Anthony Qaiyum is the President of Merz Apothecary in Chicago, Illinois and Smallflower.com. After graduating from Williams College with a degree in Religious Studies, he started his career on the East Coast working in a web startup and then in publishing. In 1998 he partnered with his father, Abdul Qaiyum, and together they launched Smallflower.com, the online presence of Merz Apothecary, their 146-year-old brick and mortar family business. Anthony lives in Chicago with his wife, two teenage daughters, and their beloved dog named Dexter, just a short walk from the Apothecary. When he is not scouting products or researching health and nutrition, he loves reading, scuba diving, crossword puzzles and jazz music.
What is the history of Merz Apothecary?
It’s kind of magical. It all started in 1972, right before I was born. My parents were newly married and my mom was pregnant with me. My father Abdul had been born in India and raised in Pakistan. He came to the United States alone at the age of 18 to go to pharmacy school at University of Illinois in Chicago. At first he worked in a hospital, then a chain drugstore, but he didn’t like it very much. My father was very entrepreneurial, so a friend of the family, Mrs. Kip suggested that he look into this old German pharmacy that was going to close down. My father had already decided he had no interest in getting involved with a pharmacy, but he walked in to check it out, and within 20 minutes he verbally agreed to buy the business.
The previous owner, Mr. Merz was planning to retire and close the pharmacy down within the next couple of weeks. He told my father, “If you want to buy it, I have to be honest - you’re not German, you don’t speak German, you definitely don’t look German. I think you can expect to do about 80% of what I do.” For my father Abdul, this would be much less than he was making as a pharmacist, but he felt drawn to this place of herbs and old school bottles and jars, all the original pharmacy materials. He bought it in 1972 and became the fourth generation owner of Merz Apothecary, and the first family outside of the Merz Family to own it.
My dad brought Merz to a new location and built it out like an old school apothecary from the late 1800s in Vienna, Austria. I grew up around this amazing place and was lucky enough to enter into the business with my father at a time when ecommerce was starting out. I kept telling my dad, “Someone should make an ecommerce version of your store,” and he said, “you should do it.” At some point, the stars aligned. I called him up one day when I was working in publishing in New York and I asked, “Were you serious? Do you want to do this together?” And that was the beginning of our journey together 22 years ago. I am now the fifth generation owner, thanks to my father!
You bring in a lot of products from Europe, and people wait for the containers to arrive. Can you talk about how your business supports your neighborhood and the European community there?
Our business was founded by Peter Merz, a Swiss- German immigrant in Chicago. Chicago kind of has a European feel. Even though it’s a big city, it feels like a series of small towns and neighborhoods that all have their own flavor and are made up of different communities of people from all over the world.
Lincoln Square, the neighborhood where Merz is located, is a magical neighborhood. It feels kind of like a little European village with immigrants from all over. We are very proud that we speak 14 languages on our staff, but I would say the strongest connection is to German products and other European communities that know German, French and Italian products well.
We offer products from around the world, but our core products started out with German, French and Italian products. We import a lot of items that aren't widely available in the United States. We're also very proud to carry brands that are made in the US, Canada, and other places too. We have a core group of brands and a lot of people follow our business and buy from us because they know we're tracking down these items and that they can't get them anywhere else.
Your staff speaks 14 languages? Tell us more about that!
Among our staff of about 30 people, it fluctuates between 12-14 languages depending on who is working. Our staff speaks German obviously, Bulgarian, Russian, Polish, Serbian, Croatian, Hindi, Urdu, Japanese, Spanish, Greek, Romanian..., those are the ones off the top of my head.
One of the great parts about working here is that we get to meet all these interesting people from all over the world, both staff and customers, and we speak to them, if they want, in their own language. I would say this is part of our magic formula. We are lucky that we tend to get staff who really want to be here and love interacting with people. Anyone can go to our website and anyone can look at what we carry, that's not a secret, but finding the right people and having a team that really tries to serve our customers and each other is the hard work and the good work.
Can you tell us a little bit about how you got connected with evanhealy?
The realization in a major way that plants have power is a newer consciousness to society. I grew up around this and it's one of the reasons my dad was so attracted to the Apothecary. I think this understanding is something that kind of led us to meeting Evan and David and working with evanhealy, because we were attracted to brands that had that mindset, even before it was necessarily cool. That’s one of the reasons we love evanhealy, the deep connection to nature and the power of plants.
In 2003 we opened up our first store outside of the flagship store. Target Corporation owned Marshall Field’s, which is no longer in existence sadly, but was a classic Chicago-based department store. Their flagship store was on State Street and that building is still one of my favorite places on earth. They wanted to redo Marshall Field’s and asked us to come in as a local retailer to bring something new to the department store format. We're no longer in that location now, we moved elsewhere downtown when it became Macy's. But at the time, we opened up this gorgeous space - marble floors, huge chandelier fixtures from the 1800s that were designed by Daniel Burnham, a designer of Chicago. I was kind of a young guy trying to make a new store and had never done anything like that before. I was looking for very special brands that would expand what we do beyond European products and the brands we already had. I kept asking people for recommendations on their favorite natural skin care lines.
Four people in my network told me, “There's this really cool line called evanhealy.”
I tracked it down and talked to Evan and David, and we decided to work together. Shortly after they came out and visited us around the time of the grand opening. It was a small little section, but I loved it. I loved the bottles and the design. I loved the philosophy behind it, the ingredients, and it quickly became a favorite of our whole team.
Here we are 17 years later and evanhealy is a key brand for us and one of a handful of brands we consider our most important.
Merz and SmallFlower carry so many incredible products, can you tell us more about the philosophy in the field of wellness?
Yes, over 14,000 products, it's a lot! Sometimes a headache, but overall awesome. It’s what we do and it’s what makes up the DNA of our business. evanhealy has that too - you have to find your strength and what makes you unique as a business and then run with it.
I'm really into the idea of how to craft a business. Originally I was doing things like building the website or opening up a store to figure it out, but a lot of the joy for me now comes from asking questions like, “How can we do business better? How can we create a place where people who are aligned with our vision want to be here and want to join us?”
Even in these tough times, being a small business in this day in age is magical. We don't sell widgets, we sell products we love that help improve your life. We want to help provide a solution. We are real people who have families and friends and loved ones, and we care about doing it for ourselves and others. This is my passion, this is what I want to do. I love health and beauty and personal care products, they mean a lot to me. They're what I like to use for myself and they're what I like to help people with.
Our goal was to be the bridge between the pharmacy, and also fill that out with amazing skin care, beauty, fragrance and all the other products we love that we feel are part of living well, and enjoying a good and healthy life.
What would you say are your favorite evanhealy products?
My top three would be Whipped Shea Butter for Lips - I love it. Secondly, I'm very sensitive to almost everything so the Light Replenishing Moisture Fluid is the perfect moisturizer for me. I also tend to get a little oily if I use things that are too heavy, so it makes me feel moisturized and I don't get redness or sensitivity, which I do with almost everything. And the third product is all the HydroSouls.
Renee, one of our past employees at the downtown store, used to keep HydroSouls in the refrigerator and when I came by she would say, ”Hey Anthony, close your eyes!” and she would spray my face with a cold HydroSoul on a summer day. I still remember that - it's like that was her spreading joy to people. I also love the Blue Cactus Facial Serum and Beauty Balm. Those two are my wife’s absolute favorite. Her skin looks amazing just because of those two products.
Where can customers find Merz and SmallFlower?
You can follow Merz Apothecary online, but our physical stores are in Chicago. Come on in!
Our Locations are:
Merz Apothecary - 4716 North Lincoln Avenue, Chicago, IL 60625
The Shops at Merz - 4718 North Lincoln Avenue, Chicago, IL 60625
Our online presence is under Smallflower, which you can find on smallflower.com. We chose the name because it was just easier to spell when we're launching in the 90s. That's our catalog and ecommerce brand, so please follow us there.
We also have an 800 number where you can talk with pharmacists and other experts from our staff. So if you have questions or if you want to talk about lifestyle and health, call us during our open hours, and we're happy to reach out to you. 1-800-252-0275 (Open 10AM - 6PM CST, Monday through Saturday)
You can also drop us an email, and we'll get back to you if it's outside of that time.
My brother and I also host Tea Time at the Apothecary. Right now we're having it online every Wednesday and Friday, at noon. You can go to Smallflower on Facebook and see it there.
To hear the full conversation with Anthony Qaiyum of Merz Apothecary, click the link below.