By Setota Hailemariam
Denise moved effortlessly around the narrow room covered wall-to-wall in buckets of loose-leaf tea and bundles of sage as she instructed a customer in the ways of smudging and praying to the archangel Michael.
Smudging, or the ancient practice of burning sacred herbs in order to let their smoke bless a space, can be done safely at home by heating the herbs in a frying pan, she said.
“Do you have a tea to help my son sleep?” the customer asked next, clearly trusting her advice. “He wants to be up on social media.”
At Smile Herb Shop in College Park, patrons don’t simply find solutions to their problems — they receive guidance as well, individually tailored to their symptoms or needs by the attentive staff.
Located in a now-sleepy section of the city’s formerly bustling Berwyn neighborhood, the small business housed in a rustic cottage looks just like a blast from the past, with a creaking watermill out front and wooden steps, which lead to a front porch filled with tables of books with titles like “Chia Seeds Remedies.”
Now in its 43rd year of operation, Smile has come a long way since its founding in the early ’70s by a woman called “Sweet Cicely,” who sold roots, skulls in herb jars and other tokens of nature in the building next door to the current Smile shop.
That has much to do with current co-owner Tom Wolfe, who took over the business in 1975, accepting it for free from Sweet Cicely on the condition he pay her back later. She eventually refused his money when he attempted to do so.
Wolfe and his wife Linda bought the current Smile shop property in 1978, and developed the business greatly, expanding its wares from just herbs to also include essential oils, vitamins, incense and more.
Today, the store also offers a wide range of weekend classes and webinars that focus on alternative medicine and its many offshoots, from herbalism certificate courses taught by a registered nurse to perfume-making and self-healing-through-art classes.
“What we really are focused on doing is just maintaining a place in the community for everybody to come and get the herbal healing that they’re looking for,” retail store manager Olivia MacMillan said.
“Every last one of the employees here is considered an herbalism student or better … when you come here and you’re looking for help, we don’t just say ‘Well, this is a popular product’ and pull it off the shelf,” she continued, emphasizing the individualized approach the store takes when helping customers.
Most of those customers have been drawn to the store from the power of word-of-mouth, and they come from all walks of life.
“We get … 90-year-olds coming in for bone strength, to keep their bones from breaking, God bless them, still wandering around and driving … all the way through to college students looking for party detox,” MacMillan said.
Smile has a lot of regular customers, some of whom have been coming since its early years, but it also sees many new ones, despite a lack of foot traffic to the shop.
MacMillan foresees a stable future for the store, though, thanks to the work of co-owner Wolfe.
“He is dedicated to the mission of Smile Herb Shop. When there have been hard times, there is nothing that he doesn’t … put into the store to make sure the store continues to run, and I have no doubt that this place will continue to go until probably forever.”
Forming connections with customers is key for small businesses like Smile, according to Ari Hirsch, manager of Arlington Nutrition Corner in Arlington, Virginia.
“Making a lasting impact on people does do well for smaller businesses,” he said. “It doesn’t feel so corporate to a lot of people, which can be very off-putting.”
Bruce Brooks of Largo, Maryland, looked on as his mother listened to Denise’s personalized instructions. It was his first time at Smile Herb Shop, but it had already left a good impression.
“I’ve never been to one of these types of stores before,” he said. “I think I just like the energy and the atmosphere.”
Featured Photo Credit: A sign outside Smile Herb Shop tells customers to smile as they walk past. (Setota Hailemariam/Bloc Reporter)
Setota Hailemariam is a sophomore journalism major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.