Masha Tea probably started one childhood summer in Kauneonga Lake, New York, in a tiny bungalow where the Soviet Jews, my family included, would flee Brooklyn to breathe forest air, swim in lakes, pick mushrooms, and drink tea on porches while flower patterned sheets hung on very visible clotheslines. I’ve since become a naturopathic doctor, moved back to Brooklyn, and formalized my tea habit by making it a business.
Since its founding in fall 2018, I’ve shared the romance, elegance, and poetry of tea and herbs mostly through partnerships with cafes, restaurants, and shops. When this global pandemic hit and so many of those places closed, I grieved, and realized that I needed to gently pivot. I revisited my online store, updated, started offering NYC bike delivery under the moniker “La Teacyclette,” and opened up more sliding scale visits in my (now virtual) naturopathic practice.
Was it uncouth to continue? Would everything be okay? As up to 40% of small businesses are at risk of permanently closing over the next six months, I decided to turn for guidance towards four businesses I admire.
I first met Melissa Brzuszek and Kristina Pyton at the Noguchi Museum. I was doing a tea tasting there and they were buying Akari light sculptures for their new shop, Mizutama, in Industry City.
“Our main goal was to create a space to reconnect with nature, and the first reactions we would get is ‘is this real’ and we would say ‘everything is real.’” What started as a floral design studio grew into a shop for unusual objects, crystals, and plants.
They made the decision to close their shop very early on, and are using this time to rest. “We didn’t panic about must sell, must whatever.”
What I can say about Mizutama’s vibe is that right after we got off our two-hour Zoom call, during which I was transfixed by the pair’s Sphinx cats, I texted my sister that she should make an altar immediately, and that we needed to start visualizing abundance and deep desires.
What about the crystals? I had to ask. “All the giant crystals we brought home, except for one super giant one [that we left] to still hold space for the space.”
Next, I called Sarah Ryhanen, founder of Saipua. We spoke as she stood in a field of sheep at The Farm at Worlds End in Montgomery, New York. “Worlds has no apostrophe,” Sarah told me of the name, “because we are always cycling through many worlds ending.”
Sarah started an olive-oil soap shop in Brooklyn in 2006, then “caught the flower bug,” and grew a multi-million-dollar floral events company. After a few years, she “lost touch with the original feeling that flowers had given,” and decided to move upstate to grow flowers and start an art residency program.
As Sarah hung out with her sheep and I stared out the window of my Greenpoint kitchen drinking holy basil tea, she spoke about the sensuality of hand washing and I asked about her soaps and wool pelts. “People still need small experiences of beauty,” she noted. Since her wholesale accounts, weeklong summer residencies, and educational programming at the farm are closed, she has added some additional colors of taper candles to her website, but added that right now doesn't feel like the right time to push her products. As I saw Masha Tea reflected in the Saipua story, I remembered that what I consider to be the most successful moments in my business came not from pushing, but when I wasn’t looking.
One such moment came when I got an email from Alexandra Hodkowski and Mösco Alcocer asking if I would do the tea program at their new Clinton Hill cafe, Head Hi.
Head Hi started as a series of international art shows in Rockaway Beach, in an advocacy move against the Williams Pipeline. The space near the Brooklyn Navy Yard opened a few months later. “The second someone walks in we greet the person and acknowledge them, regardless of the reason why they’re here.” Mösco and Alexandra treat the tourist, the fashion designer, the farmer, the writer, and the person who has lived on the block for their entire life with the same degree of curiosity and respect. This kindness, their ever-changing book selection, and Parlor Coffee (roasted down the street and currently providing “brew it forward coffee” for frontline workers), give Head Hi what can only be described as a cult following. As the physical location closed, they moved online, curating and delivering timely magazines and books along with cafe items.
After getting off the phone with Head Hi, I made myself a cup of genmaicha tea, put on a red turtleneck, and entered another Zoom call. Lisa Fine spoke to me from her bathroom floor, in front of a gorgeous white and forest green shower curtain, a place of refuge from her two kids and husband, Michael, with whom she runs Quiet Town Home. They make colorful bath mats and a set of artful shower curtains out of canvas. As I wondered about how many people are finding moments of silence in and around their bathtubs as we speak, Lisa told me about their initiative to upcycle canvas scraps into masks. To continue to employ sewers who are now homebound, Quiet Town is using all proceeds from masks to pay salaries, and is donating three masks for every three that are purchased to hospitals, food banks, and childcare facilities in New York and North Carolina, where their factories are based.
“Our business has been really strong because everyone is home and thinking ‘I’ve been living with this awful shower curtain for years and now I finally have time to do something about it,’ which is why one of the reasons that making these masks and giving them back feels like the right thing to do.”
“What is the right thing to do?” is a question that all ethical business owners are asking themselves and each other right now.
After talking to all of these amazing people, I made myself another cup of tea, texted my newest quarantine crush, checked out everybody’s cool websites, and felt inspired.
How and why should we support small businesses right now? I think Mösco said it best: “When you support us, you support coffee farmers in Colombia, the tea maker in Greenpoint, the bookmaker up the street, the photographer. The poet that sells books in the East Village. The support goes beyond us. It’s a network. This is why we are doing this. As we see now more than ever, we are all connected. So the support goes very far. It’s important to highlight that. Because it’s not only Ali and me. It’s the farmers, the roasters, it’s the UPS guy, it’s everybody.”
Originally Appeared on Vogue