Past Tense: Colonial Drug

Joseph P. Botinari went to work the day that he died.
By Samuel C. Pottash

Joseph P. Botinari went to work the day that he died.

He arrived early that Thursday morning, just as he had for the 45 years since he opened Colonial Drug, the drugstore and fine fragrance shop on Brattle Street. After a full day of work, he returned home and suffered a heart attack. His children, who had been working in the store with him for decades, had no second thoughts about what to do the next day. They went in and opened the shop.

“He would have wanted it,” says his son, J.P. Botinari, who is now one of the shop’s owners. “You come to work. That’s what it is. It’s the old drugstore mentality. Back in the day, if you were sick, the doctor called in a prescription. and you delivered it to the patient’s house. Didn’t matter whether it was raining out. Didn’t matter whether there was two feet of snow, like recently. You delivered to the house.”

Kathy G. Botinari, J.P.’s sister and co-owner, remembers the gloom in the shop in the days after her father’s death.

“Suddenly you’re in the store. He’s not here. But his handwriting is everywhere. His way of doing things is everywhere. His customers are coming in asking for him.” One man, upon hearing the news of Botinari’s death, went into the store’s old-fashioned phone booth and cried for two hours. Joe, as he was known, had become a staple of the neighborhood. Back then, before a CVS or Duane Reade had opened on every corner, everyone knew their pharmacist.

“You have to understand. Everybody who was sick went to the drug store. There was no other option,” J.P. says. “They all came to you. They trusted you.”

Joe used to let people take medicine on credit. He claimed he couldn’t sleep at night knowing someone did not have the medication they needed because they couldn’t pay.

“If you’re sick you’re out of work, you can’t be paid,” J.P. says, remembering his dad’s logic. “You take it to get well and you pay me when you can pay it.”

And the dedication Joe showed to his customers was repaid. When one customer’s daughter turned 21, he remembered the generosity Joe had shown his pregnant wife more than two decades before. He sent a letter with a gift card to a local restaurant, requesting that Joe use it to go out to dinner.

In the ’60s, a riotous protest of the Vietnam War erupted in the Square. Demonstrators broke windows and lit trash cans on fire, but Colonial Drug sustained no damage. Reports came the next day that there were voices in the crowd shouting,“Leave Colonial Drug alone.”

“He started Colonial Drug in 1947, which was a total different time,” J.P. says. “Pharmacists mixed medication by hand, putting them in capsules. It wasn’t like, ‘open a bottle and count out pills.’ You concocted different cough medicines or skin creams. They were all mixed in the back.”

J.P. and Kathy honor past practices in other ways, primarily with their emphasis on personalized customer service tailored to meet each person who walks in the door. “You respect everyone that walks through the door,” J.P. says. “Doesn’t matter if they’re gonna respect you back. Doesn’t have anything to do with how their hair is styled, what they’re wearing. Everybody gets treated with respect.”

Sixty-five years later, passing the shop on the street feels like a time warp. A vintage striped awning, red, white, and blue barber shop pole, and cursive neon sign almost transport you instantly. Just storefronts away, the facades of American Apparel and City Sports feel like a different world.

Kathy recalls instances during past Harvard football seasons when she had to call in extra staff because of the influx of business. But the advent of modern drugstores has changed the flow of customers.

“I think a whole generation has grown up now that doesn’t even know what that is—what personalized shopping is,” Kathy says. “It’s a whole different way of shopping and living. It’s a whole different lifestyle.”

Additionally, the store has felt the reverberations of the recent recession as well as the shift to online shopping. Most begrudgingly, J.P. and Kathy have had to deal with “showrooming,” a phenomenon in which customers use J. P. and Kathy’s service and knowledge of the products and then buy the goods online.

“Someone came in the other day and looked up and said, ‘Oh, it’s two dollars cheaper on Amazon,’” Kathy says. “Well,’ve taken up our time. We’ve shown you the fragrance, it’s our testers, our time, our expertise, our assistance. And we see you with your electrical devices looking it up and talking to your friends, and talking like we’re not even here. You can spend your money everywhere, that’s everyone’s prerogative. How much more can I do?”

Although this changing culture makes business hard, Kathy and J.P. hope to keep the business alive in the near future. “The best thing is to support little businesses, because they’re the future,” Kathy says, wistfully. “Hopefully, they’re the future.”

The SquareSquare BusinessRetrospection