Iconic local shop changes hands

A cancer diagnosis is forcing Tom Sengupta to sell his store of 43 years, but he plans to remain a fixture in the community.

Owner of Schneider Drug Tom Sengupta works at his store on Thursday in St. Paul.  Sengupta will be leaving the store after operating it for over 43 years.

Bridget Bennett

Owner of Schneider Drug Tom Sengupta works at his store on Thursday in St. Paul. Sengupta will be leaving the store after operating it for over 43 years.

Elizabeth Smith

Running a pharmacy by day and a venue for political discussion at night, Tom Sengupta has been a Prospect Park icon for almost a half-century.

But by January’s end, he’ll be handing over the keys to his drug store, Schneider Drug, on University Avenue Southeast to a private buyer. He was diagnosed with esophageal and colon cancer in November. “I wish I could keep going, but it’s time for new people to come in,” Sengupta said.

But despite his illness and store’s closure, Sengupta hopes to continue to be an active member in the neighborhood.

“I think I will beat this because I still have a lot to look forward to,” Sengupta said.

In front of an audience of about 70, City Councilmembers Lisa Goodman and Cam Gordon — who represent Wards 7 and 2, respectively — used a City Council meeting on Friday to honor Sengupta.

“[It] honors the commitment that he has made to his community. He’s respected and revered there,” said Gordon, who represents the University of Minnesota and surrounding neighborhoods.

Sengupta’s impact on the community is marked by the careful attention he gives to his customers.

“He’s very patient,” costumer Andrew Ervin said. “All the customers he knows by name and knows their prescriptions, and if you go there, you might have to wait, but people are OK with that.”

Ervin and his mother have been going to Schneider Drug since Sengupta bought it more than 40 years ago.

Sengupta immigrated to the U.S. from India in 1958. He attended Loyola University in New Orleans for his undergraduate degree and then the University for his master’s degree in pharmacy in 1961.

He purchased his store in 1972, he said, because it was the only store he could afford at the time.

And for more than 20 years, Sengupta has held monthly discussions at his store to talk about current events and political issues, which Gordon said he has attended in the past.

For example, in a 2005 meeting, Gordon said, attendees discussed single-payer health care — an important topic at the time. He said elected officials, like he and Gov. Mark Dayton, would sometimes attend to give tips on becoming an effective politician.

“This store has always been an experiment,” Sengupta said. “Sometimes we succeeded, but sometimes we didn’t.”

Sengupta’s political discussions won’t end when he leaves his pharmacy. Augsburg College’s Sabo Center for Democracy and Citizenship plans to hold discussion seminars that mirror the town hall-style meetings.

The center’s director, Elaine Eschenbacher, said the center’s plans are ongoing, but she hopes the meetings will draw out people of all ages to talk about current issues.

Customer Charity Lusteck has been going to Sengupta’s store for seven years. She said the service at Schneider Drug is uniquely personal.

Sengupta said he’s dedicated to bringing a human connection that he says is often lost in bigger pharmacies.

“It has just been such a wonderful experience to have someone who knows you and you know them,” Lusteck said. “It’s just not something we get anymore.”