Photo by Michael O'Brien
This November will mark the one-year anniversary of the opening of a two-story, anything-you-could-need-and-more Duane Reade drugstore on Bedford Avenue, Williamsburg. The national chain opened its first franchise in the area to quite a bit of controversy, when locals protested against the location of the store – directly across the street from Kings Pharmacy, which has served the neighborhood for over eight years.
The neighborhood has struggled against gentrification for a good part of the new century, as local establishments have had to bow out due to rising rents and companies ranging from Whole Foods to Starbucks have been eyeing locations in the area. For years West Williamsburg, a small sliver of land nestled between the East River and the Brooklyn-Queens expressway, has been the place to migrate to for young adults looking to escape Manhattan’s ever-increasing rents. But now, some say, it’s time to escape Williamsburg. “The rents are doubling and places like [Duane Reade] are forcing the locals out. Williamsburg is losing its old charm quickly,” resident James Wilburn, 26, says.
As for King’s Pharmacy, the fight is far from over. Although the storeowner could not be reached for comment, a sign posted on the entrance of the store speaks for itself. “Help us […] fight the corporate bully. We look forward to serving you in the years to come. Let’s keep Williamsburg independent!” reads the note, which has been on the door ever since Duane Reade opened across the street. However optimistic they may appear to be, the beloved local could be in trouble. Across the street, Duane Reade boasts cheaper prices, more products and a not-so-secret weapon – a beer bar. Customers can fill glass bottles from taps, with nine different beers to try. These advantages, in addition to the fact that Duane Reade is open 24/7 and Kings closes at the relatively early hour of 9PM, may ultimately lead to the latter’s demise.
When Duane Reade opened, locals distributed fliers and opened a Facebook group boycotting the store. Although the online group has not been updated since last November and the complaints were never taken to a higher level – the community board, for example – some shoppers still are still willing to battle. “I refuse to shop at Duane Reade,” said Fiona Pho, 31, walking out of Kings with plastic bags in both hands. “I don’t really care about big stores in general, but I want to keep Williamsburg local. I shop at Duane Reade and Walgreens in Manhattan sometimes if I need to, so it’s not like I boycott them all,” she said. Other local establishments in the neighborhood – The Bagel Store right down the block, for example – have struggled to pay the increasing rents and it’s rumored that Starbucks is looking at possible open spaces along Bedford Avenue. With a 1.42 billion dollar operating income, the coffee giant should have no problem paying the rent, but could cost the neighborhood an essential part – its residents.