Did you know that when you place an order from Smallflower.com, you’re actually ordering from a local, family-run Apothecary? Read on for the history of Merz Apothecary, a Chicago wellness destination since 1875.
In 1875, Chicago pharmacist Peter Merz opened a small drugstore on the city’s North Side. Being of Swiss descent, Merz decided to call the store an “Apothecary” in the European tradition. Even from the beginning, Merz Apothecary set itself apart.
At that time, your neighborhood drugstore was not only a place to fill prescriptions, but a source of information and remedies for common ailments. Pharmacists were consulted like family doctors and they would hand mix formulas for each specific customer. However, Merz Apothecary differed from the typical American drugstore because the clientele were mostly European immigrants. Like European apothecaries, Merz focused heavily on herbal medicines and traditional formulas, which were already popular with its international customers.
Although Merz Apothecary was a humble store, it served as a gathering place for the community. Comfortable leather chairs allowed patrons to sit and chat as they waited for their remedies to be prepared. Merz and his pharmacists spoke many languages, allowing customers to shop and seek advice in their native tongues. The store’s reputation steadily spread, and the business continued to grow over the next 85 years. Heralded by several generations of the Merz family, the store retained its international focus and developed a devoted following among Europeans throughout the Midwest.
In the early 1960s, competition from large chain drugstores began driving independent pharmacies out of business. But Merz Apothecary’s loyal customer base and traditional herbal approach to health allowed it to thrive during this difficult period. Customers continued to seek out the advice of Merz’s experienced pharmacists and request their hand-mixed formulas.
Despite the success of the business, in 1972 Ralph Merz was ready to retire without a successor, and the store was about to close permanently. One month before the scheduled closing, a 26-year-old Indian-born pharmacist named Abdul Qaiyum walked into Merz Apothecary after hearing about it from his German in-laws. He immediately fell in love with the store. With its focus on natural remedies, Merz reminded him of his family’s business and the healing traditions in his homeland. He purchased it a few days later.
Over the next few years, independent pharmacies continued to vanish, yet Merz expanded dramatically, due in part to a booming mail order business. In 1982, Abdul moved Merz to our current, larger location, only a few miles from the original store. Our new store was custom-built to replicate a turn-of-the-century European apothecary, complete with a hand-carved wooden exterior, leaded glass windows, tin ceilings, and solid oak cabinets. The original antique pharmacy jars and herb containers now had a fitting home.
The shift in our location was matched by an important shift in our wellness approach. With the move, Abdul expanded the store’s inventory to include homeopathic medicines, supplements, and natural self-care products. Abdul nurtured a larger vision of health and wellness: to feel good mentally, physically, and emotionally. To meet those needs, we began offering natural personal care products from around the world. Promoting external and internal health, along with physical and emotional well-being was unheard of at the time. Our popularity grew enormously among Americans and international customers alike.
Recognizing the opportunity to offer an expanded vision of health and personal care, Abdul and his son, Anthony, founded Smallflower.com in 1998. So many customers had trouble spelling “Apothecary” that the Qaiyums chose the name Smallflower (one of our best-selling herbs) for our website. We also began selling on Amazon in 2004, before most people had even heard of it!
As one of the first e-commerce sites and one of the first sellers on Amazon, we knew early that we had to stand out from the competition. Our goal was, and still is, to blend our Old World traditions with new technology, without losing the vision and character that make Merz Apothecary special. We’re quite proud of the path we’ve taken so far! When customers shop with us online, they can be confident they’re dealing with a staff that has intimate knowledge of the products and superior customer service skills.
E-commerce is a vital component of our business, and an area that has experienced rapid growth in the last few years. We created a marketing department and customer service team to ensure that Smallfower continues to thrive. And rather than view Amazon as competition, we have partnered with them to grow our business. We sell directly to customers and ship items to Amazon to sell. To keep up with demand, we have a dedicated FBA team and warehouse space.
Our devoted customer base has grown not only online, but also at our brick-and-mortar store. In 2003, the Qaiyums decided to open Merz Downtown to serve customers in Chicago’s Loop. Located in the historic Palmer House Hotel, our downtown location is frequented by working professionals, loop locals, and tourists from around the world.
Although the packed shelves are part of our original location’s charm, we reached a point where we were practically bursting at the seams! In 2014, we opened Q Brothers, a boutique space adjacent to our Lincoln Square store. Our new space allowed us to bring in an outstanding selection of men’s shaving and grooming products. In 2018, we reimagined that space to create The Shops at Merz. This allowed us to expand our fine skin care lines and men’s grooming options, offer a comprehensive assortment of natural cosmetics, and also made room to create a fragrance counter with a carefully curated collection of hard-to-find, niche fragrances.
The Shops at Merz is a beautifully designed boutique space, but unlike some specialty stores, we work hard to maintain a comfortable and friendly atmosphere! We want to make sure the essence of Merz—the care, knowledge, and approachability—is imbued in everything we do.
These days, Merz Apothecary is a Chicago landmark (tour buses from around the Midwest make regular stops here) and a mecca for people who want unique and natural products. We send packages to customers around the world, and are often featured in blogs, books, and magazines.
Even as we have increased in size, we have worked hard to continue being a true family-run, neighborhood business. Abdul scouts out fantastic new products to fill the shelves year-round, and assists at the pharmacy counter during the holidays. Anthony stays busy ensuring all aspects of the business are running smoothly, but can still be spotted helping customers in the store.
All that we do is possible only through the help of an amazing team dedicated to carrying on the traditions Merz started back in 1875. The location and people have changed over the years, but Merz’s goal has remained the same: to support every customer’s well-being through truly superior service.