When the bell hits the front door to Colombo’s Pharmacy at 75-51 Metropolitan Ave., it is often followed by a familiar voice.
Sometimes it is from Vito Columbo's father in the language of his homeland of Sicily, sometimes from his childhood friends who still work in the neighborhood, and more times than not it’s from customers as far as the Rockaways who claim there is no better pharmacy or pharmacist anywhere else in Queens.
Columbo, 44, is a humble Middle Village native who was born on Knickerbocker and raised in the neighborhood he has operated his pharmacy in since 2002.
Though the thought of big-box stores, chain restaurants and corporate pharmacies coming to the neighborhood worries the local small business owner, his eyes brighten when he hears that the same grocery store he frequented on Knickerbocker Avenue when he was just a kid is still open for business.
In today’s highly competitive industry, he keeps his confidence and cool about what will keep his store afloat.
“When somebody comes in here we take things personal,” Columbo said, attributing his success to customer service and true passion for his work. “We treat the last customer like we do the first customer. If someone comes in here and you can help them, then why not?”
Because they know their customer’s names - and likely know their families - he and his team will often have the prescriptions ready when customers walk through the door.
During the Tamiflu suspension at the end of last year, Columbo’s Pharmacy had customers coming in from all over Queens and Brooklyn because no one would make the compound, something that seems to have become a burden to the large box stores and many private operations.
“I had people coming in here saying they went to four of five pharmacies who wouldn’t make it,” he said. “I’m busy too, but I’ll take 15 minutes and I’ll make the compound, because look, it’s a baby or a child that needs it.”
After graduating from Hofstra with an International Business degree in 1990, Columbo worked for two years at his father’s Columbo’s Fruit and Vegetable Market, a Middle Village staple next door at 75-49 Metropolitan Ave., and planned to one day take the reigns.
That all changed in March of 1993.
“I met my wife,” he recalled, who at the time was getting ready to graduate with a degree in Pharmacy. “She was the one that inspired me to do it.”
He soon enrolled in Pharmacy School at LIU, quickly earned his degree by 1997, worked for several years in chains and privately run pharmacies, and ever since has been at a place where he cannot see himself leaving. If not for his customers, for himself and maybe his own need for the ties that bind.
While he doesn’t live in the neighborhood, he is still nearby with his wife and three kids, and his customers are always on his mind.
“I’d live here if my wife didn’t take me to Whitestone,” he laughed.