by Nina Hufman
Irene Lewis has built a business and a reputation from creativity, a desire to help people, and a passion for plants. Lewis is an herbalist and the proprietor of Moonrise Herbs, located on the plaza. Lewis’s relationship with Moonrise began with her selling herbs to the store.
“I had a different business that I owned,” Lewis said. “I had owned that for like 15 years where I was making herbal products and selling them to Moonrise.”
Her business was called Irene’s Dream Simply Herbal and was founded in 1990. She made salves, soaps, lotions, creams, and other herbal products that were carried at Moonrise. Years later, she started working in the store doing herbal consultations.
“I started working a couple days a week back in like 1997,” Lewis said. “I lived out in the hills and I was coming to town so that I could have more social contact and do more herbal consultations here in the store and teach classes.”
Moonrise Herbs was started by sisters Sarah and Lisa Hoyt in 1985. Lisa Hoyt left soon after the business was created while Sarah Hoyt continued to run the store. It was originally run out of a Victorian-style house before being moved to the plaza location in 1996. The business provided many of the same services it does now: selling books, herbal products, bulk herbs, and educating people about herbalism.
In a letter about the store’s history, Lewis wrote of the impact that Moonrise had on her, as well as its role in the Arcata community.
“The store was like a dear friend, inspiring many, and had become a retreat for several whom entered the store just simply to breathe,” Lewis wrote. “Irene also came to realize that Moonrise Herbs was and is highly respected by physicians in our area who regularly send in their patients who are seeking herbal knowledge.”
Sarah Hoyt decided that she was ready to sell the store in 2003. She had owned and run the store for 18 years.
“The owner of the store was ready to sell when I was ready to do something different with my other business,” Lewis said. “It just worked out that I moved into ownership of the store in 2004.”
While Moonrise has been a large part of Lewis’s career as an herbalist, it was not her beginning. Lewis’s interest in herbalism began at Columbia Junior College in 1987.
“I was going to college studying natural resources and hearing the different tidbits about Native American uses for plants,” Lewis said. “That kinda sparked me.”
After moving to Humboldt County, Lewis started experimenting with making herbal products simply out of her own interest.
“I started making things and I just kept giving them away,” Lewis said. “Then I had more than I could give away and so I started doing fairs.”
Her experiences at the fairs led Lewis to further educate herself.
“In doing fairs people were asking me questions that required more herbal knowledge,” Lewis said. “I started diving in deeper and learning more about herbs through an abundance of ways, different conferences and apprenticeship programs.”
Lewis also learned from the people she was serving.
“I would go back to the same fairs year after year and from the things I was making I was learning from the people too, what they were experiencing from the products I was creating,” Lewis said.
As the owner of Moonrise Herbs, Lewis has continued to learn and has inspired others to do the same.
Alex Ammon is an herbalist and customer service specialist at Moonrise. She feels that working for Lewis allows her to be creative and learn new things in her workplace.
“It was hard for me to conceptualize working for someone because for a lot of years I didn’t,” Ammon said. “It’s nice to go somewhere where I feel really supported by my manager and my boss and they’re always encouraging us to learn. I do learn a lot from the people who come in as well. The constant learning is key for me.”
Ammon also admires all that Lewis has achieved as an herbalist.
“She is super, super cool and she’s done so many things in her life that it’s really inspiring,” Ammon said. “The more I work with her one-on-one the more I’m like, ‘you’re a really rad person.’ She’s my boss but there’s a cool understanding and flexibility.”
Heather Sumeriski, another herbalist and customer service specialist, appreciates the creativity and freedom that she has working at Moonrise.
“It is the best place I’ve ever worked. It feels the safest and the most comfortable,” Sumeriski said. “We do have some creative leeway here and there. If we come up with some cool idea and present it to the boss she’s often likely to bring it into the store or adapt that idea.”
Sumeriski feels Lewis creates a sense of community in the shop. All the employees fulfill the same roles, helping customers and making herbal blends.
“My boss is amazing in who she hires, we all mesh together really well,” Sumeriski said. “We do have a little bit of a turnaround because Arcata’s just like that. People kind of flow in and out. That’s a little bittersweet, it’s beautiful too.”
Lewis’s extensive knowledge of herbalism and her connection with the community have made Moonrise an important part of Arcata.
“She’s been doing this for like over 20 years,” Sumeriski said. “She has a lot of knowledge about not just herbalism, but about business and changing tides. She’s known herbalists that have come and gone, that have passed. She has had people work here who are now really big herbalists in their own regard and have like published their own books and stuff.”
Sumeriski feels supported by Lewis’s experience, it creates opportunities for growth.
“It feels great to know that you can rely on such a vast amount of knowledge,” Sumeriski said. “It’s there for the taking if you have a minute to ask her ‘hey, what’s your opinion on this?’ She’s always willing to help.”
Lewis’s main goal is to serve the community as best she can, helping people with both their physical and mental health.
“We’re not allowed to diagnose or prescribe, that’s against the law,” Lewis said. “Our main job is to support people through the process.”
“We’ve been able to help people through all phases of their life,” Lewis said. “We also deal with life and death and support people through that process as well. If someone has lost somebody close to them, I feel like they’ve come in here and we’ve been able to help them with their grief.”
Through the pandemic, Moonrise stayed open, continuing to help people with their needs.
“We just kind of did what we saw people needed and we were doing exactly what herbalism should be,” Lewis said. “It was very gratifying.”
In the same way that she has supported them, Lewis feels supported by the community. Those who work for her also appreciate the compassion and learning that they have experienced from their customers.
“We’ve been in business since 1985. We survived a recession and then the pandemic,” Lewis said. “I think we’re well supported by the community.”
“I love community work and sharing this knowledge because I don’t think it should be like just kept to yourself,” Ammon said. “What we need is the upsurgence of the more basic back-to-earth kind of knowledge.”
“This is the strongest [community] I’ve ever experienced,” Sumeriski said. “It’s very unique, it’s not common that you find this kind of community.”
Now, Lewis deals mostly with the details of running her business. She hires people, delegates tasks, ensuring that the newsletter goes out, social media posts are made, herbs are bought, and teas are blended. However, she still continues to practice.
“I still make a product that I sell within our store as well as three other stores that’s from my old days,” Lewis said. “I keep my hands harvesting plants still and making medicine even outside of Moonrise.”