BY REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — There’s a story behind everything at Lange’s Pharmacy in Niskayuna, and Dan Lange is poised to tell them all at a moment’s notice.
The black-and-white photographs on the wall. The fish tank. The drawers full of prescriptions dating back decades. They all have stories. And the tie-dyed Volkswagen bus that sits outside in the parking lot most days is no exception.
It all started when Lange’s son needed a car in high school.
“Instead of giving him a car, I decided to buy myself a second car, and give him my car,” Lange said. “And I ended up buying an old Karmann Ghia, which is a Volkswagen.”
The dark-green classic attracted the attention of Klaus Steinchen, a longtime customer who moved to the United States from Germany about fifty years ago. Enamored with the car, Steinchen helped Lange fix it up.
Lange enjoyed the project so much that when the pharmacy’s delivery van died, he decided to start a tradition.
“I went, ‘What if we got a Volkswagen bus, and just really made it unique?’ And we did,” Lange said.
The first winter they had the bus, Lange and Steinchen pulled the engine out and got it running. Then it was time to decorate the van, a 1971 model with a peace sign on the front and surfing stickers still glued on the back window.
“When the company did the wrap, they asked us what we wanted,” Lange said. He told the designer to embrace his inner hippie.
The retro, bubble-lettered slogan below the back window reads, “Dude, we’ve been around longer than this van!” against a background of tie-dye.
Which is true. The store first opened in 1936 and has been at 2205 Nott St. since 1974. That’s nearly 80 years, a remarkable span in an era where few small independent pharmacists remain following the expansion of regional and national chain pharmacies.
Lange’s is a tiny store that sells prescriptions and a few assorted vitamins and first-aid items, though they plan to add medical equipment soon and offer vaccinations to customers. It will remain a very small store, though, unlike the big-box drug stores.
“I have people calling me and they go, ‘I’ll be there, how will I find you?’ Lange said. “And I go, ‘Open the door and you’ll see me.’”
Customer loyalty is what has kept the pharmacy alive in the face of corporate competition. Here’s just one example: Lange said he recently found prescriptions from the 1960s and was about to throw them out when he realized he had filled one of the prescriptions that very morning, for the same customer. As people walk in and out the front door, ringing the nostalgic bell mounted to the frame, each and every one is greeted by name.
Of course, that VW bus also sets the store apart from its bigger rivals.
Lange said the pharmacy’s employees don’t drive the van for every occasion.
It’s tough to drive and, pending some more repairs by himself and Steinchen, it’s pretty noisy. But on the right occasions, it’s tons of fun and great marketing for the shop, too.
“We fill some prescriptions for Union College infirmary so I’ll drive it down there,” he said. He also drives it to meetings at local senior centers.
No matter where he drives it, Lange said he always expects attention. He has an arsenal of funny stories about people’s reactions to the unusual vehicle.
“I had it parked out here and I was tuning it and a woman came out of the beauty salon and I noticed she was looking at me, so I turned the engine off,” he recalled.
“She goes, it’s a little loud,” Lange continued. He wasn’t sure if she meant the engine was literally noisy or the decorations were aesthetically loud. Either way, she wasn’t wrong.
“I just looked at her and said, I’m not trying to hide!” he said with a laugh.
Fascination with the bus knows no age limits.
From the kids who tugged on their mom’s shirt to get her to look, to the older woman with a walker who paused in a crosswalk to flash a peace sign, Lange said his customers and neighbors are all attached to the family-owned pharmacy’s delivery vehicle.
“When you drive the bus you just assume people are going to wave at you or flash a peace sign,” he said.
Photos by Rebecca Isenhart/Gazette Reporter