When his brother urged him to stop selling cigarettes at the family drugstore back in 1970, Fritz Lange had to agree the idea made sense. Fritz’s son, Dan, however, remembers there was one big obstacle to implementing the new policy.
“He wasn’t going to do it until he stopped smoking himself,” said Dan Lange, who along with his wife, Angel, and his brother Dave, now own and operate Lange’s Pharmacy at 2205 Nott St. in Niskayuna. “My uncle was the head of nuclear medicine at Ellis Hospital, and he convinced my father to stop selling cigarettes. But he had to convince him to stop smoking himself first.”
Lange’s is celebrating 50 years at its Nott Street location. One of just two independent drugstores in Schenectady County (Aumiller’s is the other), the business got its start when Otto Lange, Dan’s grandfather, joined forces with Abe Rapp in 1936 to open Lange & Rapp Pharmacy at the northwest corner of State Street and Nott Terrace in downtown Schenectady.
The cigarette story — Lange’s claims to be the first drug store in the country to stop selling cigarettes — is just one of many things that make the place special. Fritz Lange, who is now retired and spends most of his time in Florida, also decided that his store would deal strictly with prescription medicines. Lange made that decision when he moved from his original Niskayuna location two doors down but still in the same strip mall at 2207 Nott St.
“When my father first moved here, he was selling magazines, cosmetics, cards, toys, things like that, but at some point he made the decision he wasn’t going to compete with the front-end stuff you have in chain stores,” said Dan Lange. “So, we just started doing prescriptions. We might have a tube of toothpaste out front and maybe some soap or Johnson’s baby shampoo for people with an eye infection. But for the most part, we’re about prescriptions.”
As a result, people who pop into Lange’s usually know what they’re looking for. They also know who’s behind the counter.
“People who haven’t been here before usually open the door, look in, and say, ‘Are you a regular pharmacy?’” said Lange. “I say, ‘Yep, we are.’ But most of the people know who’s going to be behind the counter, and we know them. We know our customers, we offer personal service and we deliver. You’re not going to get that at the chains.”
Lange’s is at the west end of the strip mall where Clifton Park Road comes into Nott Street. In that same area, where Nott Street ends at Balltown Road, is the Niskayuna Co-op and a number of other stores, including the Niskayuna Barber Shop and David’s Beauty Salon, which actually share the final brick building with Lange’s.
Lange’s isn’t very big. There’s only about 8 feet from the front door to the counter where it’s more than likely they’ll be a person named Lange waiting to welcome customers. That personal touch keeps the public coming in, as does Lange’s ability to provide compound prescriptions on site.
“You don’t see most of the big chains doing compound prescriptions,” said David Lange. “It takes too much time, but here we actually use our craft. Compounds are just a small part of our business, but we offer it and that helps. We get a lot of pet lovers because much of the compound work is medicine for animals.”
The family has been in the pharmacy business since Otto began working at Walker’s Pharmacy on State Street in Schenectady in the early 1920s, having graduated from Albany College of Pharmacy in 1919 at the age of 19. While one of Otto’s sons, Richard, became a physician and eventually had a wing named after him at Ellis Hospital, Fritz and Gilbert, who opened a drugstore in Lake George, followed their father into the pharmacy business. In 1960, after running the business in downtown Schenectady for 24 years, Fritz opened a satellite store at the Niskayuna location, which was already housing a pharmacy named Mahoney’s. The name change to Lange’s didn’t happen until 1963 when Fritz became sole owner of the store.
While two of Fritz’s sons (Dave and Dan) and a daughter (Betsy) also became pharmacists, following their father into the business wasn’t always a done deal. Dan, a Notre Dame-Bishop Gibbons grad, went into the U.S. Navy for six years before heading to Albany College of Pharmacy and graduating in 1991.
“When I got out of the Navy, I really didn’t have any plans, but both my brother and my sister were going to ACP,” said Dan Lange, “and they both said, ‘Why don’t you come here?’ I think Dave was the only one that actually planned on going all along.”
Well, not quite.
“None of us were planning on following him,” said Dave Lange, a Linton High alum who graduated from ACP in 1989. “But when I was a senior at Linton I was good at math and science, so I thought, ‘Why not a pharmacist?’ Then my sister was working here as a clerk and we told her, ‘You can do this. Go to ACP,’ and she did and she became a pharmacist, too.”
Betsy is now married and working in Rochester, while her brothers continue to share the responsibility of running the family store, along with Dan’s wife, Angel, and three other employees who serve as clerks and assistants.
“Being an independent is not really something you could start out doing today,” said Dan Lange. “People ask me why we don’t get a bigger place, but it’s not realistic. I equate it to being a fisherman. If you wanted to be a commercial fisherman, you’d have to buy a commercial fishing boat, pay your crew, and then hopefully you might have enough money to live on. Nobody is going to try that these days. Here, my brother and I already have our boat. The building is paid for, and that’s why we’re still here.”
Retired Niskayuna High principal Frank Taormina moved from Balltown Road to downtown Schenectady years ago, but he hasn’t stopped going to Lange’s.
“I prefer going to the small stores better than the big ones, and the two brothers there seem like very nice guys,” said Taormina. “I actually thought to myself the other day, ‘Hey, I’m downtown, I should find a closer place,’ but I always end up driving out there. You walk in and there’s a personal quality to your visit. ‘Hello, how are you?’ Some real human exchange takes place.”
When the Schenectady County Medical Society began pressuring pharmacies to stop selling cigarettes in 1996, Fritz Lange was already way ahead of the game, having stopped 26 years earlier. But while most of the chain stores, such as CVS and Rite Aid, haven’t heeded that suggestion, Lange’s is sticking to its guns.
Fritz told The Gazette in 1996, “You are filling cough syrup [prescriptions] and selling cigarettes? They just don’t mix.”
Of course, by then he was a fervent ex-smoker.
“My father would sit there and smoke and say, ‘You know, these are bad for you,’” remembered Dan Lange. “But my uncle told him, ‘What are you going to stand for?’ My father knew he made sense, and once he quit smoking it wasn’t that tough a decision to make to stop selling them. He knew it was the right thing to do.”