Sugarpill Founder Believes Wellness is Liberation

Few things are more fascinating than seeing a story unravel from past to present as if the path had been traced all along, and when I spoke to the owner of apothecary shop Sugarpill Seattle, that’s precisely what happened.

As Karyn Schwartz began recounting where this all started, her great grandmother came to mind. “There’s no doubt that my great-grandmother was an herbalist, there’s no doubt that she came here [to the U.S.] with plants and seeds and had a garden and took care of her family, but she died when I was really young and that knowledge wasn’t shared with me.”

Nonetheless, Karyn has never been a stranger to the subject of healing. “Growing up, I had some health problems Western medicine wasn’t very good for. So that sent me on a life-long quest of my own to try to find wellness and understand, even if I couldn’t articulate it until much later, that wellness is liberation, and health is freedom.”

Karyn came out as queer during college, at a time “when the AIDS plague was just starting,” and many questions began to pop up in her personal life. “I felt like, how can you be well if you’re not welcome? How can you be well if you’re not accepted? How can you be well if you’re not visible? How can you be well if you’re not loved and safe?”

She spent a great deal of time in college exploring these questions and wondering if physical well-being could be affected when you’re not welcome and accepted by the culture and society around you. “There wasn’t really a field in medicine to study that, psychoneuroimmunology is a field now, but I don’t know if it was then and if it was I didn’t have a language for it,” she expressed.

With that subject in the back of her mind, Karyn moved from upstate New York to Seattle in 1989. “I put my feet into the community immediately, because I wanted to figure out where I belonged…I began working at the Globe Café, where people were seemingly more interested in natural health. I started learning stuff, I met herbalists, massage therapists, people doing all kinds of interesting work.”

how can you be well if you’re not welcome? How can you be well if you’re not accepted? How can you be well if you’re not visible? How can you be well if you’re not loved and safe?”

Karyn became good friends with one particular herbalist, they started hanging out and ended up created a study group. “We had a group of people interested in herbs for different reasons, and we would meet once a month, and assign ourselves a topic or a project. We would all go and try to learn as much as we could, and then we’d come back to teach each other. We did that for years, and that’s how my road to herbalism began.”

“While all that was happening, I was still struggling with my own personal health problems.” She had to stop working at the café and decided to go into social work, something she’d done in the past. Devoting herself to domestic violence work was extremely tough. “It starts to become very difficult to believe that anyone can have a healthy relationship when you’re surrounded by trauma all the time. And what I also saw was that everybody at the shelter was sick all the time, so that old question started coming up again, how can you be healthy if you’re not safe? If you’re not welcome? If you’re not taken care of?”

Once again, this question prompted a meaningful life change. “I realized I was too young to be doing the work I was doing, it was making me scared, unhappy, and a little crazy…It was kind of impulsive, but I decided to go to massage school, learn a trade that I could do that would help people, and then figure out my next step.”

During the interview process for massage school, Karyn’s health problems came up, and she was encouraged to see a homeopath. “I saw her, and she saved my life,” she stated. “She understood why I was sick, the way I was sick, and she gave me some sugar pills for about a year. I’ve never had that problem again, and that was 27 years ago.”

“Finally, in my own body I had the profound experience of healing, not just curing or suppressing something, making it seem like it went away, but actually healing,” and from this personal understanding, the ethos of Sugarpill began to materialize.

“I thought if I could have a shop like this, anyone can walk in here and ask me whatever they want, and maybe I can help them make sense of something. I’m not their doctor or their healer, but I’ve learned through my own body and life things I understand pretty clearly, and the best way to teach people was just to be here in public.”

Of course, the logistics of it were easier said than done. “I had no idea how I was going to do this. I had no money, I didn’t have any business experience.” A heart to heart conversation she had had with her girlfriend, came to mind, “she really helped me, she kicked my ass. Without her, I would have never made it to the finish line because she was able to see that it was possible.”

And since seeing is believing, the many women Karyn had connected to in Seattle really made a difference. “I started looking at all these women in my life who had manifested businesses because they were scrappy and didn’t give up, and I started reaching out to them…every single one of them said, ‘just do it!’…I had the gift of a big community of people who cheered me on, of many people who over the years knew me and trusted me…So when I opened the doors I was already in business, I had a lot of people cheering me on.”

Of course, her initial success is not to say it’s been easy keeping the doors open for the past 7+ years. “The biggest obstacle to what I do here is that it’s a retail store, it’s 2019, and this is the town that Amazon started in.” Despite this, Karyn is absolutely aware of the importance of her presence. “Every day that I’ve come to work, whether it’s here or all the other things that I’ve done, I always felt like it mattered that I showed up, even if it was just something small. I feel like my sense of belonging in the world is so tied to feel like it mattered that I showed up and that it was a good thing I came to work today because maybe it made somebody else’s day a little bit easier and I feel like that’s really what I try to do now.”

If you’re in Seattle stop by Sugarpill and treat yourself to the beautiful & unique gems offered, and if you’re in any other part of the world, consider supporting your local stores and recognizing the incredible value they bring to our communities!

*This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


Salome Gomez Upegui