary
There have been apothecaries in America since at least 1630 when Governor Winthrop, founder of Boston, hired British apothecary Robert Cooke to assist him in the preparation of remedies. Despite this, apothecary shops did not proliferate across the country until around 100 years later.
To begin with these were traditional businesses that handed down wisdom from master to apprentice, apothecaries in every sense of the word. Come the 19th century however this was all changing.
A new term, 'pharmacy', was on the rise and with it formal institutions of medicine-makers. In 1821, the country got its first pharmacy school and, in 1852, the American Pharmaceutical Association was founded. American apothecaries looked to be on the way out, but one Swiss-born scientist decided to buck this trend.
Merz Apothecary Is Born
In 1875 a scientist by the name of Peter Merz set-up Merz Apothecary in Chicago. Being of Swiss descent he opted to stick with the term 'apothecary' and with traditional European medicines. This, he hoped, would appeal to the many Europeans living nearby.
He was right.
The shop became a community hub where people could sit and chat on leather chairs whilst they waited for their orders to be filled. Multi-lingual staff catered to the clients' individual needs, mixing their remedies on site. Business boomed.
Merz Apothecary Survives
The shop passed between multiple generations of Merz's until the mid-late 20th century brought with it hard-times for the nation's pharmacies. Powerhouse chains were emerging , sucking up all the business. One by one independents began to close.
Merz Apothecary proved immune to this sea-change however. Their niche product offerings combined with their loyal customer base ensured their survival.
New Owners At Merz Apothecary
In 1972, Ralph Merz, the then owner of the store, was looking to retire. There was one problem however: there was no one in the family to succeed him.
For a while it looked like the business might have to close, but then 26 year old Indian Pharmacist Abdul Qaiyum offered to buy it and run it under the same name.
In 1982, Qaiyum moved the store to its present location in Lincoln Square, furnishing its new building in the style of a traditional 20th century apothecary: wooden exterior, oak cabinets, tin ceilings and jars of herbs. Since then it has continued to thrive under both Abdul and his son Anthony.
It now has a successful online store, SmallFlower.com, and a second location in Palmer House Hilton, as well as a male grooming shop, The Shop at Merz, also in Lincoln Square.
Interested in finding more places like this? Try one of our Chicago Scavenger Hunts - untangle cryptic clues as a team, as you are taken on a journey to the most unique, unusual and bizarre corners of Chicago and beyond!
Want to read more about unconventional shops? Try our articles on York Ghost Merchants and York Chocolate Story.