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Duane Reades Are Disappearing In NYC, Leaving Unexpected Nostalgia In Their Wake

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A few months ago, when Irwin Redlener learned that his neighborhood Duane Reade on 97th Street and Columbus Avenue was closing, he found himself feeling a sense of loss that he did not expect to have for a corporate mega chain whose headquarters are located in Deerfield, Illinois. Prior to moving to New York City, Redlener, who works at Columbia University as an expert on children’s health and disaster preparedness, had lived in the burbs of Westchester for 25 years, where he was surrounded by the kind of small shops that become firmly entrenched in the community. He had been prepared to leave all that behind, but after eight years of living in the city, he noticed that ironically enough, some of the big chain stores blamed for replacing the mom-and-pops had in some ways become their equivalent.

“The same dynamic happens,” he argued. "There's a dependency that happens."

In the case of Duane Reade, which has been shrinking its footprint amid cost-cutting by its parent company Walgreens, there was a comforting physical familiarity that came with the store's brightly-lit aisles that years ago were notorious for being cramped and poorly organized.

There was also the fact, which can be missed given its avalanche of merchandise, that Duane Reade is also a pharmacy. Mary and Suzanna, the regular pharmacists at the West 97th Street location, kept Redlener's prescriptions in check, but they also offered the kind of "did you hear?" neighborhood banter that made the Duane Reade feel like part of his social circle.

While he would not say the closure put him in mourning (“I’ll save that for real mourning,” he said), he was dismayed enough to write an op-ed for the West Side Rag. The piece was headlined, “As Another Duane Reade Closes, One Local Gets Genuinely Distressed.”

One of the strange effects of the city’s ongoing retail vacancy crisis is that the unexpected closure of longstanding chains, once maligned for their overbearing presence, can now trigger feelings of inconvenience, concern, and in some cases, nostalgia.

Duane Reade has an especially long and complicated history in New York City. The store was first founded in 1960 by brothers Abraham, Eli, and Jack Cohen, on Broadway between Duane and Reade streets. In 1992, the brothers cashed out and sold to the Boston private equity firm Bain Capital, which several years later sold a majority stake to an investment bank that took the company public.

By 1999, Duane Reade was New York's largest drug retailer, with 130 locations and reported plans to add 200 more. "We're drowning in drugstores,'' Irene Prince, a resident on West 96th Street, complained to the New York Times at the time. ''This is insane!''

Jonathan Bowles, the director of Center for an Urban Future, which tracks retail chains in New York City, said the company's rapid expansion, which targeted the avenues and major crosstown streets, fueled animus among New Yorkers. "They were on so many corners," he said. "They didn’t take up one storefront. They took up the entire block, replacing three or four or five smaller businesses."

And they did so with a bland whitewashed retail space that was not particularly appealing to look at, according to Bowles. "You're looking at the windows, and you're looking at toilet paper or laundry detergent," he said. "Even with Starbucks, it's a more interesting scene."

At one point, there was both a Facebook page and blog called "I hate Duane Reade."

But as Redlener's comments as well as those on Twitter suggest, New Yorkers have over the years come around. Duane Reade has, for better or worse, managed to establish itself as a begrudgingly appreciated amenity, what an Observer writer once described as "an inevitable retail experience for New Yorkers; a place to fill a birth control prescription when drunk at 3 a.m. on the Upper West Side or buy milk on a Sunday morning in Bedford-Stuyvesant." For those who came of age in Duane Reade's golden era, it was also the place to hit up for emergency diaper and formula runs.

The stores were such a fixture that in 2010, when Duane Reade, the mega NYC chain, was swallowed up by Walgreens, the mega national chain, people were suddenly racked with anxiety about what the deal would mean and whether the stores would somehow become less New York, and even less neighborhoody. Prior to that, even a logo change prompted criticism.

According to Duane Reade's map locator on its website, there are currently 91 locations in New York City. Of that number, 76 are in Manhattan. Compare that to less than 10 years ago, when there were 253 branches in the city, according to the New York Times.

In an email, Alex Brown, a spokesperson for Walgreens, said there have been 16 closings to date this year in New York City. She said that the company was "undertaking a transformational cost management program" and was planning to close approximately 200 Walgreens stores, which includes Duane Reade, across the U.S.

Given that the closures will represent less than 3 percent of their stores overall, "we anticipate minimal disruption to customers and patients," she added.

But for New Yorkers, part of the concern comes from seeing the vacancy crisis take its toll on what many thought were unshakable corporate giants, the ones with bottom lines that could actually afford the city's skyrocketing rents. “The [Duane Reade] space is absolutely massive with three floors, I have no idea what could possibly be able to come in and afford the space,” Michelle Collins told the West Side Rag.

According to the Center for an Urban Future's most recent report, 2018 was the first time in a decade that chain stores declined in New York City. The report found that the number of chain stores in New York City dropped by 0.3 percent over the previous year. In total, a record 124 retailers—37 percent of the 331 national retail companies in the study—shrank their footprint.

The shrinking is generally attributed to the rise of Amazon and e-commerce. Stores that offer merchandise like household items, clothing and accessories—goods that can be purchased with a swipe on an app—have been shuttering, while food-related retail is on the rise. Dunkin Donuts has consistently maintained its rank as the largest national retailer in the city over the last 10 years. In 2018, it had a total of 624 stores, a net increase of 12 stores since 2017.

But the overall retreat of chains has many, including Bowles, feeling nervous.

"It’s a very real concern," he said. "The retail landscape is changing. It’s something all of us New Yorkers are going to have to wrestle with. It’s not just drug stores. It's a lot of different things. In an age of online shopping, it's not yet clear what’s going to be taking up the empty storefronts."

Still, he was surprised to learn at some of the angst expressed over Duane Reade, and suggested it may be less a reflection about New Yorkers' connection to the store than the desperate reality of the New York City's retail scene.

"I think if there were other stores taking the place of a Duane Reade, people would get over the sadness pretty quickly," he said.

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