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How the son of Greek Immigrants founded one of the world’s first HIV/AIDS specialty pharmacies

By Anastasia Kaliabakos

The 1980s 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. It is a sexually transmitted infection that interferes with the body’s ability to fight diseases, leaving patients susceptible to severe bouts of numerous 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 be spread only between gay men (this is false, as anyone can become HIV-positive, not only by sexual transmission, but also contact with blood through transfusions, IV drug use, other means). 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 that. 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 it first became known about.

Illustration: Courtesy of Village Apothecary.

Michael Konnon, described as a generous and humanitarian man by those who knew him, grew up in Washington Heights in the 1950s and ‘60s. As the son of Greek immigrants, Konnon learned what it meant to work hard to have an impact on 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 in Manhattan. The neighborhood 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 the 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, it was reported that a group of men in New York City were found to have Kaposi’s sarcoma, a rare form of particularly aggressive cancer, which would soon be linked to HIV/AIDS infection. By the end of the year, over 100 gay men across the country had died from immune deficiency, but there was a focus 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 with 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 in the United States on a larger scale. Bill Bahlman, co-founder of ACTUP and a fellow activist, recalls traveling to Washington D.C. early in the morning on many occasions 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 approved, and it was very expensive. At $10,000 for a one-year supply, many pharmacies refused to stock the medication (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 at Village Apothecary in 1985 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 the 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.

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