Prospect Park and surrounding neighborhoods reacted with shock to the news that Tom Sengupta would soon sell Schneider Drug Store in order to face surgery for cancer in late January.
“We went up in flames,” said neighbor and longtime customer Elaine Frankowski.
In mid-January, neighbors were scrambling to assemble a tribute book for their beloved pharmacist.
“Dear Tom, I hope you can accept our caring, our love and our prayers for the journey you’ve now been set upon,” ran one of the tributes, sent in by neighbor Kutzi Priest. “You truly deserve a great helping of compassion and mercy. We feel blessed to know you, a person who actually exhibits behavior we all aspire to.”
Born in Kolkata, India, Sengupta moved to the United States in 1958 to attend Loyola University in New Orleans. He moved to Minneapolis in 1961 and worked in a downtown drugstore for some years before buying Schneider Drug from the previous owner, Earl Schneider, on March 1, 1972.
He has rented the downstairs space in the building at 3700 University Ave. S.E. ever since. Built in 1906, it is owned by Lorraine B. Conger and managed by Rick and Nancy Bergman of Roseville. An apartment is rented on the second floor.
Sengupta and his wife have two daughters and three grandchildren.
Sengupta said that upon moving to Minnesota, he became inspired by politician Hubert Humphrey.
“Humphrey influenced me quite a bit with his politics of hope,” Sentupta said. “Later on, Paul Wellstone became a close friend.”
He said the men’s philosophies guide his business as well as his politics. “We are all struggling,” he said. “Even everyday living is hard. If you can make things a little bit easier, you have an obligation to make a difference.”
Sengupta said he likes to think of his business as “not a business, but a service center.”
He has asked that customers wishing to express their support consider a donation to Wellstone Action. He said his vision for the future is best conveyed at his website, www.changingthenormofsociety.org.
Frankowski, who lives on Bedford Street a few blocks south of the store, said she’s been shopping at Schneider Drug since before Sengupta bought the store. “It’s become a community center for all sorts of things,” Frankowski said. “He holds concerts and political meetings in the aisles. He has dog biscuits for the dogs.”
“I try to represent how civil society ought to be,” he said.
St. Anthony Park resident Doug Beasley noted that where most businesses use their front windows to promote products, Sengupta has filled his with statements about ideals and politics. He also carries books by local authors, arranged on the counter where prescriptions are picked up—a space occupied by advertisements in many pharmacies.
“When Miller Pharmacy in St. Anthony Park closed, we were bereft,” recalled St. Anthony Park resident Mary Mergenthal. Her family “tried a large commercial outlet for a while but were put off by the impersonal nature of transactions there. When we discovered Tom could take our insurance plan, we went there gladly.”
Mergenthal continued, “We had no idea how glad we’d be, however! Tom’s sensitive, thoughtful pharmaceutical help has been a blessing over and over to my household and to my guests from far and wide. I pray for his healing so he can continue his service to the wider community: through social, political and personal service of many kinds.”
Schneider Drug is known for its welcome to children. There is a toy section, where children freely handle the merchandise. Sengupta doles out pennies from his register for visiting children to use in his gumball machine, which bears a sign that says adults must have the permission of a child in order to use it.
Neighbor Jen Gerth recalled sending her son Raef to Schneider on his bike when he was about 9. She needed a cover for a thermometer for little brother Riley, who had a high fever. She gave Raef a $20 bill and a note for the pharmacist.
“I can’t think of any place else in the Twin Cities you could send a 9- year-old with a $20 bill and expect him to come back with any money, let alone the correct thing,” Gerth said. “Raef came back with not only the plastic covers for the thermometer, but some kiddie Tylenol and jelly beans for when Riley was feeling better.”
Sengupta has been the first source of care for many customers. Beasley said he first visited Schneider to fill a prescription. He stopped to use the blood pressure machine in the store. Sengupta advised him to see a doctor.
“Sometimes he would deliver this harsh advice,” Beasley recalled with a chuckle. Beasley did see a doctor and was diagnosed with hypertension. “He really cared about how I was doing,” Beasley said.
Many customers have appreciated Sengupta’s flexibility when it came to payment. “Both my children were born during a time when we did not have health care,” St. Anthony Park Elementary School art teacher Courtney Oleen wrote in an email, “and Tom was always there to give advice and help keep costs manageable.”
Frankowski said she can testify to the convenience of keeping a tab at Schneider. “He runs credit for customers,” she said. “I run up a bill with him. It’s remarkable that he would keep credit.”
Among Sengupta’s favorite causes is public education, and he has often displayed flyers for events at nearby Pratt School.
Pratt parent Jakki Kydd-Fidelman wrote, “I ran up to the store many times when someone in my family was sick just to get advice or medicine. When I needed a gift, card or something else, I would go to the drug store and Tom usually had what I was looking for.
“Tom was supportive of Pratt school and contributed to the silent auction,” she added. “He was free with his thoughts and conversation. To him we all had value. Tom is a neighborhood treasure, and he will be greatly missed.”
City Pages named Schneider Drug Best Pharmacy in 2008, citing it as “one of the great local bastions of civic engagement.”
In 2014, some neighbors nominated Sengupta for a Twin Cities area Local Health Hero award. In support of the nomination, Brooke Magid Hart wrote, “Tom Sengupta is not the only neighborhood pharmacist, but he is the rock that centers our community of Prospect Park. Tom dispenses medication. He also cares for every child and adult in our neighborhood, and he does all he can to provide us with consultation, advice, and support for good health.
“In addition to being our pharmacist, Tom is an activist and community leader, relentlessly fighting for universal health care, health care equity and universal opportunity,” she added. “Tom does not sit on the sidelines while others do the hard work, but he does that work himself. He leads by example. Tom helps us to create a small village in the midst of the big city, and every time we walk into his store, each of us knows that we matter.”
Sengupta’s comments on health care policy, frequently quoted in local media, reached national distribution when PBS Newshour’s Megan Thompson, who is from the Twin Cities, interviewed her mother about the cost of generic drugs. The segment aired Dec. 23, 2013.
Sengupta has even occasionally been credited with saving a life. Jen Gerth said a visiting relative who had diabetes and forgot to pack insulin discovered the error upon arrival the evening before Thanksgiving. The family “went right to Tom,” Gerth said, and Sengupta got hold of the man’s doctor in New York, got the prescription and filled it. The visitor had been on trains for two days without his medication.
“He was in fairly bad shape and Tom came to the rescue,” Gerth said. “I cannot tell you how much we will miss him in the neighborhood, but it is time for him to take care of himself for a change!”
Perhaps the most frequent appreciation for Sengupta, as the tributes roll in, is his memory for each customer’s face and health history. Courtney Oleen wrote, “He always asked after my children, years after they were grown. My oldest son attended a social justice meeting at the store when he was in college and was amazed to be recognized that night.”
As Sengupta put it, “One person can make a difference.”
Anne Holzman is a freelance journalist and longtime Schneider’s customer, now living in Bloomington.