Another kind of ‘green’

Laura BrownLaura Brown came to Vermont in 1988 to manage a Church Street bookstore, but her love of herbs led her to open Purple Shutter Herbs in Burlington in 1995. Thirteen years later, she has relocated to Winooski and business is thriving.

by Holly Hungerford

Laura Brown made her first herbal formulation at the age of 9 in an attempt to get rid of the many freckles on her face. Surprisingly enough, the concoction actually worked, though the addition of yew berries did make her face swell up for a few days.

“I almost killed myself,” says Brown with a chuckle. Obviously, the experience did not turn her away from herbal concoctions. Brown is the proprietor of Purple Shutter Herbs in Winooski.

Inside her small shop, the walls are lined with bottles of tinctures, big jars holding a great variety of dried herbs, specially formulated teas, and a new line of products for pets developed by her employee, Kelley Robie. Brown offers each customer a cup of tea to sip while looking around. Customers come from all walks of life and all age groups. The ratio of women to men is about 65/35, she says.

When Brown opened Purple Shutter Herbs in Burlington in 1995, she wanted to differentiate herself from area health food stores by offering only herbs, and not vitamins or other supplements. She decided to stock a complete collection of herbs from the get-go. Buying herbs directly from growers — many of whom are in Vermont — and not from distributors (except for those plants that don’t grow in the United States), meant her herbs would be as fresh as possible.

“A good quality herb should have a fresh color and strong smell — sometimes not too pleasant — and should feel alive in your body,” says Brown. “Herbs are what we eat every day, Why they work so well is that the body identifies them as food.”

Brown’s affinity for herbs awakened when she was a child growing up in Bloomfield, Conn. A voracious reader, she loved folklore and fairy tales from around the world. Many of them included the use of plants for good and evil. She has been using homeopathic remedies for most of her life, in part because of her sensitivity to Western medicines and vaccines.

After graduating from George Washington University with a bachelor of arts in comparative religion and another in Judaic studies, she moved to California for graduate studies at UCLA, focusing on folklore and mythology.

Throughout her college career, she worked in bookstores, and it was a bookstore that brought her back East in 1979. She managed Ridgewood Books in Ridgewood, N.J., an intellectual, literary bookstore — “there was no romance section,” she says with a smile — until 1988, when she moved to Burlington to take a job as manager and buyer for Chassman and Bem, a Church Street bookstore.

Kelley RobiePart-timer for 10 years, Kelley Robie is Brown’s only employee. She has developed a new line of products for pets. Robie is an herbalist, an iridologist, an animal communicator, and an educator.

Although she loved the store, the fit wasn’t a good one, she says, and in 1989, Brown joined the staff of Seventh Generation doing telephone sales. Over the next four years, she moved up in the company, eventually serving as product development director.

At Seventh Generation, she kept a cache of homeopathic remedies in her desk drawer. Soon, she began helping coworkers. After work, she’d go home and formulate remedies, which she delivered to her colleagues the next morning. It wasn’t long before she realized she was enjoying her work as the company herbalist more than the work she’d been hired to do.

Her mother’s death in 1992 allowed Brown to take some time off and reassess her life. During this time, she visited a close friend in Florida and, just for fun, they decided to try their hand at making orange blossom water. They had a blast. Her friend asked her to move to Florida so they could open a herb shop together. After much thought and research, Brown decided against the move, choosing instead to attend a homeopathy school in England.

Brown never made it to England; her plans were rerouted when her massage therapist gave her a flier about a course in herbal medicine taught by Rosemary Gladstar, a well-known Vermont herbalist. For eight months in 1994, Brown spent one weekend a month at Sage Mountain in Orange, apprenticing with Gladstar.

The land and all she was learning had a profound impact on Brown. “I rooted myself back into the world of being human,” she says. At the end of the course, the participants talked about how they would use what they’d learned. One wanted to start a salve business, another was glad to know how she could better take care of her family. Brown wasn’t certain what she wanted to do, but one of the participants piped up, saying Brown would be opening a store, as if that was already a done deal. It got Brown thinking.

Shortly after finishing her apprenticeship with Gladstar, Brown happened across a poster advertising a course on starting a business, offered by the Department of Employment and Training. She decided to check it out, since opening a store did seem like a possibility, and additional business training wouldn’t go amiss. To her delight, and her professor’s astonishment, Brown found a location for her new store her first day of looking, and Purple Shutter Herbs was born.

“I felt like my whole life led up to this,” says Brown. She moved into 100 Main Street in Burlington in June 1995 and opened her doors on August 17. Customers started asking about classes right from the beginning, Brown recalls. “Classes had been part of the original business plan, but not right away,” she says. “I was a one-man band! But the first three people who walked in the store wanted classes, so I called some friends to help teach them.” She began by offering four in the fall of ’95. Last winter she offered 21.

Brown loves to teach, but since she can’t teach every class, she hires teachers: local practitioners who complement what she offers at the store, her staff people, and her customers.

Over time, property taxes in Burlington became higher than she wanted to handle, and Brown decided it was time to move. On May 2, 2006, she opened the store on West Canal Street in Winooski.

With the move came a return to the original vision for Purple Shutter Herbs. Brown stopped carrying cards and gifts, products that had slowly appeared in the Burlington store, instead focusing on her apothecary.

Robie and KellyRobie and Brown join forces to decant herbal tinctures.

Longtime customer and friend Bruce Post of Essex loves the new location, one he used to frequent when it was a barber shop. “It’s not only the herbs; there’s a special atmosphere and energy there. The smaller store is intimate and very much part of the community.” He credits Brown with opening him up to different perspectives about life, the natural world, and healing. “One can really benefit from knowing plants better, knowing what they can do for you,” he says.

Naturopaths from around the state send their patients to Brown, who alone mixes all the prescribed salves, balms, and tinctures. She is also adept at formulating teas, some of which are bought by Dobra Tea House and Muddy Waters in Burlington. Brown is especially proud of her line of teas called the Five Seasons of Vermont. These are beverage teas, as opposed to medicinal ones, that look and smell like each season and contain herbs to support an individual through each season. The fifth season? “Mud!” Brown exclaims.

Brown calls herself a “community herbalist” in the tradition of herbalists dating back hundreds of years. Her shop is a gathering place for local residents, college students, and people looking to further their knowledge of herbal practices and health. Traditionally, knowledge was passed on from person to person. “It’s not just ‘Come into my store and buy something’; it’s ‘Come into my store and let me teach you how to make it,’” Brown says.

For the last 10 years, Brown has employed Kelley Robie as a part-time staff person. Robie is also an herbalist, like all the part-timers Brown has employed in the past, as well as an iridologist (“one who reads the iris to help determine what’s going on with the body,” says Brown), an animal communicator, and an educator with her own private practice.

Brown speaks highly of Robie and all the people she has worked with over the last 13 years. “I could not possibly have kept this store going without the assistance of my staff. I think of them as partners in this endeavor, looking to them for suggestions, feedback and support.” Increasing Robie’s line of products to treat animals is part of Brown’s vision for the future of Purple Shutter Herbs.

Away from the shop, Brown enjoys quiet pursuits in the company of her two cats, Lord Leonarus Cardiaca Dandelion (named for motherwort), and his sister, Zingiber (named for ginger). She still loves to read, especially cozy mysteries — novels typically set in the English countryside or other benign environments, where the main character is usually not a detective, says Brown. “They tend to be written by former English professors, and a lot of them are British.” Brown also likes to watch movies and meditate.

Despite spending most of her time around herbs in her shop, she finds great pleasure at home from making vinegars and liqueurs, preparing herbal recipes from the Middle Ages, and developing new formulations for use today.•