Popular Woo Mongers Bankrupt...in Berkeley!

The San Francisco Chronicle reports that Elephant Pharmacy, a "holistic" drug store has closed and will file for bankruptcy. Why should you care? Elephant was an upscale store based in the Bay Area, the epicenter for wooishness. If this type of business fails here, how well will woo do elsewhere?

There's something to be said for the idea that perhaps people know that woo doesn't work, and maybe they cut back when the economy goes bad. Could the popularity of alternative medicine be a reflection of economic exuberance? Will individuals act more rationally when they have less money to spend?

The comments on the Chronicle site are fun to read. Gives you an idea of the atmosphere here on alternative medicines.


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I hear that similar shops here in the UK are feeling the pinch as well. Still, I was pretty shocked the other day when I went to the chemist's after fracturing my toe to find that fully half the shop was given over to an 'alternative treatment' area. Even the 'normal' part of the shop was festooned with aromatherapy, homeopathy and herbal products. Thankfully the alternative area was utterly empty while all the customers were queueing up for real medicine...

I guess people are starting to find out it's just as effective and much cheaper to refill the homeopathic bottles with tap water.

By mayhempix (not verified) on 04 Feb 2009 #permalink

I need to defend Elephant. It used to be my local pharmacy and it was superb. They had a full, real pharmacy there with excellent pharmacists that gave personal attention. There was also a limited video rental business with a great selection of stuff beyond the current blockbusters ($1/night per video) making it more convenient and cheaper than Netflix.

When comparing it to standard pharmacies, the quality of the food, toys, and even greeting cards was better. They had a small grocery section with fresh produce and to-go lunch foods I'd actually want to buy. Even though it was 1/4 the size of many pharmacies, I rarely had trouble finding anything I wanted there.

There was an awesome selection of loose leaf teas that was unparalleled to anything I saw even in the Bay Area. Sure some of teas were next to "medicinal" herbs, but good Oolong tea is still good tea.

As for the CAM stuff, it was there and they taught classes. I think many of the classes were free/cheap and essentially loss-leaders to get people into the store to buy other stuff. Also, meditation, whether it's yoga, tai chi, or other stuff is healthy for many people. The woo and back story attached to it is pointless, but if it provides people motivation to do fitness or meditate, that's not a bad thing (it would be better if lies weren't necessary to bring people in).

Besides the loose leaf medicinal herbs, I'd say there were fewer woo products than you'd find in a Whole Foods or, frankly, a standard supermarket in the Bay Area.

I doubt the store went under because of the CAM stuff. It went under because it was a slightly upscale business during an economic downturn... sorry to disappoint.

I'd argue that Santa Cruz is more an epicenter for woo than Berkeley, but it's certainly a near tie. With Boulder CO and Santa Monica running close for third and fourth.

"I doubt the store went under because of the CAM stuff. It went under because it was a slightly upscale business during an economic downturn... sorry to disappoint.

Posted by: bsci | February 4, 2009 9:55 AM "

I must concur.

There was much more to the "Elephant Pharmacy" than woo. It had lots of charm and consisted primarily of non woo goods. The death of Elephant does little if anything to bring an end to woo in the US and a lot to do with end of charming local stores due to the onslaught of nation wide chain stores, who sell woo on an industrial level, like Whole Food does--going so far as to place Oscillicocinum at checkout counters as an impulse buy. And there is Walgreens, which carries bunk like those "detoxifying" stick on foot pads. Chain Store woo is the mainstreaming of woo and is much, much more dangerous than local hippy culture

I can't comment on the deceased pachyderm in question, but I can verify that our local grocery chain here in Sonoma County has a full CAM section that would put any Whole Foods to shame. I cornered the manager the other day and he graciously listened to my ear candle rant. I gave him a link to the latest installment of The Skeptic Zone featuring Dr. Rachie's scathing podcast on ear candles. He said he doesn't believe in "that crap" . . . but he carries it. He says it can't hurt anybody. I said they were lawsuits waiting to happen (wrote down url for whatstheharm.com). We'll see if he pulls the plug on that particularly stupid brand of woo, but I'm not holding my breath.

bsci has a very good point.

I'm also sorry to say that your premise is probably faulty, too, Chris. While it's true that altie meds can be a luxury afforded to (and by) those with the disposable income to indulge in such low-yield nonsense, you know that too many altie scams also prey on the poor and uneducated.

Really, all that's required is desperation and/or a lack of adequate education; both these things easily cross all socio-economic boundary lines.

By minimalist (not verified) on 05 Feb 2009 #permalink

The description of the Elephant as a "holistic drug store" is pretty misleading. It had a perfectly normal pharmacy section and my parents used to get all their prescriptions filled there. It had lots of nice merchandise and was a great place to get various kinds of small gifts. It was also kind of upscale and probably not making enough money to keep afloat, sort of like the Starbucks across the street, which also closed recently (and which did not sell "holistic" coffee!). So I don't think this really had much of anything to do with woo.

Actually, most woo is of the low-ball variety, and its success in recent years is directly related to soaring health care costs. When somebody has crummy joints, what's going to sound better to them -- taking $40 worth of glucosamine over a few months or having surgery which will cost them thousands of dollars even with insurance to foot part of the bill?

Consider all the ways one can run up a million-dollar medical bill in this day and age, and consider that medical-related bankrupticies are a common, if not the most common, form of bankruptcy in the US. There are a lot more people made broke from regular medicine than there are folks made broke by woo. (Of course, woo's track record isn't so hot, but when you can't afford hospital stays or even high-deductible insurance policies, you take what you can get.)