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Eat well, be happy: What Debra Stark taught us

Debra Stark, owner of "Debra's Natural Gourmet, on 98 Commonwealth Ave. in West Concord, MA on Oct. 7, 1997. (Bill Polo/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Debra Stark, owner of "Debra's Natural Gourmet, on 98 Commonwealth Ave. in West Concord, MA on Oct. 7, 1997. (Bill Polo/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

On a cold winter night in February 1997, I met my future wife in the herbal supplements aisle at Debra’s Natural Gourmet in West Concord.  We were both divorced and not necessarily looking for a new partner, but we had open hearts and weren’t opposed to finding new love either. I don’t remember whether Match.com or Tinder existed back then but it didn’t matter. We had Debra Stark.

Debra was the founder and owner of Debra’s Natural Gourmet, a natural products emporium snuggled between a sub shop and the (now closed) West Concord 5 & 10.  A passionate advocate for eating healthy and being happy, Debra had opened her retail outlet in October 1989 on a hope and a prayer, betting her savings and money borrowed from family that the world was ready for organic foods, dietary supplements, natural personal care products and a friendly and welcoming place to buy it.

Debra Stark, who founded Debra's Natural Gourmet in West Concord, Mass. in 1989, died last week. She was 75. (Courtesy David Stark)
Debra Stark, who founded Debra's Natural Gourmet in West Concord, Mass. in 1989, died last week. She was 75. (Courtesy David Stark)

Having had enough with soul-crushing corporate office work and dimwitted bosses, she decided she would become the change she wanted to see in the world. A single mom with a teenage son named Adam, she dove in, made an endless series of mistakes, got shut down temporarily for lack of proper permits and never gave up. She was sweet, kind and caring but she was also determined, stubborn and unwilling to quit. And she was nobody’s fool. She took on obstinate landlords, difficult suppliers, annoying local officials.

What she did over the next three plus decades was nothing short of miraculous. She built her store into a thriving, massively popular destination location where her dedicated customers came regularly and often to shop. But more than that, she created a family-like atmosphere that morphed into a community, a gathering place, that drew shoppers like pilgrims to Mecca. They came because she hired and trained knowledgeable staff, paid them well, treated them better and fostered a culture of warmth and learning. It was the Cheers bar for organic cheese and aromatherapy. Everybody knew your name, greeted you with a sincere smile, and helped you find what you were looking for, even if you had no idea what that was.

Over time, she grew the store steadily and tripled its footprint. The aisles were still cramped and the floor was slightly askew, but there was room enough for a kitchen that created delicious takeout organic dishes and a large produce section where the wares of local farmers and producers were sold. She brought in organic, free-range turkeys every Thanksgiving and sold hundreds to grateful customers looking for something beyond Butterball. I used to show up a couple of days before the holiday and help hand out the popular birds.

I don’t remember whether Match.com or Tinder existed back then but it didn’t matter. We had Debra Stark.

And there was more.

If Debra loved her business, and she did, she loved bringing people together even more. Most retail stores lock the doors and switch off the lights at 6 p.m., but not Debra’s. She had regular events, meetings and general gatherings after hours where customers would arrive to learn more about alternative ways to heal and thrive. A large percentage of her smitten customers were women and they would come to participate in discussions about a range of topics, from acupuncture to coping with a lost libido during menopause. She also hosted tasting parties where you could try out new herbal medicines and hear from the people who were selling these esoteric wares.

The night I met my future wife Janie, we were at Debra’s to learn about kava, a root-based extract from the South Pacific that is used in ceremonies for relaxation. It tasted awful, but for us, it turned out to be Love Potion #9.

Debra loved bringing people together both at the store and at home. She hosted wonderful dinner parties and holiday gatherings that Janie and I were lucky enough to be invited to. At a large dining room table with at least a dozen people, Debra would insist we go around the table, introduce ourselves, and talk about our goals, our hopes, our dreams. We’d roll our eyes but participation was mandatory and inevitably the evening was filled with laughter, singing and new friendships that lasted well beyond the final course. Debra had a laudatory report on each guest, singing our praises but never shining the spotlight on herself.

She did tell us that she had learned at the knee of her beloved mother Bea, who was quite possibly the original tree-hugging, organic food proponent in the Western world. Bea insisted that Debra and her younger brothers David and Daniel eat healthy, unsweetened, whole grain foods when hardly anyone was doing so. Debra once told me, “When I went to school, I thought the other kids were so lucky because they were eating white bread and margarine sandwiches and I was not allowed to eat any of that.”  Bea was an integral member of the store staff until she died in 2004.

In a troubled world, she left behind an oasis of whole grain compassion and humanity.

In recent years, Debra had turned over part-ownership of the store to her son Adam. He ran the day-to-day operations and had always been a knowledgeable presence, so it was a natural transition. But she remained an active partner and the warm, welcoming face of the business.

Debra Stark died of a heart attack on Monday, April 18 at age 75. Like thousands of others who knew her, I was stunned and heartbroken. Her life and influence had rippled out from the aisles of Debra’s Natural Gourmet in a hundred directions as a mentor, philanthropist and friend. She had a cooking show, published cookbooks and a memoir, and she had no plans to slow down. She was getting ready to open a new addition to the store.

In a troubled world, she left behind an oasis of whole grain compassion and humanity. Her life’s work remains vibrant on Commonwealth Ave. in West Concord, but her legacy of joy and wonder and activism is borderless. Cramped aisles, my wife and I learned, can hold not just products, but futures and dreams. Debra taught us that.

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Glenn Rifkin Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Glenn Rifkin is a journalist and author living in Acton. He is a longtime contributor to The New York Times and is an avid nature photographer. 

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