Local media freaks out over fancy Walgreens; jaded New Yorkers have seen it all before

January 12, 2012

There is a new Walgreens downtown, and your local Chicago media has got it covered! There are tons of photos of its beautiful shiny surfaces, if you can't drop in to the State and Randolph location yourself during a lunch break for some fancy sushi or fro-yo.

But as WBEZ reported this week, while this upgrade might be new to Chicago, it certainly isn't a novel concept. Shortly after buying the New York chain of drugstores Duane Reade in 2010 for $1.1 billion, Walgreens Co. began revamping their stores there, installing much touted (and equally mocked) stores that featured things like "Freezee" stations, which definitely aren't your usual drugstore fare. (At least not anymore. There was a time, oh so long ago, when the drugstore was more than just a place to pick up Preparation H. They were known as soda shop(pe)s, and Norman Rockwell knew them well.)

In New York, the Williamsburg location of Duane Reade became so Williamsburg as to sell growlers at their specialty beer bar, called Brew York City. "The Williamsburg beer bar is part of a larger effort by Duane Reade to recognize — and capitalize — on the fierce identity and local needs of many New York City neighborhoods," the New York Times reported last year.

The Wall Street Duane Reade features neighborhood specific details one might see now as  foreshadowing the kind of extravagance later attacked by the Occupy Wall Street movement: A salon, for instance, perhaps placed so as to cater to wealthy clientele working in the neighborhood. Their pay may have been cut by the recession, but they still need to keep up appearances.

Most of the reporting on the new downtown Chicago location reveals that the store features nothing particularly specific to that neighborhood, save for the classier environment of the the Loop. (If not with State Street's mixed history as a tourist destination, at least with Michigan Avenue's.) It has a juice bar. A sushi chef. Manicure stations. And wine tastings! "This is going to sound very weird, but hear us out: The Walgreens at State and Randolph would be a good place for a cheap and kind of weird girls’ night out," writes Marah Eakin for The A.V. Club

But New York's Duane Reades set themselves apart with impressive hipster growler bars and fancy salons. What can these hyper-local Chicago Walgreens do to keep up? Perhaps we should throw in some offensive neighborhood stereotypes here, just to prepare ourselves for the inevitable: a Boystown location that turns into an afterhours Britney Spears music-only club? A store in Pilsen that always stocks avocados and salsa? Burly gentlemen in plaid handing out free pingpong balls and red Solo cups at the door to a Lincoln Park drugstore? Afterall, that's what companies like Walmart have attempted to do in less-than-accepting neighborhoods, and they're doing just fine. We should probably also get ready for jokes about "a Walgreens on every corner" that have become ubiquitous to our friends in the east, where Duane Reade has squeezed stores into many odd spaces.

Of course, some Walgreens already have their neighborhood flavor. As long as the company doesn't get rid of the impressive collection of Barack Obama memorabilia (including the always classic BaRock's -- rocks with President Obama's face on them) at the Hyde Park Walgreen's at 55th Street and Lake Park, Chicago will be doing just fine.