Pill-er of the community — Coney pharmacist and activist Frank Giordano retires

Pill-er of the community — Coney pharmacist and activist Frank Giordano retires
Medicine man: Frand Giordano mixed Coney Islanders’ prescriptions for half a century.
John Giordano

The corner pharmacy — that all-but forgotten place filled with mortars and pestles, pills, powders, potions, ice cream on a hot summer’s day, and the friendly shopkeeper with an apron on behind the counter — was Frank Giordano’s world for 50 years.

In fact, he was that friendly shopkeeper.

Known as the mayor of the neighborhood of Coney Island (that area outside the amusement district where people actually live, eat, shop, and, occasionally, enjoy a swim in the nearby pond), thanks to his membership in some 50 civic groups, including such august organizations as the Alliance for Coney Island, Community Board 13, the Bensonhurst West End Community Council, the Brooklyn Cyclone Baseball Committee, the Federation of Italian-American Organizations, the Coney Island Hospital Coalition, and the Jewish Community Center of Greater Coney Island, Giordano has owned the Friscia Pharmacy at the corner of W. 15th Street and Mermaid Avenue for more than half the store’s oak tree-like existence of nearly a century.

And it all started with a jerk — a soda jerk, that is.

Giordano, a son of Gravesend and Italian immigrants, was just 11 or 12 years old when his hardworking parents bought a pork store in 1947. But he didn’t work there. Nor did he help out his uncle’s-operated pharmacies in Marine Park and Bay Ridge. In fact, Frank’s first job was not in any of his family’s businesses, but at another drug store at Avenue X and West Street. There he mixed malts and lime rickeys, in the humblest of all old-fashioned occupations, where he earned an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work.

“It was 57 and a half cents an hour then, on the books,” Giordano recalls.

The job taught him the nuts and bolts of the business — and in 1953 he decided to study the finer arts of Rx at Saint John’s University, which in those days had a campus right Downtown, on Schermerhorn Street. It was while he was in school that a classmate and childhood friend left a junior pharmacist job at then-36-year-old Friscia Pharmacy and urged Giordano to apply to be his replacement. Now, Frank had never spent much time in the People’s Playground before, but he dazzled the drug store’s owner with his skills and, in 1960 — three years after graduating from college — the freshly married pharmacist bought the business to make his own.

As fate would have it, that would be that same year that Giordano would be pulled into the current of Coney Island’s civic life. That’s because the store he now owned was staring down the barrel of a bulldozer: Nathan’s Famous— whose delectable tube steaks did — and still do — attract millions to nearby Surf Avenue for a taste — wanted to turn three blocks of Coney Island into parking to handle the hungry throngs. One of those blocks happened to be Friscia’s.

“This was my first year of paying my mortgage on the building. I would have lost my business and my property. I would have had nothing,” Giordano said.

So the new kid on the block joined forces with a team of legendary luminaries — Coney Island Board of Trade leader and renown haberdasher Lou Powsner, Coney Island Neighborhood Improvement Association founder Ralph Perfetto, Homeowners and Landlords Association leader Charles Gabay, and local environmental activist Frank Pane — to stop the hot dog giant from gobbling up the neighborhood. The quintet organized neighbors, enlisted politicians, and — most importantly — got themselves on the cover of the local Courier Life newspapers. In the end, the People’s Playground Davids defeated processed meats Goliath, as Nathan’s abandoned its effort to level Friscia and its neighbors.

Following his triumph in the famed “Frankfurter Folly,” Giordano was no longer content only providing cures to Coney’s medical ailments — he had also to treat the community’s social ills. He joined Powsner’s Coney Island Board of Trade and Perfetto’s Neighborhood Improvement Association, and eventually became the president of both for 15 and 30 years, respectively. He became Coney’s passionate advocate for improved sanitation, police, and firefighting services — and he still had time to raise three children, money for local youth and church programs and the Salt and Sea Mission. He was even able to enlist the Handwerker family, the then-owners of Nathan’s, to join in his altruistic efforts — proving there was no bad aftertaste of resentment from their conflict.

“To this day, I tell people ‘Come to Coney Island, and I’ll treat you to a seven-course meal — a Nathan’s hot dog and a six pack,’ ” Giordano said.

Now, as it does all men— even those that have seen the rise, fall, and rise again of Sodom by the Sea — time has caught up with Giordano. A severe blood infection that attacked him shortly after he delivered food and provisions to Coney Island in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy had him near death, and though he has recovered, he has realized that it is time to move on.

“My wife tells me, ‘Frank, you’re too old, you’re not well, it’s time to give it up,’ ” Giordano said.

The medicine man plans to sell his share in the pharmacies to his partner, who bought into the businesses in 1972, and he now hopes to travel — to Las Vegas, to California, to Italy — and to spend time with his eight grandchildren.

In the future, Frank can look back proudly on a career of civic activism that was good for both his bottom line, his big heart, and, quite possibly, could get him in with a certain big guy in the sky.

“I decided it’s not a bad idea to help all the only people in Coney Island regardless of creed or race or color. It can only help my business” he recalled, pausing for a second. “And it helps me get into the Kingdom of Heaven.”

Reach reporter Will Bredderman at wbredderman@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260-4507. Follow him at twitter.com/WillBredderman.
Break time: Giordano, now 78, is finally retiring after decades of service to the neighborhood.
Photo by Elizabeth Graham

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