Seattle's Sugarpill offers treatment and treats
Owner Karyn Schwartz is trained in homeopathy and from her back counter dispenses tinctures produced by a Bastyr University professor. The Capitol Hill shop serves as almost a mix of natural pharmacy, fine-foods shop and gathering place.
CULINARIANS DON'T usually venture far into the medicinal properties of their food. Herbalists aren't generally looking hard at flavor. And yet, "There's so much overlap," says Karyn Schwartz.
That's the intriguing delight of Sugarpill, the little apothecary that Schwartz opened on Capitol Hill. With its antique style and modern ingredients, it's a place to visit for treats as well as treatment.
You could think of elderberry as an element in a delicate wine or a rich jam, for instance, or approach it in different forms as an immune-system booster. Bitters got their start as a digestive aid, but they're today's hot cocktail component. And let's not even start on all the benefits of fine chocolate.
Schwartz is trained in homeopathy and from her back counter dispenses tinctures produced by a Bastyr University professor. But she stresses that the shop is not a clinic, and she is not a primary-care provider; she refers customers to practitioners when warranted.
The shop serves as almost a mix of natural pharmacy, fine-foods shop and gathering place. Local support was necessary from the beginning; Schwartz engineered a variation on a farmers CSA — hers stood for "Community Supported Apothecary" — where members bought into the business in exchange for store credit or supplies. About 100 people joined up front; a convincing enough show of support to gain a small-business loan for the rest.
"This place is magical," one customer said as Schwartz rang up a bottle of Moroccan olive oil. Sort of, in the way medicines, natural ingredients and fine foods all bring their own enchantment. One customer, looking for something to get her brother for his graduation from the Culinary Institute of America, found tantalizing choices such as tiles of bittersweet chocolate, Schwartz's handmade tea blends and thick slabs of pink and rose Himalayan salt blocks, piled like decorative bricks. Another customer asked for help with "a gnarly cold." (The advice: Calendula, which the customer already had at home, and applications of heated towels followed by cold towels in a particular pattern.) The back wall houses an enormous apothecary cabinet, all glass cubbies and teak drawers, while the side walls are lined with everything from herbal toothpaste to jars of salted caramel sauce from Seattle chocolatier Autumn Martin.
Schwartz contracts with local herb growers and foragers, just as locavore restaurants do, for the ingredients in her tea blends and tinctures; she notes that "we have a medicine shed just as we have a food shed."
"It's a little gem," says beekeeper Corky Luster, delivering a replenishing supply of his Ballard Bee honey. But it's more than products, he says: "The minute you meet Karyn, well, you're hooked."
Schwartz was a cook when she came to Seattle in 1989, working the line at the original Globe café, and volunteering with the Chicken Soup Brigade preparing meals for people with HIV and AIDS. She went on to work in a domestic-violence shelter, and then to massage school, which set her "on the path I was supposed to be on," her work as an herbalist and homeopathic consultant. She worked for several years at a Seattle herbalist's shop, went through a training program in San Francisco, and then as a consultant before opening her shop. "Anchoring my intention" was finding her apothecary cabinet at the end of a long sojourn in Thailand; it had served that purpose for many generations in the same family.
Herbs and homeopathy involve natural remedies, but Schwartz operates more as a supportive adviser than a physician or pharmacist or salesman. On the medicinal side of the store, part of her role is to help customers think about the root causes of their complaints. If they're getting colds every month, the discussion might not be about cough-suppressing treatments as much as how to avoid getting colds in the first place. If they come in wanting energy boosters, she might ask if they're getting enough sleep.
"You don't always have to buy something or take something," she says. A good start is to do what you already know you should be doing.
The luxury of the shop is how she can mix hard-line needs with her own interests, such as the rows of culinary salts, some imported, some her own blends. "It's one of those substances that throughout history has changed the world," she notes.
There are many places in modern Seattle to buy these little treats, the ginger cocoa nibs or after-tattoo salves. But Schwartz may be the only seller who recalls with pleasure how a forest fire one year cleared the slopes from which a forager had supplied her with sweet root, a native plant with myriad medicinal purposes — meaning she had no supply for an entire year. It's a reminder that resources are grown, not manufactured, that they have limits just as they have uses.
Which brings her to say, "I love running out of things."
Rebekah Denn is a Seattle food writer and blogger. John Lok is a Seattle Times staff photographer.