Nightshade owners, Aleisha Tilson and her fiance Joseph McSween, marry tattoos and plants.

It’s strange to think back on it now, more than two years later. But dig deep into the beginning of this time warp, when Seattleites felt we were helplessly losing the neighborhoods that had started to slip away long before the pandemic wrought its economic consequences.

Some of us bought gift cards, or stood in line six feet apart, or walked around our "dying city" in masks decked out in local merch, pushing back against two outbreaks. Some of us (cough cough, Ben Gibbard) only saw a requiem for a skyline.

But some Seattleites decided to bring our city back to life.

Aleisha Tilson started working part-time at a local plant shop after burning out as a cook post culinary school. Her grandmother, a master gardener (and frequent babysitter) had taught her plenty about plants, and it was a welcome break from sweating over a stove. Before long, she dreamed of opening up her own shop where she and her fiance, tattoo artist Joseph McSween, could each pursue their passion. 

Tilson had just started selling plants online when the pandemic hit. But shop closure after shop closure around their Lower Queen Anne apartment didn’t discourage the couple from following their brick-and-mortar dreams. Even if it was hallway-sized and previously occupied by a psychic shop. In November 2020, they started construction on their Queen Anne Avenue storefront Nightshade Tattoos and Plants. “We wanted to revitalize our neighborhood…fill some of the spaces,” Tilson says. “Give people hope.”

Diving into a new business venture at the end of 2020 was, no doubt, a risk. Stores were still closing left and right throughout Seattle; retail occupancy at the time was limited to 25 percent. But it wasn’t a shot in the dark: Houseplants' wild pandemic-era takeover of every apartment and Instagram feed in Seattle was all the proof of concept Nightshade needed. 

Taylor Richardson, too, saw the writing on the wall. “Literally the day that retail stores were told they had to close down, I was like, ‘Okay, I'm going to start shipping’”—not just the home goods that she sold at her design studio, Fringe, but the plants that, at that point, made up about 50 percent of her business. 

Shipping a plant is an involved process: depending on the variety, and the distance it has to travel, it could involve specially sized boxes, insulation, even tubes for self-watering. But the pivot worked. Richardson moved Fringe from Pioneer Square to Belltown and took primarily plants with her. “People wanted some life in their space.” 

 

“Everybody thought I was insane. My family was like, ‘Oh my god, this is not gonna work.’”

Longtime collector Joe Barbuti started Seattle Plant Daddy as an online shop in 2019. When the pandemic hit, “I was just like, we're gonna fuck it and say, Let's open a store.” 

Barbuti’s cheeky shop name and personality—he occasionally posts photos shirtless, with strategically placed plants revealing only his tattoos and nipple piercings—earned him an online following. So when he opened in Wallingford, with a sidewalk sign that said “All those who enter without your mask will be fed to the plants,” his fans turned out.

“I think that opening a retail shop going into Covid made sense, because we needed some sort of healing, right? Even though it was so new, and we didn't understand all the ramifications of it,” Barbuti says. “It was just what we needed. And it worked out.”

He says he doesn’t know what to call “double quadruple,” but that’s what happened to his plant sales since he first started the business around three years ago. When he learned that his first location would be razed for apartment buildings, Barbuti didn’t panic—he thought, Go bigger or go home, and moved the shop into a much larger space right down the street. 

There, alongside Syngonium albo and “penis cactuses,” Barbuti’s set up a wall full of plants where customers can take nude polaroids and pin them to the wall. He’s had everyone from young couples to middle-aged women on a girls’ day shopping trip come in and flash the camera. (It’s legal, he says, so long as the customers put the photos up themselves.)

He sells booty shorts. He wears political T-shirts. His name is a jokey, but not-so-veiled sexual reference.

All of this in service of a shop where he, as a loud-and-proud, politically active, gay business owner, as well as his LGBTQ customers, could be vocally and unapologetically themselves. “Not everybody…gets my jive, and my ultimate meaning like that,” Barbuti says. “It’s fine. I didn’t start that shop for those people.”

Back in Lower Queen Anne, at Rori Blooms, another LGBTQ business owner also found his pandemic niche. 

Certified public accountant Kevin Cooper became obsessed with cactuses and succulents at the Balboa Park cactus garden in San Diego during his first vacation (along with his husband Zac) since the pandemic hit.

When they returned, the couple got to work at Coopers Optique, Zac’s new brick-and-mortar optical shop dedicated to rare designer frames. Zac had dreamed of opening the store but then was diagnosed with chronic kidney failure. They moved to Nebraska to be closer to his family—only to learn that Kevin himself was a match. Zac got one of Kevin's kidneys, and the couple moved back to Seattle to pursue their dreams.

“I knew I’d find my thing eventually,” Cooper says. “When you go through something like that you just realize, life is short, and you need to take those risks now. So you don't regret not taking them later.”

The rest is history. Cooper runs Seattle’s only dedicated cactus and succulent shop out of a sunny corner in Coopers Optique. He’s big on proselytizing: These desert plants aren’t as difficult to take care of as you might think (and he’s very down to walk you through the details). 

“A lot of people are just kind of reevaluating how we live as a society, and reprioritizing,” Cooper says. “A lot of people haven't focused on their mental health [before]. And I think that's one of the really good things that's coming out of this."

 

The effects of the plant boom mean that Seattle now has dozens upon dozens of plant shops, each with its own niche. What does that mean for longtime businesses?

Let the square footage do the talking: In September 2021, Peace Love and Happiness Club expanded from its 827-square-foot storefront on Fremont Place North to a 5,000-square-foot warehouse down the way on 36th Street. 

That first shop remains the company’s houseplant outpost. The warehouse, heated and humidified to replicate the tropical climates where so many rare plants thrive, has become plant collector HQ. “Weird shit, crazy shit that they can't find anywhere else,” explains co-owner and longtime Seattle entrepreneur Neil Silverman. Here, barely a plant sells for below $100; sometimes, a single leaf goes for five times that. At least one plant is currently priced at over $30,000. It’s a space for the serious hobbyists, and these days, there are a lot of them.

It’s a shift that began as soon as the pandemic did. Silverman had been eyeing the neighboring building for a while, hemming and hawing about the increased expenses a move would entail. But when Covid hit, sales skyrocketed, and upsizing “wasn't an option. It was, like, mandatory.”

Their move landed Peace Love and Happiness Club in a unique spot: Silverman estimates that it’s the first, and perhaps only, shop in the nation where rare plants are both grown (by his husband, who has what may be the world’s greenest thumb) and sold in a dedicated retail storefront. It’s got to be the biggest.

He does feel a bit hesitant about all the new plant shops in town—his longtime experience in retail has him worried that some are bandwagoners who may find themselves disappointed when the market cools down. But “instead of seeing it as competition, I see this as our self expression,” Silverman says. All he’s focused on is being “better at what we do with our own selves.”

“We have such a streamline of abundance coming to us.” And, for now anyway, there’s plenty to go around. 

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