Walk into Ivan Pharmacy at 691 Columbus Avenue and you feel like you have entered a bygone era. Ivan Jourdain, who has been a pharmacist for 37 years and a small business owner for over thirty, stands tall behind the drug counter. He knows everyone who walks in – their names, their families and most importantly, their health issues which he guards with all the appropriate secrecy.
Frank Schneiger, a longtime West 94th Street resident, has been a regular customer at Ivan for decades. He drops off the $2 for the weekly lottery ticket he plays with Khan, Jourdain’s assistant for 29 years. Even though Schneiger has never won, he teases both Ivan and Khan that he is owed “big time” for all the money he’s left on the table. They take it in stride. They don’t bite. You can feel the warmth and mutual respect that exists among them.
Jourdain and I share an overlap in our experiences. I was a youth worker at Goddard Riverside Community Center in the mid-1970s and Ivan Pharmacy was a regular sponsor of the neighborhood community softball league. We knew many of the same neighborhood kids – some who succeeded but others who couldn’t overcome the pull of the streets. (We were also both winners of the West Side Spirit WESTY Awards.)
“It’s a different era today,” Jourdain said. “This used to be a tight-knit community with many programs to help young people. There isn’t the same feeling of collective responsibility.” Jourdain is as much counselor, social worker and role model as he is pharmacist.
He Knew Early On
Jourdain came to this country from the Dominican Republic in the late 1950s. He has lived on the Upper West Side for over 50 years having attended PS 145 elementary school (West 104th St.), Booker T. Washington middle school (West 107th Street) and Brandeis High School (then on West 66th Street). He knew he wanted to be a pharmacist from very early on and began studying pharmacy directly after graduating high school.
“I didn’t have enough money to actually attend pharmacy school right away,” Jourdain commented. “So I did my first two years of pre-pharmacy at City College. That allowed me to save some money, because the tuition was dirt cheap – $700 a semester. I remember there were protests because everybody thought it was too high. I then went to Long Island University where I got my pharmacy degree.”
I asked him where his passion for becoming a pharmacist emanated from. He recounted a genuinely heartwarming story.
“My aunt in the Dominican Republic was a pharmacist,” he related. “To be a female professional in those days in a country that was heavily male-dominated was quite impressive. She was no-nonsense. She got me my first chemistry set, and I remember we loved to work in her pharmacy. She was considered the ‘doctor’ of the neighborhood and her community gave her a tremendous amount of respect. In fact, I remember, one day she was driving her car (which was a big deal back then). I was in the back of the car. The police, for some reason stopped her. She said, excuse me, why are you stopping me? Do you know who I am? She showed her pharmacy ring. The police officer – with a gun strapped in his shoulder – apologized and said, I am so sorry, and he let her go. I knew then that I wanted to be like my aunt.”
Jourdain started working at his present location when he was 16-years-old. It was called Jacobs Pharmacy. The owner was known simply as Mr. Jacobs and knew everyone in the neighborhood. He reminded Jourdain of his aunt. “I started working at Jacobs making deliveries and sweeping the floor. I really liked the fact that this guy gave this Black kid, who spoke with a heavy accent, had an Afro and wore bell-bottom pants, a chance,” Jourdain reminisced. “I also saw what he did. He basically did the same thing that my aunt had done. The community trusted him.”
Jacobs eventually sold the pharmacy and it moved to Columbus Avenue and 96th Street. It was then known as Martley’s. Jourdain moved along with it to the new site. He describes saving up “enough pennies” to eventually purchase Martley’s with several other partners, fulfilling his dream of having his own store. He named it Ivan Pharmacy – without the apostrophe “s” because he didn’t want to draw attention to himself.
“I can’t express my delight and relief when Ivan opened up his own drugstore after Martley’s closed,” one Upper West Side resident commented. “He continued the tradition of the genuine drug store as a place of community that nurtures and values its relationship with its customers.”
The store moved back to its original location at 691 Columbus in 1991where it remains to this day. Ivan Pharmacy is a veritable community institution – the local “barbershop” if you will. It is the place where people gather, learn about what’s new in the neighborhood, check in on how Ivan himself is doing, fulfill their prescriptions, purchase a book by a West Side author or buy a new toy for their child.
Council Member Gale Brewer lives around the corner from Ivan. She and her husband, Cal, have been loyal customers for years. “He is the heart, soul and rock of the neighborhood,” Brewer said. “People consider him to be the go to person on everything pharmaceutical, medical, personal, and political. He is generous to the core. During the pandemic he was there everyday when people needed their medications. He was the essential worker superstar.”
Jourdain plans to continue working as long as he is healthy despite the current challenges of competing with the big box drug stores and the exigencies of the pandemic. He rails against the low prescription reimbursements of the insurance companies and the dominance of the public benefit managers who serve as middlemen between the suppliers and the retailers. He feels the economic squeeze. Still, he remains optimistic. The trust he engenders, his love for the community and the strong ethic of customer service keep him going.
“Ivan is the single most important person in this immediate neighborhood,” Schneiger said. “The neighborhood would not be same without him. Anytime you go in there, he’s explaining something that is clinically sound to somebody. I don’t know where else they would get that information unless they got an appointment with their doctor. There is just nobody like him around here.”