Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Religious Undertones at the Pharmacy

Have you ever had the experience of experiencing a familiar place in a new way? I’m talking about say, for example, when the diner or the coffee shop you frequent often changes the d├ęcor. Or when the park finally opens up the section that has been under construction for years. It kind of stuns you for a moment until you can readjust and life can resume normally. But it gives you pause in that moment and you have to consider how the newness of the place fits in the scheme of your life and your plans.

I had to make a pharmacy run last night to pick up a few prescriptions. I generally like my pharmacy—okay, S will tell you I really like my pharmacy. (I also like the supermarket, for the record.) It’s a chain, but it’s large enough to give me room to wander the aisles when I’m in a browsing mood, and small enough for me to find things quickly when I need them. It’s a familiar place.

Anyway, I dropped off the prescriptions that I needed and was told by the pharmacy intern that it would only be a few minutes so I shouldn’t wander far. I ambled over to the greeting cards, which are positioned in front of the pickup area and read a few super schmaltzy Hallmark birthday cards. Not wanting to linger near the sappy cards, I thought I’d take a seat in the pharmacy waiting area. So I turned around—and came face-to-face with a rack of Christian prayer and meditation books. Not a few, a whole rack. There was something for everyone: 101 Prayers for Little Girls, Let the Lord Guide the Way, Embracing Your Spirituality, Teaching Prayer to Boys, Keeping the Lord in Your Work. The titles are my own—I had left my phone at home and couldn’t record the moment—but you get the idea. I couldn’t make sense of it. What were these books doing near the pharmacy counter?

Just so you know, when a pharmacy intern says a few minutes, he probably means closer to 15. (I was hoping for five or 10 at the most, it was not a browsing night, and my sense of the familiar had been jarred.) In any case, I had a chance to—stand—and hang around the pharmacy for a bit and watch the customers. Roughly seven people came in to pick up their medications, and none of them glanced at the rack, which was located within about ten feet of the register. Two little girls (I’d place them between the ages of 5 and 10), pulled some of the books out of the racks to pretend to read them, but by an large no one seemed to notice the books.

Except me. And I was disturbed. I’m not sure why, but I’m also not sure what these books had to offer that they needed to be placed near the pharmaceutical counter. Why couldn’t they hang out with the paperbacks and magazines which have their own little section? Are they there to offer comfort to folks picking up prescriptions or dealing with illnesses in some way?

These suggestions aren’t satisfactory. Rarely are people in the pharmacy long enough to even notice the books, it seems. They come in, pick up their medications and leave. If they are dropping off a script and waiting as I did, then they wander—grab some soap, or contact lens solution, or an extra pack of toothpaste if its on sale. Those who wait in the immediate area are clearly involved in waiting: arms are folded, they sway in a manner belying impatience, they pace. And the customers themselves are diverse. Muslims, Hindus, and Jews also visit the pharmacy—we have houses of worship to serve all three in the neighborhood, so what is the message here? Is there a message? So if the decision was to display these books as a source of comfort, then what about other religious people?

I didn’t leave with any satisfactory answers. And I’m not sure if I would have had the same reaction if the books had been more diverse. I want to say that my issue is really with the books themselves but I’m not sure. I know that I had a reaction. I was bewildered. It seemed like a complete non sequitur. Though I was running late this morning, I popped into the pharmacy located near my job. It's another chain. And there were no books near the pharmacy that I could find immediately (though I may go back and look again).

What are your thoughts, Readers?


  1. I just found your blogs through Scientopia, and am enjoying your urban anthropology!

    I see a similar rack of Christian books at both the CVS and the Walgreens in my neighborhood in the west Bronx. I wonder if it's there because the publisher can rent a square foot of floor space cheaper than shelf space near the other books (mass-market paperbacks), which are probably placed by big mainstream publishers.

    Maybe the placement is good for sales -- people picking up medication are likely bored, worried or both. Or perhaps the store chains make a commitment to display these books and the managers put them where they cause the least disruption to traffic.

    At any rate, I've never seen anyone buy any books, religious or otherwise, at these drugstores.

  2. Welcome to my other corner of the web! I'm glad you've found your way over here.

    So this is definitely a more recurring thing than I thought. You raise an interesting possibility about display costs. I don't know if it's cheaper, but perhaps a group of these publishers thought they might have more of an impact if they were displayed together instead of being mixed in with the Grishams and the Connollys.

    I was leaning towards the worry element: "people picking up medication are likely bored, worried or both." But I too haven't seen anyone actually purchase them ... though I haven't been looking for very long to tell the truth.

    Might be interesting to keep an eye on this.

  3. I had a similar reaction upon noticing these racks in pharmacies in Boston. However here there is sometimes a secular self help book or two in them.

    I imagine that they are near the pharmacy counter because the elderly are both likely spend the most time there and the most likely to purchase the books. I have seen several people over the age of sixty sit down in the waiting area just as you did and interestedly pick through the selection. It seems to me it very well targeted marketing.

  4. Also a good proposal. I haven't had much time to investigate this, but I think it's worth watching. I'm also trying to find some literature on increased spirtuality/self help that may shed some light.

  5. Some extremely distressed people come to the pharmacy. They or a loved one could be gravely ill or dying. And, whoosh, they look up and see the promise of hope and comfort right there.
    Not only is this a disgusting marketing technique, it's also an afront to the science and medical marvels for which the staff in white coats stand.
    A diverse representaion of several faiths would make it more palatable, but it would remain quite inappropriate.
    What I find extremely distressing are the books with biblical medical advise. This is a pharmacy, the servant of modern medical science. That automatically implies that those unconventional, unstudied courses of treatment are sound. So wrong. Really, if the bible really showed how to "cure diabetes," then there would be no diabetics.