Keeping any business afloat and successful is a challenge, but maintaining a well-respected establishment for 42 years deserves very special recognition. And when such a business closes suddenly, there are many who feel its loss deeply.
Local customers of Mary Lou and Robert Heiss’s western Massachusetts tea shop, Tea Trekker, have been forced to say goodbye recently. Mary Lou, 65, has announced that she was diagnosed with a type of cancer known as myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS). MDS prevents bone marrow from producing an adequate number of healthy blood cells. She has already been through three courses of chemotherapy. She will soon enter a month-long in-patient treatment in a Boston hospital now that two bone marrow donors have been located. The daily operation of the tea company just wasn’t possible with the medical treatments and recovery time needed.
Tea Trekker will continue to operate its online store, however, so customers can still purchase their favorite teas. “Online sales are booming for us and comprised the larger share of our business,” says Heiss. “We have always been nimble in adapting and making changes in our business so we are confident that we can continue to introduce our customers to spectacular new teas this year. We are already making plans for tea from the 2016 spring harvest in China, India, Japan and Taiwan.”
The Heisses opened their business in 1974 on Green Street in Northampton under the name Coffee Gallery. Although coffee was a passion, they also sold loose leaf tea. The shop later became Cooks Shop Here with a focus on specialty foods. A few years ago, the couple chose to focus exclusively on tea and rebranded as Tea Trekker. Ardent travelers, the Heisses frequently shared pictures from their sourcing trips on their Tea Trekker website. During these four decades of operations they gained respect and a loyal customer base for the excellent curation of their offerings. As one Yelp reviewer noted, “They take their work very seriously and stock the store with delicious and unusual products, that you would otherwise need to travel far and wide to see.”
It is no accident that The New York Times dubbed them, “The Professors of Tea.”
To the good fortune of tea enthusiasts, the couple collaborated on a tea book that was received as one of the best in the past ten years. “The Story of Tea: A Cultural History and Drinking Guide” was a finalist in the James Beard Cookbook awards and the IACP Book Awards. As Eliot Jordan, Director of Tea at Peet’s Coffee and Tea said about the book, “Mary Lou and Robert J. Heiss take on tea in all of its multilayered complexity. Encompassing history and modernity, fact and lore, they have laid out as complete a book on the tea plant and beverage as has been published in many years. The firsthand experiences shared in this work underpin their obvious love for all things tea, all around the world.” The couple also published “The Tea Enthusiast’s Handbook,” and “Green Tea: 50 Hot Drinks, Cool Quenchers, and Sweet & Savory Treats,” and “Hot Drinks: Cider, Coffee, Tea, Hot Chocolate, Spiced Punch, Spirits.”
There will be no break in operations at teatrekker.com. It will continue under Robert’s direction, with the help of the shop’s other employee Beth Grubert. Mary Lou looks forward to updating the site and continuing to add new photos and information as they reinvent the company once again. Robert intends to continue plans for a late year purchasing trip in Japan, and they hope Mary Lou will feel ready to accompany him.
“My disease was discovered in a simple blood test when I had a routine physical,” Mary Lou told World Tea News. “So everyone should take heed of that and not put off these routine tests. Diseases such as mine, when discovered early, are, in many cases, able to be treated and cured, which is not always the case when diseases have progressed unchecked. And one does not have to feel ill to be ill – I still feel fine even though I have a serious diagnosis.”
Mary Lou urges those who want to help to consider donating blood in a local blood drive. Those who want to go even further can sign up to be a stem cell donor. Stem cell donors are giving Mary Lou the best chance at a full recovery. To learn more about Myelodysplastic Syndromes, visit the MDS Foundation.
The tea community sends best wishes to Heiss for a strong recovery and thanks for her tremendous contributions to our understanding of tea.
Click here for an in-depth article on Tea Trekker and its history by Fresh Cup.
For more information on MDS, visit the Myelodysplastic Syndromes Foundation.