From commerce to healing: Northampton retailer Mary Lou Heiss of Tea Trekker fights blood cancer

Wednesday, March 02, 2016
*Archive Article*
NORTHAMPTON — After running five storefronts in Northampton over 40 years, retailing has long been an odyssey for merchants Robert and Mary Lou Heiss. They put that sense of adventure into the very name of their latest shop, Tea Trekker.

Today, a new mission forced the couple to close. They are working with a transplant team to save Mary Lou’s life.

Tests during a routine physical last summer discovered that her bone marrow no longer generates enough healthy blood cells due to a cancer known as a myelodysplastic syndrome, or MDS. In two weeks, she will be admitted to a Boston hospital for a month-long procedure to restore a healthy blood supply through a stem cell transplant.

“If you really want to live any decent number of years and be cancer-free, it’s the only way to get there,” Mary Lou Heiss said last week, in an interview over cups of Yunnan tea, joined by her husband and business partner. “It’s not the worst it could be. It’s not the best it could be.”

After three courses of chemotherapy, Mary Lou is days away from the main event — a transfusion of donated cells designed to overwrite the damaged genetic material in her bone marrow that shortchanges blood-cell production and leaves her anemic and deeply fatigued.

“It’s the kind of tired you don’t sleep away,” she said.

Storefront closes

The couple closed the shop at 2 Gleason Plaza, off Pleasant Street, without fanfare last week, ending a retailing run that took them from two locations on Green Street, starting in 1974, to 192 Main St. and then a 20-year presence on King Street. They invested their entire working lives in Northampton retail, starting in their 20s, and can be counted as among the small group of business people who served in the vanguard of the city’s downtown renaissance.

“They’re probably one of the oldest continuing businesses in downtown Northampton,” said Cathy Cross, owner of the Main Street store that bears her name. “They’re like pioneers. They took their trend and went with it in such a beautiful way.”

The Heiss’ business started as the Coffee Gallery in a little shop on Green Street near Smith College. They’d been working for TV Guide in San Francisco, where they’d met and married. At lunch, they liked to visit shops in the city’s Little Italy and down cups of dark roast. “We got taken with the coffee houses,” Robert said. They liked going to the original Peet’s Coffee outlet in Berkeley when the founder was still a presence.

Since Mary Lou had attended the University of Massachusetts, they put the Valley on the map of possible locations for a store of their own and secured their first business loan from Gerald Cox of the former Northampton National Bank, where the R. Michelson Galleries is today.

The Coffee Gallery later morphed into Cooks Shop Here, as the couple followed Americans’ interest into specialty foods.

And today, after earlier downsizing in space and inventory, the business is devoted to the sale of teas they find and import from China, Japan, India, Nepal and Taiwan.

Though the couple will no longer operate a store, the business continues as an online and mail order outfit, two distribution methods that already account for half their sales volume.

Still, they are preparing for financial as well as health challenges. As Mary Lou notes, “We’re going to lose half our income.”

They decided to close the shop to walk-in customers because tending to Mary Lou’s health in the year ahead will consume so much time. After spending a month in the Boston hospital, Mary Lou will have to recuperate at their Sunderland home for five months to a year. They will make regular trips to Boston for follow-up medical attention; they do not have children and Robert is her primary caregiver.

Robert Heiss will run the online and mail-order business with the store’s one employee, Beth Grubert. “She and I will forge ahead,” Robert said. To strengthen their e-commerce, the shop’s website, teatrekker.com, will get a revamp by March.

In the years ahead, their business will open a new chapter on Northampton retailing by fully converting to a means of reaching customers that didn’t exist for half of its history.

When asked about challenges retailers face in Northampton today, Robert is blunt: “It’s a quirky time.”

Looking back, the couple’s decision to move their Cooks Shop Here store from King Street, downsize and narrow its focus to tea helped lay the groundwork for what they now face. “If it was a bigger enterprise it would just be awful,” Mary Lou said. “We started to feel the whole thing was changing. The last thing we needed (on King Street) was to sign a long lease and see the business suffer.”

Cross, the clothing retailer, says the Heisses were quick to see changes and adapt to them. “It seemed like they changed when they needed to change, or when the market did. They were always being very innovative. That takes a lot in the retail business.”

Though it was gourmet coffee that kickstarted their business in 1974, just three years after Starbucks opened a single shop in Seattle’s Pike Place Market, tea won the race.

Over time, as they traveled through Asia and South Asia in search of tea to import, the couple became recognized experts in this field. Their 2007 book “The Story of Tea: A Cultural History and Drinking Guide” was a finalist for the James Beard Cookbook Award and won other accolades. They followed that with 2010’s “The Tea Enthusiast’s Handbook: A Guide to Enjoying the World’s Best Teas,” also published by Ten Speed Press, part of the Crown Publishing Group.

Drugs and doctors

Though Mary Lou is 65, the couple had not planned to retire. They say they can’t afford to. She had been feeling tired over the spring and summer and decided to get checked out. Blood tests showed something was wrong. Soon, she had an appointment with a specialist and was surprised to find herself visiting an office with a sign that said hemotology/oncology. “I was clueless that this was going to be cancer,” Mary Lou said.

“She was going in to talk about anemia,” said Robert, who is 63. “All of a sudden, it could be leukemia.”

Test results first suggested she might have leukemia, a worse diagnosis. They went ahead with a planned vacation to Paris in September still not knowing, armed with a doctor’s suggestion that if she suddenly felt gravely ill, Mary Lou should go to a French hospital and ask for a blood transfusion.

“I have to admit we were completely freaked out,” Mary Lou said. The talk of a stem cell transplant rattled her. “I thought you had to believe you were almost dead. It took a while to get our heads around it.”

Back in Northampton, they prepared for the Christmas retailing season as she underwent rounds of chemotherapy at the new Cancer Center at Cooley Dickinson Hospital. “I missed the old quarters upstairs which I am told was cramped and grim,” Mary Lou said of the Northampton facility, now allied with Massachusetts General Hospital. “The new center is spacious and bright and cheery and very spa-like, not hospital-like.”

Doctors continued to monitor her health, gauging the advance of the cancer and looking through an international registry for a donor match. Two possible donors emerged, both with high suitability ratings. Mary Lou has no siblings, so had to rely on generous strangers.

All the while, the medical team was upbeat, Robert said. “They told us, ‘In our world, this is a pretty good diagnosis.’ But as a novice coming into this, it’s really scary.”

Waiting for word

As the nature of her illness became clear through blood tests this fall, Mary Lou at one point asked a doctor whether it was possible to postpone the transplant for a year or two so she could run the shop and lay the groundwork for a closing or transition. “The doctor asked, ‘Why would you do that?’”

The message she took away was clear: Her medical team has a chance to save her life, but only if it acts now.

Mary Lou says she asked because doing what’s best for their business has come first for decades. “Here’s a time when it’s not going to — because it can’t.”

“You’re in a whole new level of seriousness,” added Robert. “Which is sobering.”

The decision to close had to be made quickly. It wasn’t until late November that they learned the time for a transplant was near.

The Heisses say they agonized over whether to tell customers in advance, opting not to. They say they hope people who patronized the store for so long, and became friends, understand why they simply closed the door to the public for the last time Thursday without notice. “It was Christmas and I didn’t think I could talk about it with everybody,” Mary Lou said.

Even so, it’s clear during an interview that not feeling able to do that bothers both of them. They said they want to thank customers who stayed with them through all their name changes and moves. “We will certainly miss the camaraderie of the store,” she said, as well as what she called the “privilege” of being part of their customers’ lives.

Sometime around Jan. 26, after Mary Lou’s immune system is suppressed to avoid rejection, she will receive a two-hour transfusion of specially concentrated blood. Bone marrow transplants for this type of cancer are simpler these days, the couple was pleased to learn, and no longer require invasive procedures into the marrow itself. They met the transplant team last Wednesday in Boston.

“I’m young and I’m healthy,” said Mary Lou, her optimism evident. “I have nothing wrong with me but this.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misidentified the Northampton National Bank officer who provided the first loan to the Coffee Gallery. It was Gerald Cox.