Your friendly neighborhood drug store

Tom Sengupta in his Prospect Park drug store.

Photo by Jeremy Stratton

Tom Sengupta wears his politics on his sleeve — and his walls and windows

Taped on the door behind the pharmacy counter in Tom Sengupta’s drugstore are layers of notices you’d expect to find in a pharmacy: informational flyers explaining the newest combination drug therapies, memos from drug companies and listings of 1-800 numbers for various insurance providers. But it’s what’s in between those pharmaceutical notes — newspaper clippings about civil rights, the war in Iraq — that give customers who don’t know Sengupta an indication of his passion for people, politics and social justice.

Sengupta, with his black, horn-rimmed eyeglasses, is as much a fixture in Prospect Park’s Schneider Drug Store as the bright green walls and red lettering that directs patrons to various departments within the store. Easily identified by his receding tuft of fuzzy white hair, the pharmacist in his late 60s speaks in an unusually soft, but thoughtful, tone — a gentle voice reinforced by his confidence. To his customers, he’s just “Tom.”

Sengupta grew up in Calcutta, India and moved to the United States as a student — though his frequent use of phrases like “okey-doke” and “take care, kiddo,” is uniquely Minnesotan. Sengupta came to Minnesota from Louisiana in 1961, inspired by Hubert H. Humphrey and what Sengupta called the late senator’s “politics of inclusion” and “message of hope.” Little more than a decade later, he purchased Schneider Drug Store from its original owner, a man who also owned a U of M-campus drugstore that once employed the young Humphrey, who sometimes helped out at the University Avenue store that is now Sengupta’s.

“To think that I bought a store that Humphrey used to work at!” said an obviously delighted Sengupta.
He said he kept the Schneider name to maintain a sense of continuity and community, but he laughs that perhaps it wasn’t the best idea, given that it’s often confused with drugstore giant Snyders.

Sengupta admitted that he didn’t know anything about business when he took over the store. “I still know nothing about business,” he said. He runs his business more as a service center than a retail store — a community gathering place at which he has hosted monthly town hall meetings and other events for the past 20 years.

Gather around the stove

For those gatherings, mismatched folding chairs are placed around the store between the aisles, amongst the greeting cards and candles, near the Calamine lotion and arthritis rub, the dog treats and replica windup toys. The seating radiates from a central point near a potbellied stove, which a longtime friend brought into the store. The stove doesn’t work but helps create a sense of community — the idea of sitting around an old potbelly stove with friends and neighbors, Sengupta said.

Over the years, the topics of Sengupta’s meetings have run the gamut. Following the deaths of Paul and Sheila Wellstone in 2002 (they were personal friends of his), close to 90 people attended a memorial service at the store. Sengupta also mentioned a particularly memorable town hall meeting during which the parties involved in the controversial Highway 55 protests (and subsequent police crackdown) met face to face for the first time. The most recent meeting, on April 24, centered around the theme of young people and civic participation at the grassroots level.

As April came to a close, Sengupta had a full head of topics for the May meeting; discussion will likely include “what became law in the 60s” — civil rights, women’s rights; the environment, energy policies, energy sources and related foreign policy; health care, health research and related social issues; and the potential he sees for “a great American renaissance,” similar to the Kennedy era, with the Obama campaign. (By press time, a date and time had not been set; call the store after the first week of May for info.)

It’s no secret that Sengupta is a staunch liberal and an Obama supporter. Sengupta has no reservations about bringing his politics to work, nor is he worried about customers disagreeing with his rhetoric. “You are who you are, and everybody knows who I am,” he said. “You get a certain amount of respect for that.”

Firm in his beliefs, Sengupta said he respects anyone’s values as long as they respect his.

As The Bridge went to press, Sengupta was working on a canvas mural that will hang on the exterior wall of his store, facing west. The design includes a drawing of the Statue of Liberty, a call to vote, and messages such as “Articulate our need for a Moral Position in our World.”

“Rah for our neighbor, Tom”

On an overcast Friday morning in April, the folding chairs were once again set up in the center of the cramped store, spilling into the aisles for yet another community gathering. This time it was a lighthearted affair, celebrating “International Fundamental Theorem of Calculus Day.”

Marjory Black and Glenn Graham, two local musicians and regular performers at Schneider Drug, were accompanied by retired mathematician John Kiltinen and his wife, Pauline — former Prospect Park residents.
The concert, appropriately dubbed “Raise, raise the exponent high!” featured a collection of “math parody songs” with titles ranging from “Onward, 3-D Vectors” to “The Quadratic Formula Song” — complete with a mnemonic for remembering the algebraic formula — all with original lyrics by Kiltinen.

The performance also marked the debut of the song “A Toast to Schneider Drug Store and Tom Sengupta” — a tribute to the pharmacist and his “eclectic drugstore,” sung to the tune of the “Minnesota Rouser.”
Most performances center around a theme chosen by Sengupta. Black and Graham have included seasonal concerts, Christmas and Hanukkah sing-alongs, a “Monster Mash” Halloween performance, and, in the springtime, civil rights songs.

“They’re all my friends”

Even on days when there isn’t a sing-along or a community meeting, a visit with Sengupta can be equally engaging.

Almost every customer who walks through Schneider Drug is a regular, and Sengupta has an astonishing knack for remembering not only names, but information about family members and the goings-on in countless lives. In a given afternoon, Sengupta might be found offering a deeply discounted price on a prescription to a customer without insurance, or chatting with a young regular about the latest movie he’s seen. He might have an extensive discussion about the failure of the healthcare system or a conversation with an older couple about an upcoming vacation.

In 37 years of owning Schneider Drug, Sengupta has encountered people from all walks of life, from those just struggling to live from one day to the next to people that “with a touch of luck,” he said, could one day become president.

“And they’re all my friends,” said Sengupta. “I’m enriched by everybody that comes through the door. … You achieve a certain amount of satisfaction from being a constant in people’s lives.”

Sengupta’s motto: “The friendly neighborhood drugstore is not a thing of the past.” And, perhaps, with that philosophy, the soft-spoken store owner, who claims to know little about running a business, has found a successful business model after all.

last revised: September 16, 2008