Retiring pharmacist made drugstore a community hub

Tom Sengupta
Tom Sengupta, who has owned Schneider Drug for the past 43 years, fills prescriptions Thursday, Jan. 15, 2015.
Jennifer Simonson / MPR News

Minneapolis drugstore owner Tom Sengupta tries to practice what he preaches. That's why he has spent his working life dispensing medications — and neighborliness.

For more than four decades, the Schneider Drug store he owns on University Avenue in the Prospect Park neighborhood of Minneapolis has been a gathering place. In the evenings it has hosted local musicians and meetings or salons where participants discussed the issues of the day.

"In business or in politics your number one job is to create community," Sengupta said.

But all that has ended.

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Sengupta, 75, is retiring at the end of the month. He learned he has colon and esophageal cancer and doctors told him he needed rest. In honor of his contributions to the community, the Minneapolis City Council declared today Tom Sengupta Day.

Schneider Drug
Schneider Drug at 3400 University Ave. SE Thursday, Jan. 15, 2015 in the Prospect Park neighborhood in Minneapolis.
Jennifer Simonson / MPR News

Born and raised in Kolkata (Calcutta) India, Sengupta came from a family of lawyers and engineers who were respected but not especially wealthy.

He remembers visits with his grandmother to Kolkata's slums and credits her with giving him a social conscience, "telling me, 'look at that, you know, how privileged you are,' and she was quite active in the Indian independence movement too."

Sengupta came to the United States as a young man in 1958 to earn a pharmacy degree. While finishing his pharmacy studies at Loyola in New Orleans, he heard about Hubert Humphrey.

"His politics of inclusion and his hope, that's what attracted me tremendously," Sengupta said. "That's why I came to Minnesota to do graduate work."

Sengupta bought Schneider Drug from its owner, Earl Schneider, and started his business in 1972. Among others, he admired wealthy Twin Cities business owners of the time who gave back to the community.

Schneider Drug store
Tom Sengupta has held many community gatherings at his drugstore over the years Thursday, Jan. 15, 2015 at Schneider Drug in Minneapolis.
Jennifer Simonson / MPR News

The store is a trip back in time, with wood cabinets and drawers that cover the back wall. Shelves hold over-the-counter elixirs, medical devices and cosmetics.

But like old-time drugstores, it also has a toy section, and a case filled with decorative boxes of fancy chocolates of the kind someone might buy a grandmother for her birthday.

Toys for sale at Schneider Drug Thursday, Jan. 15, 2015 in Minneapolis.
Jennifer Simonson / MPR News

Racks hold magazines ranging from Minnesota Bride and Country Living to Harpers and Scientific American, along with books by Minnesota authors.

"Robert Bly used to come in and say, 'Tom, this reminds me of the '50's,'" Sengupta said.

Though reluctant to talk about it, Sengupta confesses he's helped a lot of pharmacy customers in times of need.

"I knew that how difficult their life is," he said. "You did something that made it a little bit easier, and I thought, you know, 'this experiment is working.'"

His doctor ordered him to cut back on his standard 80-hour work week.

Sengupta remembers when he and his wife monitored their two daughters' mealtimes and bedtimes. As adults, they've turned the tables on him.

"They tell me what to eat, when to go to bed," he said. "And I couldn't have any more meetings in the store after hours."

Saying good-bye
Tom Sengupta says good-bye to client Nikki Weispfenning Thursday, Jan. 15, 2015 at Schneider Drug in Minneapolis. Sengupta is retiring after owning and operating the independent drugstore for 43 years.
Jennifer Simonson / MPR News

Sengupta is optimistic about surviving cancer.

He cracks a joke about maybe posting a sign about how sickness and death are a nuisance for everyone including customers.

"I used to think I should put a note if I croak, 'sorry about the inconvenience,'" he said with a laugh.

But there is no need for a sign.

Sengupta is negotiating the sale of Schneider Drug to an independent neighborhood drugstore owner in St. Paul.

Although his drugstore managing days are numbered, he remains committed to social change and community-building. He wants to move the evening meetings to a local college.

Sengupta wants people at the meetings to continue to question authority and ideally head off calamitous decisions made by public officials.

"We have the obligation and the responsibility and the power to question them," he said. "Don't let them set the premise. Question them."