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Herbal apothecary brings botanicals to the people

Anna Soref

April 24, 2008

4 Min Read
Herbal apothecary brings botanicals to the people

It's the day before Valentine's Day at Rebecca's Herbal Apothecary and Supply in downtown Boulder, Colo., and the pot of Sweet Love herbal tea brewing for customers to sip infuses the shop with scents of marshmallow and raspberry. A cook from the neighboring Japanese restaurant rushes in to refill a bottle of the store's burn salve for the kitchen. A mother with her 2-year-old daughter arrives from nearby Denver to pick up some holy basil and browse the shelves. In the corner, the super-mellow store dog Tincture awaits a caress from a passerby.

For store owner Rebecca Luna, the scene is exactly what she envisioned when she graduated from Rocky Mountain School of Botanical Studies some 15 years ago. A clinical practice was not for her. "Herbalism is the people's medicine, and I wanted to bring it to my community," she says.

In the years between graduation and opening Rebecca's, Luna honed her skills and knowledge teaching medical herbalism, including two years on the faculty at Bastyr University in Seattle. This not only gave her a chance to save the money to open the shop, but also allowed her to wait until her now 15-year-old son was old enough "to handle the long hours I would be at the store," Luna says.

Now in its third year, sales are strong at the bustling little shop off Boulder's outdoor pedestrian mall. Most of the store's revenue comes from the 200 bulk herbs in gallon-size glass bottles that line the shelves and give the store a homey, old-fashioned apothecary feel. Luna also stocks "everything one needs to make herbal medicine," she says. Wooden bins and drawers are stuffed with stoppers, eyedroppers and bottles in every size and shape.

The staff concocts fresh, small-batch personal care products and creates the store's line of herbal tea blends. A book section houses the "best collection of herbal texts" in Colorado, Luna says.

Luna employs six part-time certified herbalists along with an office manager and a marketing employee. "We have some of the best herbalists in the country working behind the counter right here —it's amazing," she says.

Even though her staff is qualified to practice herbalism, consultations are not given in the shop. "We give resources [for qualified practitioners in the area] or historical uses for ailments, but if someone comes in with ovarian cysts, we are just going to give [her] a great referral [to a local expert] and a good book," Luna says.

Community is a guiding force at Rebecca's. "The idea of the shop was very much to support the local community," Luna says. She buys as much of her bulk herbs as possible from local organic farmers. Second priority is given to smaller, national organic family farms, followed by larger organic distributors.

Customer service at Rebecca's comes with a dose of conscience. "I have a big issue with herbal medicine not being accessible to the masses," Luna says. To that end, many of the store's products are available in small, affordable sizes, including essential oils priced to the drop. "If you are tight with funds but just really want some rose absolute oil, you can bring something in here and we'll put three drops of it in," she says.

Luna also wants customers to feel at ease in the shop, even if they aren't knowledgeable about herbs. "The first thing we do when someone walks in is offer them a cup of tea," she says. "I don't want them to feel intimidated or feel like they have to buy anything, but that they can just walk around. We offer for them to smell any herb they feel attracted to; we all put our egos aside."

The store's customers run the gamut. "Many of our repeat customers are people who use herbs every day, often families," Luna says. "We have every herbalist in town coming in here for herbs; we are the go-to place for herbalists." Frequent customers include athletes looking for relief from aching muscles, and pregnant women who can't use conventional medicine.

You might wonder how Rebecca's does such a brisk business in Boulder, home to more than half a dozen natural products stores, but it is precisely these stores that send Rebecca's much of its business. "[The neighboring natural products stores] have been so pivotal in me doing well. Whole Foods has been very supportive, and a founder of Pharmaca came to see what I was doing," Luna says. "They don't sell bulk herbs, so it sort of takes the pressure off them. I give them stacks of cards and get referred customers every day."

Luna's philosophy for success has always been customer loyalty rather than markup. When starting the store, "I asked myself, ?How can I get repeat customers?' and decided it was by not gouging them," she says. "So markup is much lower than most places, and this business model has paid off."

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIX/number 4/p. 46

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