Who are you and how would you describe what you do?
My name is Karyn Schwartz and I am the proprietress of SugarPill, a medicinal herbal apothecary in the heart of Capitol Hill. I opened the shop after years of training and practice in herbal medicine, homeopathic medicine and bodywork – and after realizing that I much prefer to work in public where I can teach people about what I have learned over the years, rather than in private practice, which felt isolating to me, and which so many people cannot afford the avail themselves of.
How did you get started?
My beginning was a collision between trying to find alternatives to some chronic health problems of my own that conventional medicine had never been very helpful with, coming out as queer into the early days of the AIDS epidemic and watching helplessly as my best friend died of the terrifying new disease before we even understood the meaning of the blood test results he received as a participant in one of the very first test trials, and working in the field of domestic violence as an advocate for women fleeing violence at home and seeing patterns of illness develop in so many of the families I encountered. Every road kept leading me back to the question of whether a person’s life circumstances and the pressures/oppressions they faced might make them more or less susceptible to certain diseases, and, if so, why was that so rarely considered as an important factor in the treatment of disease?
When I arrived in Seattle in the late 1980’s. I was lucky enough to meet an herbalist the very day I arrived, who invited me to join a study group with some other friends. At the same time, I volunteered as a cook for the brand new Chicken Soup Brigade, and got involved with Act-Up and the nascent needle exchange program, all the while still working in shelters and putting myself through massage school. I really had no idea that herbal medicine would be the though line for me, but in the early 90’s I was hired for my first part-time position as an herbalist at Tenzing Momo, and have been behind an herb store counter for nearly all of the 27 years since.
What do you like about what you do?
I think my favorite thing is teaching people how to take care of themselves : how to listen to what their bodies are telling them, how to understand what needs to be healed and be an active participant in one’s own healing process, and how to advocate for oneself when navigating the onerous healthcare system that we are saddled with. I am so interested in people’s stories, and always so honored that they share their stories with me. I have never made a lot of money doing what I do, but I have always felt like it mattered that I showed up for work each day, and that has meant more to me than almost anything.
What is most challenging about what you do?
Retail is hard, especially in this age of technology where people seem to have all but forgotten that tiny brick and mortar stores are not museums, nor are we living catalogues for online shopping through behemoths like Amazon. If we continue to lose neighborhood stores and other small businesses, we will end up with no real neighborhoods. The people who you see everyday, who know your name and your family and who help you with things that are not even necessarily related to what they stock in their shops – we are all part of the fabric of community, and no discount purchase on line will ever make up for the loss of the safety net that community provides.
It is nearly impossible to keep the doors open as a small shop owner, and increasingly difficult to survive in this town which has apparently chosen to sell its soul to the highest bidder. It has become so inhumane here; the level of disparity and suffering is so high, and while we remain committed to offering our consultation services free of charge for anyone who walks in here, it is sometimes difficult to hold space for so much pain every day while also struggling to keep a roof over our own heads. What I find most challenging is to explain to people practically every day that if all they do is take pictures on their phones of what we sell so they can buy it on line from somewhere else later, then we will cease to exist and the service we provide to the community will disappear as well. I think of the shop as a non-profit organization, where instead of writing grants to do what we do, we essentially have a retail arm of the organization to raise money in order to continue to care for our community.
What education, schooling, or skills are needed to do this?
Because I never set out to do this, my path has been an indirect one. I learned herbal medicine by doing it – just as you would learn a language if you lived in a place where it was spoken. In addition to my original study group, I worked in apothecaries and listened to my coworkers, asked a lot of questions and read everything I could get my hands on, and also went to gatherings where I could attend workshops with a variety of different teachers. I never went to a formal training program for herbal medicine, but I did do formal training in bodywork and homeopathic medicine, and the three have added up to an understanding that is more a way of listening than one particular a system of medicine. If I were just starting today and I knew that this was what I wanted to do, I might choose to do it differently, but I feel lucky that I came up in a time when the city was not crazy expensive to live in and there was more opportunity to practice and learn, and especially that there have been so many people along the way who were willing to share what they knew with me, even when I was not sure where I was heading with it.
What advice would you offer someone considering this career?
Get involved. Be of service to the world. Do not lose heart.
Every one of us has something to offer, and when we stay engaged, we are not so easily convinced that what we believe in and what we care about don’t matter or are impossible.
It is so important to be strategic in how we care for ourselves as well, and certainly herbs and other practices can be a part of staying healthy and hopeful and resilient in times of stress. It does not have to be fancy or time consuming or expensive to care for yourself either. Sometimes just taking your eyes off of your phone and looking at the sky, or sitting still and breathing, or making the time to do something you love is better medicine than anything. We love to help people figure out what they can do to feel better SO THAT they can keep doing whatever it is they do that makes the world a better place for everyone.