Anyone who drives along lower Union Street knows the building. Its first floor is all windows, storefront and blue trim. The second floor is a deep maroon. The third floor’s sharp Dutch gambrel roof is too distinct to drive by without noticing.
These days, it bears the Kabul Night name in all-capital letters on its storefront. Modern Schenectadians associate the building with delicious Afghan cuisine, even though the restaurant has been closed for some time now.
But for nearly 100 years, 402 Union St. was known around town as Kerste’s Pharmacy. It was around in the days before paved streets, when Schenectady was a city of just 18,000 residents or so, when pharmacists were called druggists who made pills, suppositories, infusions and ointments themselves, and when their storefronts were filled with colorful show globes and their doors marked by the familiar mortar and pestle.
Built in 1892 by renowned druggist Henry A. Kerste, the pharmacy was a pillar of the Schenectady community — treating burns, dizziness, sleeplessness, stomach aches and headaches, and selling postcards and ice cream sodas from a soda fountain — until 1976 when the owners decided to retire and the industry had changed so considerably that its days as a mom-and-pop drugstore had been numbered anyhow.
Now, 37 years after the pharmacy closed, the city of Schenectady is recognizing its role in the community with a historical marker. In a city steeped in tradition, it makes Andrew Conti wonder why he hadn’t thought to pursue the designation sooner.
“It’s been quite some time since my grandparents have worked there,” said Conti, a New Jersey television producer. “I think Schenectady is going through a terrific revitalization right now and I just always felt, knowing the significance this place had for my family, that this building was something special. As years go by, people forget these things. So I just wanted to remind them that is one of Schenectady’s finest gems.”
His grandfather, Ercole Conti, learned the trade from the store’s great namesake. Kerste was known as a pioneer druggist and a community figure, according to Gazette archives.
He was born and raised in Schenectady, and began his career at the Ernest Steinfuhrer store on lower State Street before he even graduated from Albany College of Pharmacy in 1886. Three years later, he left to enter business for himself, buying out a pharmacy at Union and Yates streets. After another three years, he built the building that stands today and gave it his name.
Despite Kerste’s steadfast belief that a druggist had a high calling that demanded he stay true to the profession of compounding drugs, there was one instance in which he found himself weak to public pressure. It was the late 1800s, and the ice-cream soda had become exceedingly popular. Ice-cream parlors, department stores, train stations and pharmacies were installing soda fountains and Kerste didn’t want to be left behind. After all, he owned one of Schenectady’s leading drugstores.
So he bought the Arctic, a giant, hand-carved oak, marble-topped fountain complete with mirrors, shiny metal fittings and 16 soda dispensers. After about 10 years, its novelty had worn off on Kerste, so he hid it behind displays of candy, toothpaste and packaged medicines.
“Either I had to spend my time preparing sodas or luncheons or I had to devote it to the prescription department,” he told The Gazette in 1930.
Kerste was a well-known sportsman, too. During the winters of the 1880s, he competed on a sled team that rode a 12-man bobsled down the Union Street hill toward the Erie Canal (now Erie Boulevard). He was one of the first to ride a bicycle, although in the 1880s this was called cycling and his machine of choice was the high wheeler. In 1902, he was one of six people to own a car in Schenectady.
Conti ran store
In 1940, Kerste handed the reins of Kerste’s Pharmacy over to his successors — Ercole Conti and Harry Dodge. Dodge left the partnership eight years later, leaving Conti the sole owner of the pharmacy. Soon after, Conti moved his family in upstairs.
He never was wanting for help as long as he had his wife, Mary, around.
“My grandmother, she was just the beloved wife, you know, helping to run the place across the board,” said Andrew Conti.
Ercole Conti spent 50 years in the pharmacy business, through its evolution into a highly regulated industry that required detailed record keeping. He retired in 1976 at the age of 79, after witnessing the slow decline of the family-run drugstore. Prices had increased, competition from supermarkets and large discount stores was fierce, and not only were there more drugs, but those drugs had grown more potent.
“The day of the small, independent drug store is over,” Conti told The Gazette in 1976.
Over the years, 402 Union St. has faded ever so slightly in splendor, but its distinct architecture remains.
The doorstep still bears Kerste’s name spelled out in cursive navy blue stones against a white-and-peach colored stone mosaic. It is, however, faded and crumbling in spots, and has a large crack down the middle.
The Contis, who have since died, rediscovered the soda fountain nearly 30 years after it was hidden and sold it to a Vermont museum.
“That building, to me and to my family, represents so much more than just a pharmacy because every Christmas Eve, we would go upstairs and have family events and then we’d go downstairs and be in the pharmacy,” recalled Andrew Conti. “My grandfather would just show us around and hang out down there. He would tell us that he swam in the Erie Canal. He was full of stories. It was really something special.”
City officials will unveil the historical marker at the start of September. The marker will be 26 inches wide and 40 inches high, with a bit of text and three photos — one of the exterior, one of employees and one of the soda fountain.
It will read: “Kerste’s Drug Store was founded in 1889 by Henry A. Kerste, who moved his business to 402 Union St. in 1893. In 1948, Kerste was succeeded by Ercole Conti, who along with his wife Mary, ran the pharmacy until 1976. The building itself was constructed in 1893 in a Jacobean or Dutch Revival style.”