Sarah Richards, owner of Homegrown Herb and Tea, provides a brew for mind, body, and community healing in Portland, Maine.
In Homegrown Herb and Tea everything is wooden: the stools, the bark trimmed shelves, the counter over which sweatered elbows lean. Behind the bar Sarah Richards, owner and sole employee, reaches for jars from overhead. Gathering the dried remnants of plants— the hues of damiana, angelica, rose petals, cinnamon sticks, she has translated her experiences with health and teaching into a career of healing through tea. At 195 Congress Street in Portland, Maine, Homegrown sits on the incline of the city’s East End, by the neighborhoods of Victorian houses and East Promenade trails, by the breath of the sea. The shop is appropriately placed. It removes its customers from the brick and cold of the city, dropping each visitor into a space void of time. In a shop without clocks, where minutes are only measured by the steep, tea drinkers lean into their first sips and catch their reflections in bowls of hot tea.
Sarah prepares a cup of her ‘Herban Cowboy,’ a blend of sarsaparilla, ashwaganda, astragalus root, orange peel, and schisandra berries for an “athletic, testosterogenic blend.” She works rhythmically. Her small frame is hidden behind bright knits, blue vintage chords as anachronistic as the rest of her shop. She retains the same ease and energy of the bartender she once was, her hands moving ceaselessly as she skirts her workspace. It is day and the door is open, bringing in passing bodies and fallen leaves.
“I get my love of cooking from my Grammy, she raised five boys during the depression, and she can make a meal out of anything. She can make a meal out of a leather shoe. I think I got my love for cooking and tea-making from her.” She speaks with long vowels that stretch like honey. She punctuates a smile and widens her eyes. “It’s all alchemy.”
Sarah’s use of tea began in early adulthood, when she stocked her cupboards with a variety of Traditional Medicinal brand teas. “I’ve always had the inclination to be that kind of thoughtful about it…a purposeful intention, with specific herbs. That’s always been a way in which I use tea”.
After graduating from college at the University of Maine in Orono, Sarah and her best friend embarked on a road trip spanning from Maine to California, and back. But her return to Maine was met with a strange illness, which landed her in the hospital, in the ICU for eight days. “They proceeded to give me every test under the sun and it was just this horrible, horrible experience…When I finally got home…I had no medical care, no insurance, [I] was very, very broke.” Soon after, when Sarah returned to her practitioner for a follow-up visit, the sign on the wall said that each patient was required to pay in full on the day of service. Sarah told the secretary upfront that she was unable to pay, but asked if she could make later payments. The doctor still refused to see her. “And I realized, wow. I’m going to be alright, like screw you people, but what if I wasn’t going to be alright? I wasn’t even attempting to evade the payment. I just wanted time to pay it. And I remember leaving that experience feeling like, you know what, I am never going to be in this situation again. I am going to find my path of health and stay on it. So that was definitely an inspiration for alternative and natural medicine… it was that year that I started blending tea actually…that was a profound thing in many ways for me…in terms of being a drive, to be the one to make my own tea…to heal myself.”
Using her Encyclopedia of Medicinal Herbs, Sarah spent a good fifteen years making tea for herself, for friends and family, until her discovery of Ayurveda—the medicinal approach based on the teachings and philosophies of the Vedas, the civilization that once stood where India now stands. “Someone gave me a book about Ayurvedic medicine and I was fascinated by it, just the way I was fascinated by my Herbal Encyclopedia, and so I started incorporating that philosophy into my tea making…a whole other complexity and level in regards to herbology, because it deals with the energy of the plant, not just its medicinal components—but whether or not that herb warms you, or cools you, or dries you, or moistens you…that really changed the way I do things…for the better, in terms of being much more effective in healing people.”
Before she took to healing through tea, Sarah was a Spanish teacher at Deering High School and the Lyman Moore Middle School. But over the ten years she spent teaching, her continual dissatisfaction signaled a need for change. “My experience as a teacher [was] every year I felt like ‘Oh next year is going to be a little better, I’m going to really love it this year’ and I never really did. I think that was a little bit of an omen that I was on the way to something else.” After several visits to Spain in her early adulthood, Sarah was certain that education was her calling—but her years working at both schools turned out differently than she had expected. “There’s a lot of stuff that was discouraging…I never really felt like I was able to convey my love of the language and instill that upon my students in the way I [had] dreamed I would…the actual nuts and bolts of public school teaching aren’t really conducive to those great teaching moments.”
Sarah chose to pursue her passion for tea, but not without difficulty. She had to first abandon the security of her job. “As a teacher…when you’re in that world, you get kind of locked into that bubble, and you feel like you can’t give up all that regular, incremental, ‘increasing your pay’ income…the insurance, the security of that, you get kind of locked into the feeling that you can’t give that up…part of that difficulty in making the decision was that I felt as though I was failing…ya know, because I didn’t take it to thirty years and then to retire. So to understand that that was just a building block for who I am, for what brings me here, it helps me appreciate it for being that.”
Although she is no longer pursuing a career in education, Sarah does continue to teach. Her customers continually ask about her practice and for advice concerning how they can independently and naturally preserve their own health. “The fundamental reason that I became a teacher is the same fundamental reason that brings me here, to my tea shop…I [just] think this context is a much better one.” The alignment of bodies at the bar and the pairs of eyes that follow Sarah around her shop create a scene reminiscent of a classroom. “What you put into public school teaching does not equate to the rewards you get out of it. What I put into my business I am directly rewarded…by the people who say ‘This was the best cup of tea I ever had.’ Every day I’m rewarded directly, and verbally, and thoughtfully. And that’s something that teaching does not bring you.” She pauses from her compiling. Her stance is strong; she does not slouch. At Homegrown she is grounded.
About a year after Sarah opened her shop, she read Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, and upon the first read was flooded with all the past signs that lead her to her shop. The story confirms she is where she’s meant to be. It is her history, the assembling of the parts, that has brought her to where she is now.
The wind chimes, hung over the door, ring. Characters of all types sit side by side at the bar: the waitress studying communications, an elderly woman bundled in fleece—visiting to appease her upset stomach, and the quiet man with dark stubble and the occasional smile. Their voices are intermittently paused with sips and slurps of Sarah’s hot alchemy.
These strangers align at her shop to drink, eat, and share conversation in a way few other spaces facilitate. “People come in and automatically share, there’s not a lot of hang-ups about personal stuff…we empower ourselves to heal ourselves by reflecting,” and Sarah’s comfort and open dialogue surrounding ailments are definitely perceived by and transcended to her customers. As Sarah’s confirmed, “[There have been] lots of problems solved [and] lots of good sex stories.”
One young woman came into Homegrown for a tea to suppress “fever blisters,” which she later revealed as herpes. “Ahh yes, Pitta. [The element] fire.” Sarah proceeds to ask her about her diet and the women openly discuss and giggle over the outbreak as Sarah gathers the herbs from her jars. She applies her knowledge of Ayurveda to the preparation of a blend of herbs, each with cooling qualities. In reference to society’s discomfort with discussing afflictions, she adds, “It’s a cultural thing. We look at our ailments as shameful. It’s sad.” A customer adds, “It’s shifting, slowly, and Homegrown is helping.”
Homegrown also seems to be a common spot for victims of the cold season, and with this year’s epidemic of H1N1 spreading rapidly, orders for Sarah’s curative fall tonic and “flu shot” (a potent syrup of honey, lemon and ginger) are on the rise. “Herbs will by no means replace a warm bed, rest, and nourishing foods.” The student-heavy population of Portland is often running low on all three. Yet, they come because they have faith in her drinks; as she’s said before, “Herbal teas—there’s a whole world of healing in them.”
At a time when the economy is struggling and a vast amount of the population lives without health insurance, the responsibility over one’s health seems to have surfaced as a common interest. “I think people are at a point in our culture where they realize that our health system is not about prevention, it’s not about holistic health, it’s not about empowering yourself with the wisdom to heal yourself… People are becoming very aware in this day and age that that’s a possibility and that there are resources for doing so.” Just as she previously experienced a time when lack of insurance kept her from seeing her doctor, what she described as a demeaning experience that at first left her feeling helpless, Sarah now helps her customers empower themselves. Through her, they can find their own paths of health—independent of whatever superstructures the healthcare system has imposed. “I don’t propose to know everything. I don’t propose to help you anymore than you’re willing to help yourself. But, I think doing what I’m doing definitely endorses healing… I think that the knowledge that I have to share is something that people can find very powerful in their journey to be healthy, to find well-being.”
Since Sarah doesn’t have a credit card machine, and only accepts cash or check, she’s developed a system of trust in dealing with her customers. Americans today rely more and more on credit, carrying much less cash in their pockets. Sarah, as a result, keeps a notepad of names and phone numbers so customers can come back and pay at a later date. This merchant-customer relationship, a business style of another time, breeds an exchange of trust and a basis of regular customers. The payment system is perhaps a product of her experience with health care, a reflection of the time that she couldn’t pay up front. Through this minor detail, Sarah manifests in her business the greater changes she’d like to see in the world.
Homegrown opened its doors during a declining economy, followed by the full-fledged “recession” that struck during the fall of 2008, two years into the shop’s life-span. But, despite these “warning signs” that have probably steered other entrepreneurs away, Sarah took free business counseling classes at the Senior Counsel of Executives and took the definitive step in creating her shop—cashing her Maine State Retirement Fund, which allowed her to open her doors with $15,000. Although she was $33,000 in debt by the end of her first year, Sarah clarifies it was “not debt, but investment.”
“I always lived within my means…I got my first credit card at age 33 when I was looking for a house.” Before that, Sarah had paid transaction by transaction. Within the greater community of the United States, where too many people are buried beneath their own debt, Sarah has saved herself and her business a great deal of hardship by dealing in concrete cash whenever possible. By starting her business, she’s had a few realizations. “You have to change your thinking…you can’t live within means, but instead in ‘what’s the amount of debt you can manage.’” By the end of the first year, she needed up to $150 a day to keep the food on the table. And, it worked out. With the business thriving, she has paid back the first $10,000 of her debt in only two years, and continues surfacing: “Now I’m fine, it just takes a little pulse in the beginning.” Although she used to make $40,000 a year while teaching, her standard of living has remained the same. “I still eat well, I still have vacation…I bought one pair of expensive jeans in New York!” And above all, the experience of opening her shop has lead to a new perspective on currency: “It gives you peace about money…you realize its impermanence, it’s really just an illusion.” She smirks and continues mixing her tea.
Although Sarah has met some trouble, she has confidence in the future of her shop. “If you do what you love, the money comes. I believe it more now that I’ve done this.” Additionally, her shop has thrived not only because of the love she brews with every cup, but also as a result of feeding a broad market with an array of products that all work towards the transformation of self—the betterment of one’s health in body and mind. “People do see this as an alternative and something that is less expensive than going to see a specialist and [being] prescribed expensive medication… so in that way it probably does help to be doing what I’m doing, as opposed to doing something else that’s high end. Ya know, I’m a pretty cheap date.” Sarah laughs. A man scratches his beard to hide his smirk.
Her shop is lined with retail products like seedlings, herbs, and aloe plants nestled in recycled yogurt cups that line the windows, soaking up what’s left of the late fall sun. She sells her own homemade skin care products for the three Ayurvedic “doshas,” or metabolic types. She also prepares a “Sexy Man Sandalwood Shaving Cream” and sells large Mason jars of Maine’s dark maple syrup. The front corner of her shop holds baskets of garlic, fruits and vegetables. All of the products are grown locally, brought to her by the many characters that are Maine’s organic farmers. The exceptions are the herbs she cannot grow herself, which she orders from a wholesale dealer in Oregon—which sources each type from their respective lands, from all over the world. She sells all varieties, including personalized blends and the herbs by the ounce. She always throws in a few extra tea bags “gratis.”
Beyond the bar, stools, and slumped bodies, there is a more private, sitting space. There are unmatched pillows, an idle guitar, and bookshelves where the Communist Manifesto leans against the Holy Bible. Where Vietnamese Folktales and The Sex Lives of Animals without Back-Bones (pictures included and dog-eared from use) sit side by side. Travel guidebooks beckon tea drinkers to faraway places, but the bar always remains crowded. People are there to see her as much as they are there to drink tea.
The afternoon light lulls into twilight. Sarah stands up on her little, wooden ladder to reach a few more jars, to prepare a bulk order for the next day. A line of sleepy men sit together—bearded, flannel-wrapped, and yawning over sips of Kava-Kava. Soon it is dark outside, but the street is lit by the windows’ auburn light. The men speak in low voices and are warmed. “The opportunity to go to my dream place is not only completely exhilarating and enormous for me, I think that just transposes to be something very special for other people.” The shop is never silent, never empty. While her door remains unlocked, customers enter to appease their bodies and minds, to breathe in warmth and hear Sarah speak sweetly. “Once you have fun brewing your tea, it’s not a chore. It’s a ritual.” And each week, they all return ritualistically. Between the swinging of the door, the steep, and the sips, Sarah returns each guest to their own alchemy.