Langley’s herbalism scene recently got a whole lot richer with the opening of an apothecary that’s fresh off the boat from the mainland.
South Whidbey resident Karyn Schwartz is the owner of SugarPill, where she has formulated custom herbal medicine since 2011. Earlier this year, she moved the business from Capitol Hill in Seattle to Whidbey Island, where she now lives with her partner.
“The transition was a lot. I had a very loyal and deep clientele there from all the years of doing what I do out in the world,” Schwartz said. “So it was a big decision. It was a lot to leave behind.”
Schwartz moved to Seattle in 1989. One of the first people she met was an herbalist, who helped her with some health problems that Western medicine couldn’t solve. They started a study group focused on teaching each other about plants.
Schwartz attended massage school and trained in homeopathic medicine. She worked in several apothecaries before eventually opening her own.
Along the way, she carved out a job for herself to do what she really wanted: helping others with their various ailments with her extensive knowledge on the medicinal use of plants.
“This is not a very rewarding career if you’re trying to get rich,” she said with a laugh. “But I’m so happy to share what I know, and this is the best way for me to do that. I’ve had private practices, but I don’t want you to have to pay me for that time. I’d rather if you want to buy a really pretty bar of soap or a chocolate bar and I helped you cure your sinus infection, that’s a win-win.”
But she’s not a miracle worker, which is something Schwartz is very straightforward about with anyone who comes into her apothecary on First Street. Oftentimes, customers leave empty-handed, and she sends them off with homework, such as paying attention to their own bodies.
“I’m really good at saying ‘I don’t know,’” Schwartz said. “That’s part of my training, is to not go outside of the scope of my own practice.”
With the rise of the digital era and readily accessible information, she has found that many people have preconceived notions of what remedy they need to feel better. In the herbal world of googling, a lot of search results are from companies selling a product and touting its merits. They’ll tell you why you need the product, even though they’ve never met you.
“It can be at best, useless and, at worst, really dangerous,” Schwartz said.
What works for one person might not work for another. Some people find chamomile calming, for example, while others may be allergic to it.
“I have very few pre-made remedies here because the whole point of what we do is to be just a little more personal than I think that you’re used to getting in a store, just a little more hands-on,” Schwartz said.
In SugarPill, antique sliding glass doors protect concentrated herbal extracts in dark little bottles known as tinctures, which are dispensed by the ounce or used to formulate medicinal elixirs. A couple of hundred bulk herbs line a matching set of drawers; while traveling in southeast Asia, Schwartz received the furniture from a 100-year-old pharmacy in Bangkok that was closing down in 2010.
“People come in because they can’t sleep, because they’re anxious, because their digestion is crappy, because they’re moody, because they don’t like their job anymore,” she said.
For a stressed reporter working on a deadline, she combined a fragrant mix of chamomile, rose petals, betony, elderflowers and basil, to be brewed into a tea.
“I think a lot of what happens is people come in and they’re like, ‘What do you have for sleep?’” Schwartz said. “And it’s easy to be like, ‘Ooh, I have this for sleep. This bottle says it’s good for sleep.’ But that doesn’t mean it’s good for your sleep.”
Many products in the store contain botanicals, such as candles, body oils and incense. One can also find soap made out of seawater and writing ink made from guns.
Nonalcoholic spirits are legion, from aperitifs to wines to cocktails. SugarPill started carrying these drinks during the pandemic, when many were searching for an alternative beverage that did not contain alcohol.
SugarPill joins a wealth of other wellness businesses in the Village by the Sea, including TONIC Juice & Remedy, Ritual Mischief and Star Store Basics.
“It was intimidating, being the new girl in town, and I couldn’t have asked for a warmer welcome,” Schwartz said.
SugarPill is located at 214 First Street in Langley and is open Thursday through Monday from 11 a.m. until 5 p.m. or later.