By MIKE ALBO
NEW YORK - I am a traumatized consumer. Like many Americans, I have spent my entire life so bombarded by salesmanship and advertising that I have become cautious and rattled from all of it. If someone offers me help when I walk into a store, I want to implode into a tiny dot and disappear. I usually say, “No I’m just looking thank you so much!” even when I know exactly what I am looking for because I’m frightened that saying yes will mean I will be spritzed with a noxious tonic and forced to buy it along with a Mitch Albom book and a life insurance policy.
The skin- and hair-care company Kiehl’s, on Third Avenue in the East Village, is one of the few nodes of commerce where I drop my guard. Visiting on a recent afternoon, I knew what I wanted (I have been swimming a lot lately and needed products to counteract the drying effects of chlorine), and as I perused its well-stocked and orderly shelves, a totally relaxed woman in a white lab coat approached me and said, “Hey, find what you’re looking for?”
I’ve heard this line before, but her voice contained no trace of sales desperation. I found it easy to talk to her, and she showed me the Olive Fruit Oil Nourishing Shampoo (8.4 ounces, $18) and Extra Strength Conditioning Rinse (8.4 ounces, $19), offered Ultra Facial Moisturizer (8.4 ounces, $33), and suggested I try All-Sport Swimmer’s Cleansing Rinse (8.4 ounces, $15), designed to cut through the chlorine smell. Instead of pressuring me, she put samples of the rinse in little bottles and threw them in a bag along with a sample of Creme With Silk Groom for hair, and a packet of Abyssine Eye Cream.
Of course I’ve been to Kiehl’s before. If you have lived in New York any time in the past 156 years, then you know it as the Katz’s deli of drugstores, a cherished institution where you take your out-of-town friends because you can trick them into thinking they’re in a museum while you do errands.
Occupying the same space since its founding in 1851 by a Polish family, the store displays druggist relics — old anatomical charts, bottles of potassium chlorate and Epsom salt tins — in its windows as if they were dioramas in the Smithsonian, which, it turns out, holds many old Kiehl’s formulas in its pharmacological products collection. It’s really satisfying to imagine you are buying your basic skin and hair products in the same place where someone said: “I am so stressed out from World War I. Do you have anything for slackened skin?”
Irving Morse bought the store in 1921 and was involved in the development of many products still in circulation, including Blue Astringent Herbal Lotion, Ultra Facial Moisturizer and the Kiehl’s signature product Creme de Corps, which promises on its label that “continued use for 10 days will provide a skin texture heretofore unattainable.” Much of the eccentric language that appears on all of the generic-looking labels was written by Irving’s son, Aaron, a World War II pilot who took over the store in the ’60s. After his death in 1996, his desk was prominently placed in the store, along with some of his vintage motorcycles and his “Easy Rider”-era quotes like “Love what you do, put your heart into it and it will be rewarded.”
Aaron Morse’s Harvard-educated daughter, Jami, stepped in to take over in 1988, moving back home from Austria, where she had married the ski legend Klaus Heidegger and had been teaching aerobics to the Austrian Olympic ski team. (Hey, it was the ’80s.) A clever marketer, she eschewed pushy advertising and relied on word of mouth while supplying magazine editors with products and expensive gifts, which may make her the inventor of swag. The promotional budget was put back into development of new products and preserving key ingredients like squalane, a refined olive oil derivation used in many of its moisturizers, which has a similar chemical makeup to the body’s own sebum, making it highly absorbable.
Ms. Morse wanted Kiehl’s to be a place where avid patrons like Carolyn Bessette Kennedy and an East Village junkie would each feel comfortable, and she trained her staff to be gentle with customers, including high-strung patrons like myself, who could be considered a hybrid of Carolyn Bessette Kennedy and an East Village junkie.
Most of the products are still made at its Piscataway, N.J., factory and delivered like fresh-baked bread every day. In 2000, Ms. Morse sold the company to L’Oréal, which has pledged to maintain the idiosyncratic environment and to stay as faithful as possible to the formulas Kiehl’s developed over its long history.
But now that the brand has exploded onto an international level with more than 25 stores worldwide, this can be a challenge and has provoked some grumbling among the store’s old-school fans. Dealing in a global market means that, yes, some ingredients have changed, but that’s the price we all pay these days for thinking globally.
Keeping up apothecary authenticity is not cheap, and while this can seem justified when purchasing a finely concocted moisturizer or eye cream, you may hesitate before buying an 8.4-ounce bottle of eucalyptus body cleanser for $14.50 when you can pick up a 32-ounce container of folksy Dr. Bronner’s liquid soap at Duane Reade for the same price.
But over all, Kiehl’s satisfies a lot of fantasies you didn’t really know you had about pharmacies — those desires for old-fashioned liniments and salves you harbor from childhood, when you played store in the backyard or watched “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.”
The historical apothecary vibe of Kiehl’s may be the closest we get to seeing a doctor actually use a mortar and pestle to mix medicines. And they don’t care if you are just looking. Funny that the one place that actually may have sold snake oil at some time is where you feel no pressure to buy.
109 Third Avenue (between 13th and 14th Streets); (212) 677-3171
ATMOSPHERE -- Early 20th-century New York décor; a cross between the Smithsonian and Duane Reade.
SERVICE -- The funky sales associates in white lab coats are helpful without being oppressive and are armed with free samples.
KEY ITEMS -- Skin and hair care products and fragrances, including special sections for babies, pets and men.
PRICES -- Not CVS cheap, but worth it.