The headwaters of Madison Avenue have become an ironic, prime haven for fashionable New Yorkers in these lingering COVID-19 days. And a pharmacy, stocked with old-fashioned beauty products and turtle hair barrettes, is a must stop on those high tea outings.
The inimitable Zitomer — which opened in 1950 and has stood in its current three-story home at 969 Madison Avenue since 1986 — saw this coming. Still independently owned, the company has been pushing social media and promoting visits from ‘It’ girls like Annabelle Dexter-Jones, Phoebe Tonkin and Laila Gohar, all of whom are sulking for photos taken in the store’s mirrored staircase. .
Wanting to stay on the point of relevance, Zitomer’s owner Sharon Sternheim thought it was time to invest in a full refurbishment.
“Why fix something that isn’t broken? Well, I just felt like 70 years old, and I had a choice at this point in my life that I either sell it and go into the wild blue yonder, or make it the prettiest store I’ve ever seen in my life. life,” she told WWD.
More than half a century of Upper East Side tourists and locals have counted on Zitomer for its shelves of remedies, just steps from the Carlyle Hotel. With weathered purple carpeting, yellowed lighting, and floating salespeople, Zitomer’s old-fashioned sloppiness was central to the fantasy of a bygone New York; an escapist beauty paradise built on laurels that predate lip filler and TikTok trends.
Only in the last five years has it become a new watering hole and new social media influence post, especially during the COVID-19 vaccine rush — where Zitomer was arguably Manhattan’s second-most-wanted jab station, second only to the American Museum. of Natural History, who gave his patients free tickets and a recovery room under his life-size model of the humpback whale.
For many discovering the shop now for the first time, a trip to Zitomer is archived between finger sandwiches at Sant Ambroeus and an informed purchase of, say, Egyptian cotton socks or cashmere slippers at the old-fashioned lingerie shop Peress. This is the new afternoon snack that many women are looking for, giving them a taste of less challenging times.
But Sternheim felt a strong desire for self-preservation and took on the challenge of turning Zitomer’s charm into a more modern design and layout that could accommodate social distancing (it’s part medical store, after all).
And so, as of May of last year, she instructed her employees to remove the store’s worn-out headband stand, Chanel’s makeup counter, and shelves of imported German foot creams—all to debut a Zitomer 2.0.
“The neighborhood would kill me if I ever closed the store. It’s a very important entity on the Upper East Side and I think the world still needs places like Zitomer – it’s all about customer relations and that old world charm. We still have a white-gloved doorman who knows your name — it’s just really important,” Sternheim said.
But when it came time for the update, macroeconomic forces stepped in — what was supposed to be a three-month project stretched out to nearly a full year. Global trade disruptions came for the Upper East Side—almost the Zitomer overhaul turned upside down. “It was only going to be a few months, but look — things got held up and couldn’t get through the Panama Canal,” Sternheim recalled.
When the materials arrived, the store quickly saw a turnaround. Gone are the original neon tube lighting and Formica countertops that set the mood for busier, happier times. They’ve been ripped out – replaced with polished gold fixtures and stark black and white tiles, designed by RPG’s Bruce Teitelbaum in consultation with Sternheim and her son Robert, Zitomer’s heir.
Shining with a sharp linear design, Zitomer’s shiny new look is a far cry from its previous iteration. But it gives the store room to grow; In a few decades, it could give Generations Alpha and Beta a similar touch of nostalgia, capitalizing on their idea of perceived innocence and ease.
Sternheim said the Zitomer refurbishment has already proven itself a worthy investment. “We’ve done facelifts in the past, but it would stay with the same floor plan and people would complain, but I didn’t get a single insult with this one – everyone is really elated.”
“Sales have gone up and people are back. It was a big investment, but we’re seeing yields increase, so I think it was the right choice. Customers walk through the door and take a turn. Half of them think they are in the wrong place.”
Modern lighting and gilded arches illuminate brands new to Zitomer, such as the legendary Augustine Bader and luxury fragrance maker Byredo, as they shine a new spotlight on luxury standby appliances such as Surratt and Acqua di Parma.
But there is a big gap between the perception of Zitomer among young shoppers and the store’s real success. Contrary to what a day out in Brooklyn buying a grosgrain headband might think, Zitomer’s sales are still about 60 percent covered by its pharmacy business. A counter at the very back of the store — now lit by a giant “Rx” neon fixture as part of the renovation — keeps the Zitomer time capsule afloat.
Sternheim, in fact, sits on the board of the National Association of Chain Drug Stores, along with executives from CVS and Walgreens. “The bottom line is that we are still a pharmacy at heart. Hopefully that will never change – what brings? [new shoppers] in the door is everything else that’s totally irresistible,” she said, adding that the store was one of the first three pharmacies in Manhattan to offer Paxlovid over the counter.
Zitomer’s pharmacy status also allowed the store to remain open during the pandemic. Employees delivered PPE to the Upper East Side in brown paper packages that were also filled with bottles of Tata Harper facial oil and Essie nail polish kits.
“We have supplied all Madison Avenue stores with PPE products. We taught people how to dye their hair, how to do a pedicure – things they’ve never had to do themselves. Headbands were essential – people didn’t get their hair done that often and threw on a headband. We sent them all the way to Palm Beach!”
Staying open also meant retaining a sizeable workforce. “As many people as you see on the floor, we also have shipments and inventory on the lower level. Not many people know that we have more than 60 people ahead of us,” Sternheim says.
They’re busier than ever now, filling Zitomer classics rolling off the shelves — $120 silk hair bows and Falke stockings underneath. But during the renovation, some of Zitomer’s bestsellers have swapped places.
Hair accessories have moved upstairs – their rhinestones and Made-in-France shine are now accentuated by the mezzanine’s lilac glitter floor tiles. Sternheim hopes that giving the hair accessories their own small division will boost sales beyond their current 10 percent share of Zitomer’s income.
Stalwart Zitomer fans know that the store’s plush headbands, offered in a rainbow of satin, velvet, mink and bouclé, all bear a mysterious label. On the underbelly of each headband is a unique name, “Anna,” scribbled in spherical italics – the marking of an anonymous mother-daughter operation in New Jersey. At Anna’s discretion, Sternheim would only paint a blurry picture of the designer’s identity.
“It’s a real person,” she said. “We’ve been wearing her designs for 25 years, I think. She’s strong, she has great taste and she’s totally up to date with fashion – the quality is superb. She’s an older woman, mature – she’s doing her own thing. There are still some quiet entrepreneurs.”
Her headbands join other Zitomer standbys, such as the wall of Laminated Moiré travel cosmetics brands from a little-known California brand. Rarely seen elsewhere, the bags — so pretty and pastel they are relics of Whit Stillman’s “Metropolitan” — are often mistaken for original Zitomer and picked up by well-heeled tourists staying at the nearby Carlyle Hotel. “We have princes and princesses who come to buy it with their private plane and buy 12 pieces at a time — it’s great,” Sternheim said.
Not to mention Zitomer’s many other amenities – lingerie, raincoats, slippers, Mason Pearson hair brushes in every size and style, face masks with rhinestones and medicinal tonics such as imported European psoriasis remedies and every well-known product from Boiron.
And atop Zitomer Castle is Zittles — an entire floor devoted to children’s toys and supplies, meaning on the Upper East Side a wall of collegiate-colored hair ties to match a host of school uniforms.
Pharmacies like Zitomer were once a common sight in New York, but have quickly disappeared from the map. Its closest competitors like Clyde’s and Boyd’s, the latter of which is said to map out famous makeup looks on a paper chart, have both closed shop. The Upper West Side’s Apthorp Pharmacy was reduced in 2020 to a space that is approximately one-third its original size. Only CO Bigelow of Greenwich Village and the New London Pharmacy in Chelsea remain, and while equally charming, they resonate with a different audience.
In 2006, Sternheim and her late husband made the smart decision to purchase the building that Zitomer calls home as a gift for the 20th anniversary in that space. It’s what has allowed the company – which rents out the top floor to a real estate company – to remain intact.
But times have changed drastically. For Sternheim, Zitomer and his new look mark a time and place. “I wanted it to look like a historic department store with a pharmacy on the Upper East Side. When you consider what has happened in pharmacies in recent years, we have saved thousands of lives. A pharmacy has never been in that position. Now we’re a classic pharmacist – I love it.”
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