Al Solman needs little introduction: He and his store, Kings Pharmacy, have been at the center of Tribeca life since opening in 1998. “My wife and I were having dinner in Tribeca once,” he says, “and this woman, a customer, came in and looked at me as if I was Robert Redford. My wife couldn’t believe it!”
How did you get started in this business?
One of my first jobs—this was 1973 to 1975—was as a stock boy at a Kings Pharmacy in Brooklyn. My grandmother knew the owners, and the guy she spoke to is now my partner in this store. Also, my uncle was a pharmacist, and so was his son (my cousin). They did very well, and it seemed like a good profession. I had no other true calling, so when my mother suggested I consider becoming a pharmacist, I said sure. I went to pharmacy school, then worked a bunch of jobs in Brooklyn and Queens. I worked for my cousin, and then part-time for one of the Kings pharmacies. At the time, there was no Kings trademark. It was a family business, and it was like a family tree: They would go into business with employees, helping them set up other stores, which would then be called Kings. Anyway, every other Saturday or Sunday I was working at a Kings in Queens, and then they needed a full-time pharmacist at the Kings in Jamaica. I was there for seven years or so. When a small store became available on Long Island, we bought it together and I ran it. They threw me in the deep end! After two years, CVS bought it. In the mid 90s, a bunch of Leroy Pharmacy stores—it was a chain at the time—went out of business. My partners bought two uptown. We had that for a couple of years. The big chains were scooping up independents, and my partners, who were getting older, wanted to cash out, so we sold that store. I was looking for a store on the Upper West Side, when the real estate guy said he knew a place downtown that I should see. I remember it like it was yesterday: We drove down W. Broadway, turned right on Reade, and there it was. “That’s a good spot!” I said. I can still hear myself saying it! This was 1998. I signed the lease the same day my son was born. My partners brought the lease to the hospital, and I went down and signed it. We opened that July.
What’s the most satisfying part of what you do?
When you help people and you know you made a big difference in their lives. Two weeks ago I was having a bad day—I just woke up cranky. Then a customer came in and said she was moving to Chelsea, she appreciated what we do, and she wanted to know how she could still get her prescriptions from us. It changed the whole day for me. And I get that a lot. I’ve had people bring their parents in to meet me!
Most popular item?
Sleeping tablets. Sometimes it’s every other prescription.
Most expensive item?
In general, professional hair-care products, like Kérastase. They can be $60, $70, $80.
Least expensive item?
Counter candy. Lollipops for a nickel or a dime.
No way they’re that cheap!
Are they a quarter now? We’ll have to go look! [They are indeed 25¢.]
Your very favorite item right now?
My favorite new product is Jessica Alba’s The Honest Company. We just started stocking it two weeks ago and we’ve already had to reorder.
So your favorite products are the ones that sell….
Where do you source the front-of-store stuff?
I go to trade shows three or four times a year. There’s the toy fair, the gift show, the stationery show…. Sometimes I’ll see something on TV, or people will ask for a product. I’ll check with the staff at the front to see if anyone has been requesting it. We have to ask ourselves whether it’s a good fit. Sometimes it’s a good product but the price is just too high for us. Even if I sell it cheaper than Bloomingdale’s does, there are items that people would just rather buy at a department store. We’re not the right experience for it.
Tribeca has obviously changed a lot. Any changes that have surprised you?
You know, people haven’t changed as much as I thought. On the Upper East Side, people were more tense, more rushed—they needed everything right away. I thought that would become the case when people started moving downtown. But people are still pretty chill around here. Maybe the Tribeca people rubbed off on them. That’s good for me!
How has your business changed?
It has changed a lot, especially with PBMs, pharmacy benefit managers, who run the way medicine is prescribed. Insurance companies dictate what you get, not doctors. A lot of our business isn’t filling doctors’ prescriptions but figuring out what works best for the patient within the confines of the insurance company’s guidelines. Ten or 15 years ago, there was no such thing as prior authorization. And if the insurance company says no, we have to go through the appeal process, where the doctor must make the case that you’ve tried other medicines and they haven’t worked.
What percentage of your business is local?
People who live or work here? 100%.
Tell me a crazy customer story.
I had a customer with little kids who would come in for Pampers or get them delivered—and then a few days later, she would return them, either bringing them in or ordering something small and giving them to the delivery boy to bring back to the store. We couldn’t understand what was happening. The next time she ordered five or six bags of Pampers, sure enough, she returned them. They were in a Duane Reade bag. So I called her up and asked why she was returning Duane Reade stuff to us. She denied it, saying that was the only bag she had lying around. “There’s still a Duane Reade sticker on the diapers,” I said. That was the last time she ever did it.
What does the future hold for Kings?
We re-signed our lease a few years ago, so we’ll be here at least seven more years. There’s always more of a focus in the front-end product mix. We’ll try to go a little more upscale, to make up for insurance companies killing us on prescriptions. Pharmacies used to be just be pharmacies—now the pharmacy counter gets shrunk and the rest of the store gets as big as possible.
Photographs by Claudine Williams, who specializes in head shots for actors, business professionals, or anyone looking to be photographed.