The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2011

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FEB 2011 Issue

Ruminations on Duane Reade

The new Duane Reade on Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg is hardly the plain, sometimes dingy New York City drugstore chain that many of us have come to know when buying toothpaste, aspirin, or pretzels. Like an increasing number of Duane Reades around the city, gone is the boring, yet somehow tasteful red, white, and blue sign with the Rx mixing bowl emblem inviting you into a fluorescent-lit drugstore with an enhanced selection of snacks. Instead one now sees frontage emblazoned with signs and graphics most likely described as “fresh,” “cool,” or even “jazzy” when unveiled by CBX, the design company responsible for this rebranding. At this location the wall along the escalator to the basement is adorned with a multi-font array announcing “The 50 Things We Love About Brooklyn,” a list that includes the basics like the Brooklyn Bridge and Junior’s but also the Mermaid Parade and, somewhat oddly, Starrett City.

In what seems like an impossibly cavernous subterranean space (the upstairs is basically cash registers and a massive craft beer vault—including growlers) there are huge cold cases with multiple varieties of soymilk, produce like asparagus and whole watermelons, as well as ready-made food, including what looks like sushi. There is a massive island of freezers that contain only varieties of frozen pizza. On the wall above is Duane Reade’s new bold mantra: “New York Living Made Easy.” Duane Reade now even has their own line of products—from baked potato chips to toilet paper—adorned with New York-specific imagery and snappy commentary about the city lifestyle. But standing in the middle of the freshly constructed aisles of American convenience it feels like it could be most anywhere in the country—certainly not in the traditionally rough and tumble mishmash of New York City trade. Until, that is, the vaguely hip music over the speaker system is interrupted by a manager saying, “Matt, please report to the growler bar.”

This particular location on Bedford Avenue—opened directly across the street from the eight-year old community favorite King’s Pharmacy—elicited Kings to put a sign in their front door about the “corporate bully” across the street and caused such a stir that the New York Times even managed to make an article out of it. Granted, the whole construction does seem like a shiny monument that suddenly arose from the bedrock, an out-of-place spasm of commercialism in a neighborhood that once resisted chain stores. But, even though there were some initial protests, when you take a step back it’s clear that at this point it almost fits in with all the other shiny new glass and steel construction in the neighborhood.

So why is this even noticeable to a jaded New Yorker like me? Dunkin’ Donuts and Subway don’t merit my attention even though these chains, according to an exhaustive report by the Center for the Urban Future, are the two that increasingly dominate the Five Boroughs. Maybe I’m just starting to sound like that clichéd old-time NYC sourpuss of the kind that Mayor Bloomberg seems to constantly deride?

No. What’s bothering me is that—at a time when Walmart is making a new reengineered push to land in New York City—the new Duane Reade is trying so hard not to be a chain store at the same time that they are expanding. The national chain store Walgreens bought Duane Reade almost a year ago. Walgreens already has 70 stores in the New York area, but the Deerfield, Illinois-based company said in a statement that it would decide over time how “to harmonize” both chains. It also plans to spend $60 million in the next few years on new Duane Reade stores and remodeling current stores, one assumes on the model of the Bedford Avenue location. While it’s true that Duane Reade’s name comes from the first store between Duane and Reade Streets in TriBeCa back in the 1960s, the reinvention of our once relatively unnoticeable local drugstore chain parallels the glass and steel condo-mania taking over many parts of the city. And that’s something that is hard to reverse.

“We researched a number of New Yorkers in order to find out what they wanted from Duane Reade, what they liked and did not like,” said a Duane Reade executive in a March 15, 2010 issue of Drug Store News. “From that, we came up with this mantra: ‘Duane Reade equals New York living made easy.’” A subsequent press release stated that, “The New York marketplace breeds it own type of shoppers. And retailer Duane Reade knows exactly who they are, what they need, and how they like to shop.” The branding company CBX, described as being an expert with Private Brand images and packaging design “understands the quintessential New York shopper” and helped them “communicate and connect with New Yorkers through a unique product voice.” This includes “uniquely New York” messages with “fun and edgy” packaging like “Spectacular Chocolate Chip Cookies” with a theatrical spotlight shining on appetizing product shots, Deluxe whole cashew cans whimsically position the cashews on bar stools and park benches, and Fire Fighter’s Joe coffee packages include a backdrop of New York skyscrapers. A recent in-store sampling of packages includes Spicy Cajun Trail Mix (“Hotter than the subway in summer”), Blanched Roasted Peanuts (“Whaddayanuts”), Neon Sour Worms (“Brighter than Times Square”), and yogurt covered raisins (“Yo, get your own bag!”).

In this scenario we, as New Yorkers, are not branded to potential tourists in Peoria or Singapore, but to ourselves. How very un-New York, or at least that rings true when one thinks of that classically blunt and independent image of a New Yorker. Is this yet another iteration of a “new” New York? A recent photography book “Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York” gives us a counterpoint. It’s a book chock full of the diverse and expressive facades of stores from all over the boroughs—and the ones from the 1970s seem as anachronistic as the ones from the 1930s. People who grew up in the city remember many of these stores. They are not sleek yet they grew out of the needs of neighborhoods and, subsequently, hung on for as long as they could. Surely, New York is constantly reinventing itself and no one is denying that. But reinvention stops with too much large-scale similarity, it reaches a plateau of too much of a superstructure with only artificial nods to the “local.” The experience of going into a new Duane Reade doesn’t have that comforting feeling of hardly noticing where you are; now it becomes clear that you are in a chain store, a space that is replicated throughout the city, a space that is combination drug store, convenience store, supermarket, and bodega because, above all, as a New Yorker we are told convenience is tantamount. The new Duane Reade is just that and, whether by design or not, it will in the long run close down smaller drugstores and convenience stores. In such a scenario it’s hard to imagine when small businesses would come back after comprehensive chain based convenience stores multiply. If Wal-mart should suddenly go bankrupt it’s doubtful that Mom and Pop shops across the country would repopulate. The same goes for our urban landscape.

Even given the economic slowdown, the Center for an Urban Future reports that the presence of chain stores in the five boroughs has gone up in the last year. Brooklyn is the place where they have increased the most. And Walmart is, once again, in the midst of a push to slip their mega-stores into the New York area, this time waging what seems like a political campaign. They recently gave nearly $400,000 to the NYC Food Bank and it is reported they have given over $9 million to New York nonprofits over the last three years. If Walmart succeeds in their buy-off campaign surely that will be the end of the New York City’s already weak bulkhead against national mega-chains. How more “chain” can you get than Walmart, complete as they are with a non-unionized low wage economy of scale?

But let’s get back to Williamsburg—a place I must always come back to. Even though the new Bedford Avenue Duane Reade has made a superficial effort to show they are “about” Brooklyn and the new Duane Reade “about” the convenience that New Yorkers want, overall it is a step in the perhaps inevitable direction of the strip mall tendency that rural and, increasingly urban, America is experiencing. The similarity in design will lead to homogeneity. Sure, there’s probably space now for Duane Reade and King’s Pharmacy and other businesses. Just like the introduction of Wal-mart, it is advertised, will give choice for New Yorkers. For the time being. Word has it that the old Bagel Store just kitty-corner to the spanking new Duane Reade on Bedford Avenue will be the home of a Starbucks very soon. The landlord just wanted too much rent. A Starbucks? In the land of boutique coffee shops and cafes—where coffee is an art form? And Wal-mart, though up for a more difficult battle in the current atmosphere of New York, will most likely succeed in some way. And the condos will keep going up—how many towers go up that really come down?

So, someday in the near future, we might actually look back with nostalgia at Duane Reade’s reinvention and their effort at finding out who New Yorkers are, what they want and how they like to shop. Even if that be with yogurt covered raisins that say, “Yo, get your own bag!” on them.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2011

All Issues