By Anastasia Kaliabakos
The 1980’s marked the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in New York City. Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, commonly referred to as AIDS, is a chronic condition caused by the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV. HIV is a sexually transmitted infection that interferes with the body’s ability to fight diseases, leaving patients susceptible to severe bouts of various illnesses and an ultimate fight with AIDS, which often leads to death. At the beginning of the epidemic, HIV/AIDS became known as “Gay Cancer,” as it was thought to only be spread between gay men (this is false, as anyone can become HIV positive by means of not only sexual transmission but contact with blood through transfusions, IV drug use, etc.). The stigma associated with homosexuality slowed the fight against HIV and AIDS at the start—in fact, many clinics and pharmacies did not want to help because of it. However, this was not the case for Michael Konnon, the founder of Village Apothecary, a pharmacy in the West Village that has been a part of the fight against AIDS since its inception.
Michael Konnon, described as a generous and humanitarian man by those who knew him, grew up in Washington Heights in the 1950’s and 60’s. As the son of Greek immigrants, Konnon learned what it meant to work hard to make an impact in his community. His father was a waiter who had to change his long, Greek last name (Kazantzakis—a name shared by a famous Greek author, who Konnon often said was a distant relative) in order to assimilate and avoid discrimination. Konnon went on to attend Fordham University College of Pharmacy, where his dream of opening a pharmacy of his own was first sparked.
After graduating, Konnon moved to the West Village of Manhattan. The West Village had become a significant part of the city during this time period, as the Stonewall Riots of 1969, the launchpad of the LGBTQ civil rights movement, had occurred there. As a young gay man, Konnon began to invest in the village bars, forged relationships with activists, and got to know the members of the 6th precinct. Willson Henderson, the director of the Stonewall Rebellion Veteran’s Association, recalls that Konnon was an important figure during those critical days of the riots and in the weeks and years to follow: “Mike was one of the first businessmen to support the Stonewall Veterans and many other groups like us.”
In 1981, a group of men with Kaposi’s Sarcoma, a rare form of particularly aggressive cancer, was reported in New York City. This cancer would soon be linked to HIV/AIDS infection. By the end of the year, over 100 gay men had died from immune deficiency across the country, but the focus was on New York City as one of the epicenters of the outbreak. People began calling the virus GRID, or gay-related immune deficiency; however, the problem became so widespread that the CDC stepped in to give the official name of AIDS. In 1982, the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), the first community-based AIDS service provider in the United States, was founded in New York City. Although volunteers through this organization were trying to help, the number of cases was still on the rise—by the end of the year, 600 people, mostly gay men, had succumbed to AIDS.
Konnon’s desire to help his community led to the establishment of Village Apothecary at 346 Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village. In addition to trying to provide care for HIV/AIDS patients in general (although there was no approved treatment for the illness at that time), Konnon served as an advocate for gay men’s medical rights in not only New York City, but the United States on a larger scale. Bill Bahlman, co-founder of ACTUP and a fellow activist, recalls many occasions of traveling to Washington D.C. early in the morning to meet with various officials—from congressmen to Dr. Anthony Fauci—to shape policies regarding the epidemic and then taking the late night train back to NYC. He would often meet Konnon for drinks at the famous Clyde’s Bar to discuss business in Washington along with local issues in the city. Konnon’s main concern was how they could help local neighbors and friends suffering from the virus. “People knew they could always come to Mike for help,” said Bahlman of his friend.
In 1987, the FDA approved Zidovudine (AZT). This was the first anti-HIV/AIDS drug the FDA had approved—and it was very expensive. At $10,000 for a one-year supply, many pharmacies refused to stock the drug (the most expensive drug in history at that time). However, Konnon was undaunted by the price and had AZT available for purchase at Village Apothecary. Dr. Joseph Sonnabend, one of the most renowned physicians and HIV/AIDS researchers and co-founder of the AIDS Medical Foundation (AMFAR), was very close to Konnon and the staff at Village Apothecary. He was in the pharmacy often to order medications for his patients, sometimes paying out of his own pocket. Konnon also tried to make all medications, including AZT, as accessible and affordable as possible. Richard Berkowitz, a gay rights activist and associate of Dr. Sonnabend, said “The community knew Mike and Village Apothecary were there to help and support us during this crisis. They played an important role in the treatment of thousands of patients.”
In addition to being an advocate for members of the gay community, Konnon was an exceptional businessman. Pharmacist Norman Saban was brought on board in 1985 at Village Apothecary and is currently the Supervising Pharmacist. He said “Mike was the greatest boss I ever worked for. He was generous to his staff and his clients. Early on, many pharmacies didn’t want to stock HIV drugs because of the cost and the stigma. His policy was to always have all HIV medications in stock and available. He allowed patients who couldn’t pay to open accounts and pay when they could. When New York State ADAP (AIDS Drug Assistance Program) was being put together, we were on the phone with Albany every day consulting with them and then helping our patients enroll in the program. Also, many of the staff he hired were gay men from the neighborhood, so patients felt safe coming to us. They knew they would not be judged, since we were familiar faces from the community.”
As of today, there are many treatments for HIV, but researchers are still striving to find a cure. Four decades after its founding, Village Apothecary remains a pharmacy where those suffering from HIV and its comorbidities can come to seek not just medical guidance and treatment, but genuine care and support. With all that New York City– and the West Village in particular– has to offer, Village Apothecary stands out as a place that has impacted countless lives. So, the next time you find yourself strolling through the West Village along Bleecker Street, be sure to not only admire the various landmarks, parks, and storefronts that meet your eye, but to remember the rich and complex history of the neighborhood, including Village Apothecary and its larger than life founder, Michael Konnon.
Anastasia Kaliabakos is a graduate of the Brearley School and is currently a Presidential Scholar at the College of the Holy Cross majoring in Classics. She is a Features Editor for Holy Cross’ newspaper, The Spire, Associate Editor of the Parnassus Classical Journal, author of Milkshake: A Very Special Pony, and recipient of the 2019 NYC Scholastic Writing Award. Anastasia has contributed to WestView News since 2018.