By NOLA L. SARKISIAN
Carmen Dragon considers her regular visits to the Santa Monica Homeopathic Pharmacy a life-or-death excursion.
Following surgery last April to remove a tumor in her fallopian tube, Dragon, 50, opted to forego chemotherapy and radiation. Instead, the West Los Angeles resident chose natural remedies to stave off future recurrence.
“I love this store. My homeopathic doctor prescribes the pills for me. I take 50 to 100 herbs per day,” said Dragon, a professional harpist whose shopping basket on this particular afternoon contains T-Cell Formula to boost immunity, co-enzyme Q10 for the heart, and calms forte to promote sleep. “I’m feeling better and my outlook is positive,” she says.
It’s a common sentiment echoed among customers and doctors who shop at the 54-year-old family-owned pharmacy, which in addition to homeopathic remedies stocks an array of herbs, vitamins, minerals and cosmetics.
Roughly 70 percent of the customers are women, primarily aged 30 to 50, says homeopath Steven Litvak, a graduate of the British Institute of Homeopathy. They come in search of natural remedies for insomnia, depression, flu, colds, allergies and even life-threatening diseases, such as cancer.
“They see that it works and they keep coming back,” said Litvak, 41, who helps oversee day-to-day operations with his wife Kimberly.
Some 350 to 500 customers stream in daily, including numerous celebrities, and they ask lots of questions about the more than 200 products in stock. A third of the store’s 23 employers are licensed acupuncturists or homeopaths.
Some customers come prepared, such as Pacific Palisades resident Michelle Mansfield, 34, who was toting a copy of “Homeopathic Medicine for Children and Infants.” She was seeking advice from Kimberly Litvak about possible remedies for her child’s stomach flu.
“Studies have shown that chamomile is helpful for the tummy and belladonna for a high fever,” says Litvak.
Rather than buy the products separately, Litvak suggests a complete packet with about a dozen doses for $19.95. Minutes later, Mansfield is out the door with one of the tummy-soothing packets and other products totaling $61.95.
With phones ringing and sales clerk Kathy Scott totaling orders, another customer walks in seeking migraine relief. Three years ago, a girlfriend had told Crystal Bush about the store and now she comes in monthly to stock up on her homeopathic cure, Nux Vomica.
“They really spend the time to talk to you here when you need it. They told me about this product and it changed my life,” says Bush.
Some customers had been shopping at the store long before these products became so popular. “I’ve been coming here for 30 years, since I’ve been a vegetarian. I’ve even gotten five parking tickets over the years and I still come,” says Malibu resident Barry Jackson, 55, having just bought $88 worth of natural products. “I take 18 different supplements a day. It’s really important for me to eat healthy.”
Meanwhile, sales assistant Aaron Miller is walking around the aisles with a cordless phone filling an order. The mail-order list includes 1,000 customers nationwide.
“He just ordered $1,800 worth of goods,” Miller says. “Sometimes people are ill or don’t have access to our store, so this helps them out.”
That appeal has fueled record business for the pharmacy, which has grown 20 percent every year for the past five years. “It’s leveling off now, but the past five years have been phenomenal,” says floor manager Bob Litvak.
Because insurance generally does not cover many of these remedies, customers pay out of pocket for a wide range of products PC Apes for prostate cancer at $105 for a 10-day supply, kava kava to induce sleep for $23.95 per 50-capsule bottle, and alkalol at $3.09 for a 16-ounce bottle to help sinus sufferers.
The store is a far cry from what Litvak’s parents, Norm and May, had in mind when they opened the first location on Fourth Street before the end of World War II. It had a soda fountain and liquor license and only one shelf was devoted to alternative medicines.
Little by little, the Litvaks, now both 86, added more natural remedies and reduced their drug inventory. Now they devote about four shelves to mainstream drugs like Bayer and Tylenol in order to meet state requirements as a pharmacy. Those items, however, are relegated to a back corner.
“I trust them. The people are helpful and know what they are doing,” says Santa Monica general practitioner Dr. Jim Blechman, who has been referring patients to the pharmacy for the past 20 years, primarily for minor health problems, such as colds and flu. “I’ll even call Steve to discuss a new product that has come out. There’s so much to keep up on that it’s hard to keep an eye out on every supplement, and that’s their focus.”