Owner, Justo Botánica
134 E. 104th Street
ABOUT: “We all go through different stages in our lives, and at every stage, we have different needs…that’s why I sell hope,” explains Jorge Vargas, whose family has run "Justo Botánica" store in El Barrio for over eighty years. Striking a perfect balance between friendly warmth and sarcastic spunk, Jorge offers “spiritual readings” (and, sometimes, reality checks) to his customers, who come seeking “old-fashioned remedies.” After hearing a client’s story, Vargas crafts a “treatment plan,” selecting candles, ointments, or herbs that the customer will use to perform the “little rituals” he assigns. Upon first glance, the shop seems like an artifact from the mom-and-pop El Barrio of the past, but Justo is by no means frozen in time. Even within the short span of twenty minutes, Jorge serves half a dozen customers, all of whom know precisely what to purchase but pause nevertheless to ask Jorge “cómo está.” “Botanicas have always been used for community,” Jorge explains. “There should be one, at least, in every neighborhood.”
COMMUNITY RECOMMENDATIONS: Vargas, who has “seen four generations come and go” in El Barrio, acknowledges that the neighborhood is changing, but embraces the increase in ethnic diversity. With new folks in the area who are unfamiliar with his shop and cultural practices, he jokes that he’ll have to “change to [selling] tea bags instead of herbals.” He does not believe that the changing community will prove detrimental to his business. “I would like to see [Justo] become an institution,” he asserts, perhaps unaware that, adorned by Manny Vega's murals and home to the neighborhood’s most lovably cranky apothecary, it already is.