Tom Sengupta has been dispensing wisdom, medical advice and cold remedies from the same Prospect Park corner for 42 years, sometimes sending customers off with a jovial “Take care of yourself, kiddo!”
Sengupta’s Schneider Drug store on University Avenue SE. has become more than a place to fix your sniffles, it has become a beloved institution and the site of impromptu concerts, political discussions and feisty debates.
Just a few months ago I wrote about Sengupta’s dream to build a monument to the common man, a public acknowledgment of the unsung and unknown who have fought prejudice, violence and injustice.
Sengupta’s current predicament shows just how quickly our world can change.
He was recently diagnosed with both esophageal and colon cancer, and the first surgery is scheduled for later this month. That means Sengupta will need to use a feeding tube in recovery, making it impossible to continue his 80-hour-a-week mission to heal his customers, physically and spiritually.
So Sengupta is selling his drugstore, ending what he calls “a 42-year love affair between me and the community.”
“Papa” John Kolstad, a musician and former Minneapolis mayoral candidate, has known Sengupta since the 1960s and says the drugstore has been an invaluable asset to the neighborhood and the city.
“The heavy hitters always showed up there if they were running for senate or governor,” said Kolstad. “It got pretty hairy sometimes.”
But Sengupta has always been there to keep things civil, Kolstad said. “He’s very quiet, very understated and he never sought attention for himself. He has always tried to show respect to everyone. He’s old-fashioned, I guess, fundamental maybe.”
Marty Demgen said he’s dropped in at drugstore events for 32 years, “and I’m a relative newcomer.”
“There is no one that cares more about people than Tom,” said Demgen. “He’s a mensch. He knows everybody’s health history and he cares for people. He tries like the devil to solve everybody’s problems.”
On Friday, Sengupta sounded sanguine about the future.
“I didn’t want it to end this way,” Sengupta said. “We did our best. We built a community around [the drugstore], and I strongly believe the purpose of having a business is to be an important part of the community.”
The pharmacist said he has been talking to a potential buyer who would keep the location as an independent store, and, he’s hoping, remain a strong presence in Prospect Park. Sengupta can sell the store, but he doesn’t own the building so the future is by no means certain.
“We came from the old school, we care about the people we serve,” Sengupta said. “Medicine has changed so much. Now it’s more about process.”
Dr. Steven Miles, a professor of bioethics at the University of Minnesota, has admired Sengupta for years.
“I think the most amazing thing about Tom is that it’s never about Tom,” Miles said. “He’s got this idea of a civil society and citizenship and it’s not about me, it’s about ideas. You never run into Tom without him raising a question, whether you agreed with him or not, that you didn’t think about later.”
“A lot of businesses like to talk about what they are doing for the community,” said Miles. “With Tom, it’s on a whole different plane. It’s about what you are doing for the community.”
Sengupta is not sure when his last day at the store will be. As always, he’s optimistic he will beat the cancer.
“I think I will survive because I have so many things to look forward to,” Sengupta said.
That includes getting to see his granddaughters play volleyball and spending more time with his wife, Janice. They’ve been married since 1964.
“I think it’s lasted so long because I’m never home,” Sengupta joked.
He is also still determined to see his dream for the monument to the common man through to the end, and he’s spoken with universities about partnerships.
“I think this is going to happen,” he said.
Recounting his four decades at the drugstore, Sengupta of course turned philosophical.
“Every person is different, every person is struggling a little bit every day,” he said. “If we did something to make the day better, we succeeded. I just see this as the end of one phase of my life.”
Until the next phase, take care of yourself, kiddo.
Follow Jon on Twitter: @jontevlin