Doers and Dreamers – Lydia Willoughby and Amber Billey

The dynamic duo behind the newly opened Sassafras Mercantile are doing their part to help project the image of Kingston as a community that wholeheartedly supports diversification.  Lydia and Billey have settled down in the Hudson Valley after living and studying all over the country. Sassafras Mercantile is a shop like no other in Kingston. They offer an eclectic selection of zines, gifts, bath + body products, as well as motivational + inspirational guidebooks, along with a stellar selection of indie tarot decks. Lydia and Billey work with local farms to feature “farm-to-cup” teas, that can be freshly brewed or purchased in bulk. Sassafras Mercantile recognizes the importance of “local,” but they also understand that the world is one interconnected rock and global makers are not excluded as suppliers. Lydia and Billey highlight marginalized makers, including People of Color, Women, Transgender and Queer businesses. Sassafras Mercantile is much more than a shop, it can be seen as a support system hub that acts as a haven to liberate not only the body, but the mind. Learn all about Lydia and Billey below:

Your name:
Lydia Willoughby
Amber Billey

Business or organization: Sassafras Mercantile, 37 Broadway, Kingston NY

Lydia: Founder & shopkeep at Sassafras Mercantile
Billey: Founder and (occasional) shopkeep at Sassafras Mercantile

What is your approach to your business or occupation that makes you unique?
Lydia: It’s important to prioritize joy and play as part of our work and whole selves; for so many people, we’re out here trying to survive and we forget about soaking up the fun and thriving. I try to have a mindset that there is no competition, only collaboration opportunities. Sassafras is a metaphysical mercantile for personal liberation, and for me, that means that the shop focuses on products and services that liberate your mind and body.

I’m a librarian by training and worked in libraries and nonprofit organizations for a decade, so of course I bring an ethic that access to information is a human right to our books and zine selections. I’m interested in connecting community knowledge to how we interact with and support each other and how we honor and grow the plants and nature around us. Sassafras works with local farms to provide farm to cup herbal teas, and while I definitely seek to invest in local makers, I also believe that we’re also connected to a global community and I care about investing in folks from marginalized backgrounds. Especially as a business owner, part of my ethic is to invest in women and queer and transgender vendors, Black, Latinx, Asian and Pacific Islander, and People of Color makers and publishers; as a metaphysical store, it’s important to me that the space isn’t reenacting settler colonial harm and that we honor the indigenous heritage and contemporary culture of the Hudson Valley.
Billey: ^^Same. That’s why we’re doing this together.

Where are you from originally?
Lydia: I’m originally from a town called Irmo, South Carolina, a suburb of Columbia. My people on my Dad’s side are from Georgia, and my Mom’s side of the family is from Wisconsin and Indiana. I’ve felt the Hudson Valley was my home ever since college at Bard.
Billey: I’m originally from New Stanton, PA, a small town about 30 miles east of Pittsburgh. I went to the School of the Art Institute in Chicago for college, and spent my early adulthood in the Windy City. Then I moved to Brooklyn for graduate school at Pratt Institute for Library Science.

What brought you to the Kingston area and keeps you in this area?
Lydia: I came to the Hudson Valley in 1999 when I went to Bard College. Like a lot of queer folks, I’ve moved around a lot in the last 15 or so years: Missoula, Montana where I went to grad school, Western North Carolina where I did a year of AmeriCorps service and fell deep for herbs and plants, and then I lived in Brooklyn for 5 years where I met my wife, and then we later moved to Vermont for 3 years for her work. I moved back to the area 4 years ago when I moved to Rosendale, originally for a job at SUNY New Paltz. Throughout my travels, I’ve always returned for visits to the Hudson Valley and Kingston and I’m so thrilled to be building this shop in this area, and to stay rooted in this place. I love living here.
Billey: It was during my time in Brooklyn during graduate school when I fell in love with the Hudson Valley. I would spend weekends here escaping from the city, and experienced that deep familiar sense of home every time I visited. I was thrilled when we had the opportunity to actually move to the area for Lydia’s job. There is something magical about this area, and it’s where I want to set down roots with Lydia.

What is your favorite hangout in this area and why?
Lydia: I love Thursdays at the Beverly Lounge because bartender and community organizer Cara Stewart has been building community and holding queer space for 5 years with the weekly Pansy Club nights. I love the Widow Jane Mine in Rosendale because it’s just so freakin’ cool (literally), and spooky, and I love hiking the rail trail and getting into the woods, or pretty much any body of water.
Billey: I love the LGBTQ Center on Wall Street in Kingston. They have wonderful programs, support services, and fabulous staff! I also love hiking the Trapps on the Mohonk Preserve, and tubing down the Esopus.

When you’re not in Kingston, what’s your idea of a wonderful city to visit, and why?
Lydia: I mean my first love for a City will always be New York City; it’s the best. I have a deep love New Orleans, and everytime I visit, I leave with new friends. Last time I was there, I ended up running into folks from Kingston!
Billey: I will always love Chicago. From its gleaming architecture to the unique neighborhoods, it’s a grand yet comfortable city. Lake Michigan certainly is great. Chicago is best experienced by bike, boat, or take the L. And don’t ever think of putting ketchup on hotdogs!

Tell us something that we never would have guessed about you.
Lydia: I’ve been performing as a drag king and organizing queer burlesque shows for over 15 years. I also started DJing a couple of years ago as DJ Wood Chips Wanted, it’s really more like curated playlists, and I enjoy the world making that music is; it brings people to together.
Billey: I play trumpet in the brassband Brasskill! You can see us play at the Brassroots Festival on July 27th at Seedsong Farm!

Sassafras Mercantile is located on the Rondout:
37 Broadway
Kingston NY
Open Thursday through Sunday
11AM – 6PM