MELROSE - For Earle Solano, a Boston lawyer in his mid-30s, it was a quest for freshly ground peanut butter that first drew him to Green Street in 1995.
Center stage in the back room - amid the freezer, refrigerated goods and produce, and shelves of whole wheat pasta - stands a fire-engine-red grinder on a table, a container of freshly roasted peanuts, and a silver scoop, for those who have given up on the prepackaged version stacked on supermarket shelves.
Once a self-described sporadic customer, Solano, who is single and lives in Melrose, became a steady one after doing the math.
Nodding toward a new line of gluten-free chips on the shelves, he made his case. “You get more vitamins, minerals, and fiber. With [commercial brands of chips], you get . . . what? Bleached flour, more fat, and chemicals.’’
It’s easy to drive by Green Street Natural Food in Melrose, open since 1975, because it is hidden behind the white, two-family home of owners Winnie and Jerry Cantin, on a bend in the road.
But hundreds of people have found their way to the natural and organic retail store, first started by the Cantins as a food co-operative. Customers, predominantly from the neighboring communities of Wakefield, Malden, Saugus, Everett, Lynnfield, and Stoneham, venture down the short, steep driveway to the compact, two-room store with the green exterior. Swinging open the screen door, an all-vegetarian, organic world awaits: products, produce, and personal care items that either the Cantins or their son, Jason, 36, who runs day-to-day operations, have personally researched and selected.
“Nothing is here that we haven’t eaten or tried ourselves,’’ said Jason, a vegetarian since childhood.
More stock than is imaginable for the cozily contained space is neatly arranged throughout the store. There’s fresh, seasonal produce, shelves of beans, grains, dried fruits, herbs, and pasta; and sections of vitamins, supplements, and snacks.
There are few locally owned natural food stores in the state north of Boston. Yet the Cantins don’t advertise. “Not one bit,’’ Winnie said proudly. They don’t have to. Their reputation for personal service, plus extensive product knowledge, converts the curious into decades-long customers.
The bulk of their business is by word of mouth.
“They have the best spices,’’ said MaryLou Waterman, a Melrose resident and physical therapist who has been shopping at Green Street for 13 years.
According to Jason Cantin, the spices cost about 75 percent less than spices purchased at large chains. On the back wall of the front room is the Herbal Garden: more than 100 spices, including cumin, curry, essiac tea, rose hips, dandelion root, and blue violet leaves, all in plain plastic cyclinders.
“The cost is in the packaging,’’ said Winnie, a slim, energetic 70-year-old woman, who brews a daily pot of chai with her own recipe of the herbs and spices. (She will share her secrets, if you ask.)
“We buy them in bulk and repackage them,’’ she explained. Or, suggested Jerry, try a box of Twinings’ black tea chai, 100 percent organic and Fair Trade-certified tea, a designation that asserts fair wages and suitable working conditions for those producing the tea.
Pointing to the circular green and white US Department of Agriculture organic label, Jerry said firmly, “This is what you want to look for.’’
Another big draw is local honey, raw and unfiltered, from Joel Govostes’ beehives in Woburn and Wakefield. “Prior to Joel, we bought honey from a Stoneham family. We’ve sold local honey for more years than I can remember,’’ Winnie said.
The packaging - large white, plastic buckets - isn’t pretty. But the taste? Pure liquid gold. And a “must-have’’ for those with allergies, because the honey contains pollen of local flowers.
Jean Hurley, a spirited 70-year old from Melrose who has been a Green Street customer for decades, says the store has an international flavor.
“It’s like shopping in Europe, where you can buy your produce and food fresh every day, if you want,’’ she said.