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By Lorraine Sanders
Imagine ending up in legal hot water for not selling drugs. In a certain sense, that is what has happened to the Noe Valley shop formerly known as Church Street Apothecary.
For the past four years, the tiny store at Church and 30th streets has been an outlet for such things as bandaids, shampoo, and diapers, as well as for products from upscale lines like Dr. Hauschka Skin Care, Herb Pharm, and La Familia Green greeting cards. But, after liquidating its current inventory, the store will cease operations this month, as owner and neighborhood resident Kati Kim searches for a buyer and plans her next move.
"I can't fight a state agency right now. It's a whole lot of work, too much for one person. If this was my only store, I would try to fight it," explains Kim, who also owns the Lower Haight boutique Doe and its accompanying online store.
The state agency is the California Board of Pharmacy, and at issue is the Church Street store's name.
"There is a California law that requires that only drugstores can use certain titles--drugstore, apothecary, there's a list of about six," points out Virginia Herold of the Pharmacy Board.
Specifically, Section 4343 of the California Business and Professions Code states, "No building shall have upon it or displayed within it or affixed to or used in connection with it a sign bearing the word or words 'Pharmacist,' 'Pharmacy,' 'Apothecary,' 'Drugstore,' 'Druggist,' 'Drugs,' 'Medicine,' 'Medicine Store,' 'Drug Sundries,' 'Remedies,' or any word or words of similar or like import; or the characteristic symbols of pharmacy; or the characteristic prescription sign (Rx) or similar design, unless there is upon or within the building a pharmacy holding a license issued by the board."
Kim says she first learned about the law, which dates back to 1905, when a representative from the board appeared at the store one day in 2006. Kim was not working in the store that day, but received a phone call from one of her employees after the visit.
"The lady basically insisted that [the employee] sign some paperwork.... She signed the paperwork, and in the paperwork we agreed to change our name," recounts Kim, who says her employee was young and intimidated by the confrontation.
Afterwards, Kim wrote a letter of protest to the Board of Pharmacy.
"We wrote a letter explaining that, basically, the word apothecary has for some time now been used in association with stores that sell health and beauty products," she said.
Kim also began contacting other non-pharmacy stores with the word apothecary in their names--including the Union Street Apothecary in Cow Hollow and the Sky Meadow Apothecary & Spa in downtown Santa Cruz--to ask if they'd encountered similar problems. No one she spoke with had.
"So I didn't hear anything for like two years. I just assumed it had been dropped," said Kim, whose family made national headlines later in 2006 after their car became stranded in the snow for 10 days in Oregon. Kim's husband, James Kim, died of hypothermia while trying to find help. Kim and her two young daughters survived the tragic ordeal.
In July of this year, Kim received a registered letter from the Pharmacy Board fining her $500 for continuing to use the word apothecary in the store's name, which she has now stopped using both at the store and on its website.
While that sum may seem a relatively small price to pay to continue operating, Kim says the real financial burden is the projected cost of re-branding the well-established business, including its signage, marketing materials, and website, and covering costs like lawyer fees to trademark a new name and logo. She estimates the cost of revamping the store with a new name would be "in the $10,000 ballpark."
Instead of spending the time and money to re-launch the business, Kim is looking for someone--ideally a Noe Valley resident--to buy her out and take over the shop's lease. In the meantime, she is considering using the storefront temporarily as a gift boutique during the winter holidays. Either way, she plans to shut her doors for good at the end of 2008.
Church Street Apothecary's pending closure is understandably upsetting to Kim, who bristles at what she views as an outdated law. "This is a small business that is being put out of business by a big state agency.... They have no problem with anything I'm doing. They just don't like my name," Kim said.
She also worries that her handful of employees will lose their jobs.
However, she remains positive about a potential buyer for the business, and the longtime support she's received from customers and neighbors.
"The kids and I are doing great, and the neighborhood has been so awesomely supportive over the years."
All merchandise, except for flowers and periodicals, will be 30 percent off until the store closes mid-month. Anyone interested in speaking to Kim about purchasing the business may contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.