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Old World charm meets New World technology at Merz Apothecary

“Even if we sell only few it’s more important thproduct be unique” says Anthony Qaiyum. | Al Podgorski~Sun-Times

“Even if we sell only a few, it’s more important that a product be unique,” says Anthony Qaiyum. | Al Podgorski~Sun-Times

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Updated: June 7, 2011 7:05PM



When Anthony Qaiyum personally uses one of the 13,000 products (from 30 countries) for sale in Merz Apothecary, the 135-year-old Lincoln Square business he co-owns, he transforms into salesman extraordinaire.

“Most natural deodorants don’t work, but this actually works. It’s 100 percent effective and talc free — I’ve used it since July,” boasts Qaiyum, holding up Lifestinks Extra Strength Cedarwood Deodorant, a cleverly-named natural deodorant containing aluminum-free sodium bicarbonate, tea tree oil and cedarwood oil.

Qaiyum says 3,000 Life­stinks deodorants have been sold by the apothecary and its e-commerce site, smallflower.com, in the past six months.

Ironically, popularity isn’t a priority for inclusion on shelves at Merz’s two locations — since 1982 at 4716 N. Lincoln Ave. and since early November in a storefront boutique in the Palmer House Hilton in the Loop — and on its website and in its catalog.

“Even if we only sell a few, it’s more important that a product be unique and carry forward the Merz mission of providing the best and most unique products that promote personal wellness, inside and out,” Qaiyum explains.

The inventory has been expanded to include homeopathic remedies, vitamins, supplements, natural skin care, shaving equipment and products, aromatherapy candles, personal care products and a large collection of natural and luxury soaps from around the world.

The 600 brands include well-publicized products such as Ski House (Firewood) and Beach House (Ocean) Lafco Home Candles from Oprah’s Favorite Things; Himalayan Salt Inhaler, recommended by Dr. Oz; Dr. Hauschka Lip Balm, recommended by InStyle Magazine; Vetiver & Rum Shave Cream, recommended by the New York Times; Kytta Comfrey Salve, recommended by WebMd.com, and Oceane Eau de Toilette by L’Aromarine, a fragrance recommended by O, the Oprah Magazine.

Merz dates to 1875, when Chicago pharmacist Peter Merz opened the humble apothecary, focusing on herbal medicines familiar to the European immigrants from its surrounding North Side neighborhood. The apothecary first was passed on to Merz’s son, Lee, and later to Lee’s sons, Ralph, Melvin and Earl.

In 1972, after a decade of large chain drugstores eliminating small independents, Ralph Merz was ready to retire without a successor — until 26-year-old pharmacist Abdul Qaiyum (Anthony’s father) first entered the store.

Because the apothecary, with its focus on natural remedies, reminded Abdul Qaiyum of his family’s business and the healing traditions of his homeland of Pakistan, he purchased it a few days later.

Ten years later, when he moved the apothecary to its current location in Lincoln Square, a nostalgic Qaiyum hired an Austrian architect to turn the new 1,900-square-foot store into the treasure that now attracts tour buses from the Midwest.

The store is designed to replicate a turn-of-the-century European apothecary — complete with a hand-carved wood exterior, colorful leaded glass windows, parquet floor, solid oak cabinets, ornate tin ceiling and light fixtures providing a golden glow.

In 1998, the father-son team founded smallflower.com, which the younger Qaiyum points out “melds the Old World approach and vast knowledge of Merz Apothecary with New World technology.” Anthony is proud that smallflower.com generates 40 percent of the apothecary’s overall revenue.

Anthony Qaiyum admits that his own interest in natural products increased significantly when he and his wife of nine years, Rachel McClain, had their daughters, Saffron, 6, and Nola, 3.

“That’s when I first said, ‘Wait, what am I putting into and on my kids’ bodies?’ I gained an immediate new appreciation and respect for the products we offer,” says Qaiyum, an avid Bears and Cubs fan.

Sandy Thorn Clark is a local free-lance writer

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