Richard Piercy, closing the pharmacy after 28 years. Bellow: Corner site in Soho
Published: 8 January, 2016
by ALINA POLIANSKAYA
AFTER helping Soho stay healthy for more than 60 years, a popular pharmacy can no longer survive.
A tombstone-shaped closing down sale sign stands on the corner of Broadwick Street mourning: “Zest Pharmacy, 1950-2016, RIP.”
Branded by some as the “coolest pharmacy around” the Soho staple which served the community for six decades is as well known for its quirky gifts as for its pharmaceuticals.
The store was taken over by current owner Richard Piercy 28 years ago and rebranded as Zest – shifting the focus to promoting good health.
For him, it has always been about the people.
Initially working at the pharmacy for just a day in 1988, as a locum, he quickly became manager and took over from the owner in 1990.
The 53-year-old recalled the “bohemian,” “creative” neighbourhood that Soho used to be when he began, with a “thriving” fruit, veg and fresh produce market stretching all the way down Berwick Street.
A sign of the times
“There were traders shouting out the deals of the day, five apples for a pound or whatever it was,” he said. “What wasn’t here was all the chains and multiples, that was probably the biggest difference. It was much more of a neighbourhood.”
Lunch back then was likely to be a “cheese and onion sandwich” from the café run by “two jolly Italian women”.
“Pret didn’t exist here back then,” he added.
It was an “independent area” full of butchers, fishmongers, sandwich bars, fabric shops, violin-makers and record stores.
“It had a lot more edge to it” he said. Now, to his dismay, it has become “gentrified”.
He frowned upon the idea of Berwick Street being known as “Soho’s High Street”.
But rather than “ranting” about the rent, rates and redevelopment that have led to their departure, Mr Piercy said it was “the system” that was to blame. “I think the real guilty parties are Westminster Council and the government who refuse to reform the way rent reviews are negotiated.”
“Rents are only going to go one way and the government are happy to stand by and see this happen because they know if the rents go up, eventually, they will be able to get more tax.”
Mr Piercy said customers, were “gutted” to lose the pharmacy, but he was equally sad to be leaving them.
“It is all about the people, ultimately it is the people who make the area. There are a lot of characters and everyone has got a story.”
From the man who came in every day to tell them a joke, to the lady who brings round a West End Extra every week, he felt it was the people who made Soho what it was.
After the shop closes on January 31 Mr Piercy plans to continue his “lifelong passion” of photography, and revive a project he started 30 years ago, photographing the people of Soho.
He encouraged those who care about the changes in the area, to do something about it.
“Lobby your MP or your local councillor and say, ‘This has got to stop.’”
Westminster Council, who do not own the property, said they have “no control” over rent reviews.
THE producer of Gangs of New York, Colin Vaines, has blasted the disappearance of independent stores such as Zest Pharmacy, branding it the “blandisation” of Soho.
As a member of the Save Soho campaign group, he writes regularly on social media about changes to the area, but he said he has “never had a reaction” like when he posted that Zest was closing.
The Soho-based film-maker, who is also known for The Rum Diary and Coriolanus, said: “I think it is because it is very emblematic. People find it hard to get their heads around it when you talk about the gentrification of Soho.
“They know it is happening, they see the construction, but they can’t personify it. Zest has been there for over 65 years and Richard for 28.
“People know him and the place. It has a social and community impact. I almost feel this is a tipping point on focusing people’s attention on what is going on.”
When certain stores move into an area, he said, they are willing to pay huge rents and this drives up the prices for others, often forcing them out. He branded the changes the “blandisation” of Soho.
“It is losing all its individuality and is becoming like any town anywhere. That is what we object to.
“If you have a pharmacy that has been there for years, where they know you and you know them, that is a huge loss to the community. Someone like Richard who has been there for 28 years knows his customers, he knows what’s needed and what’s not. It’s not like going into Boots and having a faceless person there. It is not the same thing.”
Unique stores were being replaced by chains, “plastic hamburger places” and “fancy-shmancy restaurants that people on expense accounts go to”, he added.
Quoting the Save Soho campaign message, he said that the area should be “inclusive not exclusive”. He also applauded those who opened businesses that were both affordable and in keeping with the area’s vibe.
“If you try to take away the qualities that make Soho Soho it is no longer the area people think they are moving into,” he said.