‘Iowa doesn’t suck’: Kae Apothecary and the magical Mount Vernon

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Kae Apothecary, 100 1st St W, Mt Vernon. — JoJo Baccam/Little Village

One of Mount Vernon’s most distinctive small businesses trades in herbs, magic and meditation.

Kae Apothecary began with Andrea Gorsh, who moved to the Mount Vernon area in 2009 — the same year she was diagnosed with celiac disease. Because of the trouble she had finding gluten-free, natural and non-irritating skin products, she began to research the use of herbs and essential oils, training through a course from herbalist Rosemary Gladstar.

Gorsh started out offering samples to friends, eventually building a business selling custom-blended sprays, oils and teas at pop-up shows in Iowa City and Mount Vernon. She also volunteered with the Mount Vernon-Lisbon Community Development Group, where she met Main Street and Marketing Director Joe Jennison, who suggested that she take on a storefront in Mount Vernon.

Gorsh was unsure about running a brick-and-mortar shop, but she agreed. She opened Kae Apothecary in 2016, which quickly grew by leaps and bounds. As Gorsh settled into that first 400-square-foot store on 2nd Avenue, which had previously been a doll furniture making shop, she began to see the possibilities of creating a space for people to share their human experience.

Gorsh offered a modest variety of proprietary products based on essential oil blends, linen spray and skin care and continued to develop her knowledge of oils and herbs through extensive reading. She also began blending custom teas for ailments and by customer request, and she soon added a free Saturday morning community meditation.

The welcoming ambiance of the store attracted customers despite its off-the-beaten-path location. Gorsh hosted a range of classes, including magic, altar box making and smudge stick assembly. In its original location, the shop also offered tarot discussion groups, as well as classes featuring guest experts in many aspects of metaphysical practices. Kae continued to thrive for two years.

“We used up every inch of the space for meditations,” Gorsh said. “We moved everything around for classes and groups, so that everyone who showed up could have a spot.”

Gorsh ran the shop as a one-woman show with limited hours on limited days, but the demand blossomed. By late 2018, business was thriving and classes were bursting the small shop at its seams. Gorsh began considering a move to 1st Street in Mount Vernon. Higher visibility and more foot traffic were two pluses of a potential move, but the fact of the matter was Kae had outgrown its first storefront.

So, at the beginning of 2019, when an opportunity to move on to 1st Street became available, Gorsh considered a couple of options. She chose the location previously occupied by Big Creek Emporium, about two blocks away from that first location. In planning the move, Gorsh couldn’t justify hiring a truck to move the store such a short distance, so she harnessed the power of social media and a strong customer base to create a human moving chain. On a clear, cold day, 75 people turned out to pass boxes and tins up the alley and down to Kae Apothecary’s current location, 100 1st St W.

The brick building is part of Mount Vernon’s Historic Commercial District. In fact, it’s where the city’s Historic Preservation Commission begins its online walking tour, written by Dr. Richard H. Thomas. Thomas calls the wood-framed hotel that originally occupied the site “probably the first commercial hotel” in the city. It burned in 1868, and the current brick building, also initially a hotel, was built in its place. The W. E. Platner Hardware Store and Tin Shop took over in the late 1870s, adding the tin accents on the upper windows and cornice that distinguish the building in the neighborhood. A cash store and appliance stores were among the building’s other tenants prior to Kae’s predecessor, Big Creek.

Kae has now grown from a one-woman shop open irregularly to a fully staffed, seven-days-a-week store where Gorsh, along with her two employees, are ready to help shoppers “find their bliss,” as Kae’s website encourages. The front of the store is filled with natural, sustainable self-care items, household products and candles. Kae also carries two original tank-top designs with the phrases “The moon made me do it” and, inspired by an out-of-state customer’s sentiment, “I visited Mount Vernon, Iowa and all I’ve got to say is Iowa doesn’t suck.”

Take a few steps past the door and you will find spiritual products such as sage, tarot cards and a variety of magical paraphernalia. At the back of the store is a tea bar with a community space. Customers can buy a cup or a pot of tea, browse the small reading section and have a chat.

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“I love coming to the Apothecary, looking around and talking with Andrea,” customer Nate Harriss said. “Also, she made me a personalized tea blend for my voice when it was show choir season, and it really helped me a lot.”

In addition to the apothecary space on the first level, the Sanctuary at Kae can be found on the second floor. This space houses several practitioners who offer reiki, shamanic healing, spiritual counseling and yoga. While the Sanctuary is not a direct off-shoot of Kae Apothecary, Gorsh noted that these therapies complement the products and classes that Kae offers.

Classes and meditations are still in full swing in the new roomy store. Gorsh teaches many of the metaphysical classes herself, such as Introduction to Tarot, Practical Magic and Your Magical Home. Gorsh also hosts area experts in metaphysical fields for a variety of classes each month. Every Saturday from 9-10 a.m., Gorsh continues to lead free community meditation. There are occasional evening events with local live music, or literary readings in the community space near the tea bar. In late July, Mount Vernon’s Full Sun Theatre staged a production there.

“Customers may wander into the shop alone, but everyone leaves with at least one new friend,” Gorsh said. “Kae is a safe space for everyone. At its heart, Kae is a place where everyone is welcome to join the conversation.”

Laura Johnson is a poet and writer in Eastern Iowa who serves as a co-editor of the online literary journal Backchannels. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Rosebud, High Shelf Press, Prompt Press, the Chestnut Review and First Literary Review–East. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 268.

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