Sugarpill: customer service as community service and social justice vs staying open.
Sugarpill is part tinctures, part mercantile, and part customer-service-as-therapy. For this small apothecary, just off the edge of Cal Anderson Park, the past 8 months have revealed the full spectrum of hurt that small businesses are experiencing right now: pivoting to stay alive, the role of customer service as community service, and balancing social justice commitments against keeping the doors open. Plus, a lot of beautiful advice woven throughout, if you need some inspiration for your own meandering career.
Interview with: Karyn Schwartz
Neighborhood: Capitol Hill
Take us back to the beginning - how did you go about launching an apothecary?
I've been in this field for quite a long time, but in a variety of different ways - my trajectory has been a little bit meandering. I worked as a cook, a social worker and then I became a massage therapist in the very early 90s.
When I was setting up my massage practice, I got a job at an herbal apothecary as a side job. I never meant to do this. I was really interested in it; I studied it; and I kept working in it, but it was just supposed to be a side job.
Over time, I got tired of having five different jobs in order to cobble together a life. So, about 12, 13 years ago, I took a job at MSN and was put on a project doing a big branded media project for a national healthy living company. I got to use all of my accumulated knowledge in a very different way and I was able to make an actual living. I worked at home and I had all the time in the world - you would think that I’d want to pursue that.
But the thing is, I didn't like working at home - I was really lonely. I missed the over-the-counter exchange, I missed having somebody walk in and then just casually ending up having a very intimate conversation with them – it felt like it really mattered that I showed up to work every day. You know, I never made money, but I always felt like I was doing good work.
At least once a day, usually more, something would happen between me and another human that I felt really mattered. And I realized over time that that sense of purpose was my through line. It was that sense of connection and being part of a community and being part of a neighborhood. And it was really the thing that made me happiest.
When I was working at home, I was so anxious all the time - I felt really disconnected. I didn't feel like I had anything to say at the end of the day and I missed it. So, I realized I needed to go back to the apothecary but, this time, I had to do it for myself.
You and I are the same person! I have always described myself as an introvert in an extrovert’s job. I get so much energy from working with people but I’ve really had to develop my own ways of working and building relationships with others, so that I don’t drain all my energy.
It is crazy. I am a singer too - I can get up on stage in front of thousands of people, but I don’t like going to parties and having to meet people. So, if I have a job to do, I’m good. I used to have a catering company and I loved catering art gallery openings. As long as I was behind the counter, sharing the plates of food, I was good - I could talk to anyone. But, if I was a guest at that event, I was a wallflower.
I've been in Seattle 31 years now and I've been behind a counter for most of that time - it's how I know so many people and know their stories. It's such an honor – I know so many people's lives…I get to know their stories, know their lives and I carry them with me. It's just the most amazing gift.
So when I decided to build out my own space, I reflected a lot on how much I've learned to witness people and be with them through all of the different modalities within which I work.
And, it was almost like the retail is beside the point. The retail is just the nonprofit that support my mission. I’m still here after all these years and I'm able to offer people the knowledge that I've accumulated, for free. You know, across the board, people have said, “what I just told you, I've never told anyone – I haven’t told my doctor, or my therapist, or my partner yet”. I've been this holder of people’s privacies for a very long time and they didn't expect to share. And that’s a really sacred thing to me. Most of what happens here is really invisible. I used to tell my students that if you need to be applauded for the work that you do, go learn a musical instrument, or go be onstage, because the work that we do as community herbalists, it's invisible. It's supposed to be. It's not something that you go out and get rewarded for. It's something that you do because you have a calling.”
And when I finally recognized that, it became really clear how to build a space to contain that kinetic.
When you launched this, 10 years ago, who were the people that were coming in? Was this something that was fairly new to them or was it already a way of life for them?
It was both. There were people who came to me right out of the gate, and then there are still people to this day who stop in here and have no idea what we do.
When you first walk in, it's not obvious that we do herbal medicine. What's in the front is all the other lovely things we sell. Most apothecaries make their money by stealth nutritional supplements. That's not what I do. The clientele looking for that already is educated about natural health. I wanted to be out there to welcome in people who had no idea about natural health options - I wanted to broaden that constituency. I wanted some of the interactions to just be about fancy jam or nice chocolate or pretty smelling candles. And then maybe years down the line, people are like, hey, what else do you do here?
It’s a little bit of a different model. And it's lovely. It keeps things light. It brings in people that wouldn't necessarily step into an apothecary. And it has made my clientele a lot broader than any other place I'd ever worked.
It has also made me more relevant to the neighborhood.
Where did you find yourself this year, coming off of the busy holiday season and heading into 2020?
I had a feeling about this year. I was paying attention to what was happening in China and I was scared because I have felt for a long time that we were overdue for something major. I also had a feeling about this year, politically. Big election years are always challenging because people get scared.
So my desire for this year was to pull back a little from our dependency on the holiday seasons; pare the store down; and refocus more on medicine. I did want to get back to the original mission.
I thought this year was going to be really difficult for all of us. And my hope was that we would get through it by taking care of each other. I knew I could focus on teaching the resilience to get through what's going to come during the year. We had to collectively go into 2020 with as much optimism and hope and resilience and commitment as we can.
And, in what ways were you initially impacted by COVID? We ended up closing the store about 10 days before the mandate – we saw it coming and, as a small store, we needed to be more careful. We had decided that our job at that point was to shut down and encourage other people to do the same.
There were people who were upset with me because they felt like I was alarming our community and that it was going to affect other businesses.
And, then CHOP was here, we shut down completely again.
You are not just on Capitol Hill, you are steps from Cal Anderson Park. In what ways have protests affected your work?
It's so complicated. I came to this work and I come to this community as an activist. I've been a street medic - I've been the person taking care of people during the protests. For a lot of my life, I've been the person out on the street. I believe in protest.
Over the years, Cal Anderson has become the place where things start. That didn't used to be true. It certainly wasn't true when I first started being here. But, now, every march starts at my doorway. Every time anything happens, I lose the day and I'm mostly OK with it, with being here in a holding space and being part of a community.
But I feel challenged because what started out as something that felt righteous and strategic and pinpointed so quickly devolved into something that went sideways and in really predictable ways.
I believe that the police unions are **ed up. And I believe that policing in most major cities is beyond problematic and that there needs to be, if not a de-funding, then at least a re-funding of police. We need to put our support into communities instead of just into policing.
But, on the ground, what started to happen was honestly a lot of false promises by people who couldn't back them up. It was not in alignment with what Black Lives Matter is calling for. And, it was not in line with the support that this diverse community was trying to offer. We couldn’t work because of the pandemic and, now, none of us can work because our neighborhood is being occupied – we’re all boarded up and our customers are really afraid to come here.
It's been really difficult to know how to speak about it when obviously I support the reasons for this, but I’m also a business owner.
What do you wish the community or your customers understood about your work right now?
I'm more worried about the neighborhood as a whole than I am about my particular business. I'd like to stay here, but I don't know what I'm staying here to find out, when this is over and if everything around me is shut down and I'm in the middle of a ghost town. That's the question every business owner is asking themselves right now. It's going to be really hard for anybody to survive.
When you think about how much of the community is small business – it’s half the economy – it should be more obvious what kind of collective danger we're in. If small businesses go under - it's not just your favorite restaurant or your favorite bar - it's the entire economy. And it's everybody's well-being.
I wish that people understood how precarious this moment is - we haven't gone over the precipice yet, but we are on it.
And, on a governmental level, I wish the structure of searching for assistance was set up differently. It makes me angry that the onus has been on every small business owner to apply for assistance that essentially allows us to pay our rent for spaces we can't use right now so that our landlords can pay their mortgages and keep the banks alive…it’s backwards.
Instead, there should be programs where land owners apply for assistance to be able to pay their mortgages so that they don't have to charge their tenants, whether it's residential or commercial, so that everybody can shelter in space, which is what we're being asked to do. If you want the entire country to shelter in place, then we need to not be paying for that place.
We all need to be able to be here, where we live and where we work, when this is over.
And I wish that the people who really are the haves would realize that they have to pay for it. They have to choose to redistribute their own wealth and make this OK. Otherwise, the city's going to turn inside out.
If you’re working right now, you have to order takeout from your favorite restaurant or it's going to be done. You have to take your dog to daycare or it's going to be gone. You have to pay for that haircut and stop cutting your own bangs. And then you have to tip. If you have the means right now, your job right now is to help.
Hey, Seattle, here's how you can help!
And, take Karyn's advice: order takeout from your favorite restaurant or it's going to be done. Take your dog to daycare or it's going to be gone. Pay for that haircut and stop cutting your own bangs. And then tip.