The zen vibes hit you in the face when you walk into The Pauline Tea-Bar Apothecary in west Charlotte’s Ashley Park neighborhood — the nose, more specifically.
On a morning visit in September, the smell floating throughout the space is a confluence of peppermint, wild orange, Melissa, cypress, margarine, grapefruit and lavender. It’s not just a random mix of herbs. Like everything else in Pauline Tea-Bar, it was a blend made with purpose by owner Sherry Waters.
“Aromatherapy helps with people’s emotions,” Waters tells me. “So all of those [scents] put together lighten your heaviness — whatever heaviness or whatever you’re feeling.”
Waters opened The Pauline Tea-Bar Apothecary in 2019, implementing her own blend of experiences — decades spent working in the nonprofit sector, a Master’s degree in Practical Theology, an expertise in spiritual care counseling — to create a space hyper-focused on restorative healing and community building.
Everything about the business, from the rotating art displays to the seating to the lack of Wi-Fi, is meant to cultivate a sense of serenity.
And of course, there’s tea.
Waters and her staff offer $5 pots of tea, selected from an incredibly in-depth menu that includes not only tea type and the benefits of each option but a complete overview, list of ingredients and suggested uses for each tea.
Each pot is served on a tray with honey, sugar and a mug chosen by the customer from a selection hanging on the wall.
I go with the lemon ginger — a yellow, non-caffeinated tea that “yields a warm and comforting infusion with an intense, sweet, fruity aroma, that comes from a spritz of 100 percent pure lemon oil which is expressed from the peel of the fresh fruit,” according to the menu.
It’s made from roasted chicory root, non-sulfited ginger root, lemongrass, orange peel, lemon essential oil, hibiscus, coriander seed and cinnamon. Known as a wellness tea, the lemon ginger is rich in vitamin C and has known benefits for digestion.
As for the mug selection, a more visceral decision that includes an equally diverse range of choices, I go with a white mug adorned with music notes.
As with every other aspect of The Pauline Tea-Bar, the ability to choose your own cup is purposeful — one more way to get folks to stick around and reset.
“I can count on one hand how many people have said, ‘I’ll just use a to-go cup,’” Waters tells me. “People love that. They love being able to do that. They feel cared for.”
And if there’s one thing the former chaplain resident has a passion for, it’s care — for self, for others and for community.
Rooted in care
An Asheville native, Waters attended school at UNC Chapel Hill before moving to Charlotte in 1992. She kicked off her career as a TV news reporter but left after two years, deciding that she did not like the ethics involved in television news.
From there, she capitalized on her writing skills to join the nonprofit sector in marketing and public relations, which she stuck with for 25 years.
She went from organization to organization, helping launch or open projects that are now seen as Charlotte institutions: the Dowd and Stratford-Richardson YMCA locations, for example, as well as McCreesh Place during her time with Supportive Housing Communities.
She also spent time with arts organizations like Community School of the Arts before it became Arts+ and the Afro-American Cultural Center before it became the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African- American Arts + Culture.
“I was bringing in local artists to teach students from underserved communities and also using their art to be on display in one of the community art galleries at the Cultural Center at that time,” she says. “That’s where I learned about gallery exhibitions and the importance for local artists to have a place to showcase their work. So that’s always on my mind; I’m a big art fan, all the time, every day.”
Eventually, Waters moved from marketing to fundraising, which is where her passion for space-making came into play.
“I love creating sacred space,” she says. “So I was always doing that in my office, whatever setting I was in, to make donors and individuals feel comfortable, to let them feel heard and seen.”
This led her down the path toward Practical Theology, which she studied at Pfeiffer University with a track in spiritual care counseling during a sabbatical from her nonprofit work. During her studies, she went through a chaplain residency with Atrium Health based in Concord.
It was during this time that her love for creating healing spaces became critical to her practice.
“I would find myself going into the patient rooms and changing up the very clinical setting that they were in to one that was more restorative,” she recalls. “I would change the Fox News station to naturescapes. I would bring in meditation, breath, prayer, guided imagery, aromatherapy. Those things, I found, were helping to bring down the level of anxiety and even pain that some of the patients and families were having and even help with their dying.”
Eventually, the experience led to the idea for The Pauline Tea-Bar Apothecary.
“I said, ‘What would it be like if I created a space like that? A respite space for people to just come and just enjoy authentic communication and community?’”
Opening The Pauline Tea-Bar Apothecary
With the idea for creating a sacred community space already marinating in her mind, Waters began to ponder how she could turn it into a business. Her mind turned to visiting her grandmother, Pauline, at her home in Lake Lure as a child.
“I was talking to my husband about this and I’m like, ‘What’s going to make people slow down? What’s going to get people to come to a place like that?’” she says. “I started thinking about how my grandmother had tea with me and how, when she made me tea and sat with me and had tea, it made me feel so special. It made me feel like I was the most important person in the world.”
Waters did some research and couldn’t find any tea shops in Charlotte. Teavana had been bought out by Starbucks in 2012 and closed all locations. La-Tea-Da’s is a respected catering company in the area but doesn’t have a brick-and-mortar lounge like what Waters wanted to open.
From there, she began researching tea, from the farming process to the health benefits and everything else in between.
She’s learned so much in the time since the idea came to her four years ago, she says.
“I’ve learned that tea is expansive,” Waters explains. “I mean, you’ve got Tisanes that are just really herbs and spices and ingredients that taste good infused in hot water. And then tea, from the same plant — the Camellia sinensis plant — can be brewed differently or processed differently, and that’s where you get your white tea and your green tea and your black tea, and different benefits with each of those buckets.”
Throughout the process, she was also soliciting community feedback as she tried to put together a menu.
“I reached out to a few people, about 20 or so, and said, ‘What’s your favorite teas?’ because I didn’t want to be the only one making the decision. And here we are,” she says.
She opened in July 2019 with the help of her daughter, Ilona Waters, who served as the brand experience director until her recent departure to attend film school in Los Angeles.
Ilona is the subject of the “Tea-lona” mural in front of The Pauline Tea-Bar, done by local artist Lo’Vonia Parks. Ilona helped with interior design and came up with ideas like allowing customers to choose their own mugs.
“She has such an eye for color, for feeling, and bringing in the right kind of atmosphere, creating the zen for spaces,” says Sherry. “I am so indebted to Ilona and her background and what she did.”
The evolution of the tea lounge
When COVID-19 hit just eight months after The Pauline Tea-Bar Apothecary opened its doors, Waters knew she would need to pivot in some way.
The business did not even have a website at that point, as Waters had simply included a page mentioning the tea bar on the website for her spiritual care counseling business, which she runs out of a back office at The Pauline.
Ilona helped her mother design a website exclusive to The Pauline, from which they took pick-up and delivery orders for their loose-leaf tea.
COVID also inspired Sherry to build relationships with local farmers markets, as she began selling her products out of the Uptown Farmers Market on South Davidson Street and the Rosa Parks Farmer Market in west Charlotte.
But COVID wasn’t the only event of 2020 that changed the way The Pauline does business. Originally meant as a space for personal solace, the police killing of George Floyd and resulting protests woke Waters up to the need for a space that cultivated community, conversation and collaboration.
“When I first opened this, the initial idea was for people to come and use this like a quiet, solace place and just be still and read, journal — quiet and to themselves,” she explains.
“My idea for that quickly changed because I saw people were needing one another. When the whole George Floyd killing and racial trauma happened that same year, we became a gathering space for people to have really hard conversations as well. So we’ve had a lot of community building and interracial conversations here.”
Waters also prioritizes community in her partnerships, from the artists who display on her walls every three to four months to her culinary partners.
Mary Jayne Wilson of the nearby Thoughtful Baking Co. provides pastries for The Pauline. Waters also partners with local farmers like Bernard Singleton at Nebedaye Farms, who provides her with moringa tea.
“All of our teas are organic, fair-trade and eco-sourced,” she says. “That was important to me, that people were paid fair wages for growing and picking the tea, and loose-leaf tea just tastes way better than what you’re going to get in a bag from the grocery store.”
It’s all part of an intentionality that pervades the space within The Pauline Tear-Bar Apothecary, one that leaves each customer feeling cared for — whether that means being seen, heard, or left alone to ruminate in their own thoughts.
“Every single thing that we’ve done — even the furnishings coming from second-hand stores, antiques — has been about bringing home that feeling of home, bringing a place of belonging and making people again feel like they belong here,” Waters says. “I never want people to walk away without a good experience.”
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