In 1875, Chicago pharmacist Peter Merz opened a small drugstore on Chicago’s North Side. Chicago had been established for 38 years and had attracted immigrants from throughout Europe. Being of Swiss descent, Merz decided to call the store an “Apothecary” in the European tradition. Even from the beginning, Merz Apothecary set itself apart.
Before the national drug store giants like Walmart, CVS and Walgreens dominated the scene, your neighborhood drugstore was not only a place to fill prescriptions, but it was source of information and remedies for common ailments. Pharmacists were consulted like family doctors, and they would hand mix formulas for each specific customer. Merz Apothecary differed from the typical American drugstore because the clientele were mostly European immigrants. Like European apothecaries, Merz focused heavily on herbal medicines and traditional formulas, which were already popular with its international customers. Merz and his pharmacists spoke many languages, allowing customers to shop and seek advice in their native tongues. The store’s reputation steadily spread, and the business continued to grow over the next 85 years. Heralded by several generations of the Merz family, the store retained its international focus and developed a devoted following among Europeans throughout the Midwest. In the early 1960s, competition from large chain drugstores began driving independent pharmacies out of business. Merz Apothecary’s loyal customer base and traditional herbal approach to health allowed it to thrive during this difficult period. Customers continued to seek out the advice of Merz’s experienced pharmacists and request their hand-mixed formulas.
In 1972, Ralph Merz was ready to retire without a successor, and the store was about to close permanently. One month before the scheduled closing, a 26-year-old Indian-born pharmacist named Abdul Qaiyum walked into Merz Apothecary after hearing about it from his German in-laws. He immediately fell in love with the store. With its focus on natural remedies, Merz reminded him of his family’s business and the healing traditions in his homeland. He purchased it a few days later. Over the next few years, independent pharmacies continued to vanish, yet Merz expanded dramatically, due in part to a booming mail order business. In 1982, Abdul moved Merz to its current, larger location, in Chicago’s Lincoln Square neighborhood, only a few miles from the original store. Chicago is a city of neighborhoods and Lincoln Square is a German neighborhood. The new store was custom-built to replicate a turn-of-the-century European apothecary, complete with a hand-carved wooden exterior, leaded glass windows, tin ceilings, and solid oak cabinets. The original antique pharmacy jars and herb containers now had a fitting home.
Recognizing the opportunity to offer an expanded vision of health and personal care, Abdul and his son, Anthony, founded Smallflower.com in 1998. So many customers had trouble spelling “Apothecary” that the Qaiyums chose the name “Smallflower” (one of their best-selling herbs) for their website. They also began selling on Amazon in 2004, before most people had even heard of it. E-commerce was a vital component of their business, and an area that has experienced rapid growth in the last few years. They created a marketing department and customer service team to ensure that “Smallfower” continues to thrive.
Today, Merz Apothecary is a Chicago landmark (tour buses from around the Midwest make regular stops) and a mecca for people who want unique and natural products. They ship packages to customers around the world, and are often featured in blogs, books, and magazines.