Some of the best Chicago treasures are the businesses that started here, were built from the ground up and remain to this day to tell their story and continue their legacy.
Merz Apothecary is one such treasure. Opened in 1875 by Chicago pharmacist Peter Merz and nestled within the quiet, familial neighborhood of German Town (now Lincoln Square), the goal of Merz Apothecary began was to go above and beyond the common drugstore. In addition to filling prescriptions, it served as the only place at the time place where people could receive personal, customized solutions to their specific ailments.
A wall of Ports Claus soaps
For almost 100 years the Merz family built a name for themselves as the most trusted and reliable source in providing personalized remedies to ailing people from all over the world. In 1972 when the last of the Merz successors was about to retire, he came across a young pharmacist named Abdul Qaiyum, who had heard of the legacy of Merz from his German in-laws. Qaiyum appreciated that Merz emphasized natural healing and herbal remedies, which he had learned himself in his homeland of Pakistan. Before he knew what was happening, Qaiyum purchased the apothecary from Ralph Merz and set to work expanding the business from a neighborhood gem to a national phenomenon.
The first few years were a whirlwind for Qaiyum who said of the time,"I didn't have time to think about it. I became stupid but something above guided me." The early years carried a 90% German-speaking clientele (Qaiyum admitted he had to learn German very quickly) and involved filling between 50 and 60 prescriptions a day. Soon Qaiyum began to realize that he needed to focus on wellness in order to provide a complete inventory geared toward good health. He began to stock up on more homeopathic remedies, vitamins, supplements, and other natural medicines, which attracted a new following of American clients.
In 1982, Qaiyum expanded the store to a bigger space in the same neighborhood. In 1998, he and his son and business partner Anthony began offering their wares online at their own webstore, Smallflower.com. And in 2003, the Qaiyum family opened up a small Merz Apothecary boutique on the ground floor of the then Marshall Fields. The company enjoyed their downtown outpost, although they felt that the small space within the much bigger department store limited their ability to provide the vibrant energy and personalized customer service they had been known for for decades. So earlier this year, the Merz Apothecary picked up its unique, hard to find, handpicked inventory and traveled a few blocks south to settle itself into the lobby level of the opulent Palmer House hotel. Qaiyum noted that he wanted the boutique to feel that it promoted discovery with its tightly stocked shelves, yet still maintained a clean and uncluttered aesthetic.
I had the chance to hear all these amazing stories firsthand from Qaiyum and his son and business partner Anthony, when I went to visit the newly opened boutique. Today the Merz inventory boasts 400-600 products from around 30 countries. They carry cosmetics, soap, lotion, toothcare, candles, shaving needs, vitamins, supplements, bubble bath, shower gels, incense, aromatherapy and just about anything else you can think of that would make you feel good. The lines range from European drugstore brands like Fa to luxury lines like Santa Maria Novella, which was started in 1492 by Italian monks. Other standout lines include Caswell-Massey, Claus Porto, Demeter fragrances and Number Six, which first became famous as a favorite of George Washington. The current Merz staff also comes from all over the world, collectively speaking seven languages and combining dozens of years of health and product knowledge to their clientele.
Bottomline: for anyone who has ever washed their hands, applied lip balm or taken a bath—there is something in this store that they will love. And for an all-out beauty junkie like me, this place is no less than what I envision Heaven to be. At some point over the holidays—whether you stroll by the Lincoln Square flagship or find yourself outside of the Palmer House hotel—stop in to Merz Apothecary to marvel at the largest collection of natural and luxury soaps from around the world under one roof, ask how their German bitters work, or simply wander around like a kid in this most awesome of grown-up candy stores.
Merz Apothecary – Original Lincoln Square Location
4716 North Lincoln Avenue
Chicago, IL 60625
Open 9am to 6pm Monday thru Saturday
Palmer House Hilton
17 E Monroe St
Chicago, IL 60603
Open 7 Days a Week
Shop Merz Apothecary online at Smallflower.com
Photo Source: Second City Style