Debra Stark had more in mind in 1989 than simply launching a store where shoppers could find healthy foods, though Debra’s Natural Gourmet in West Concord became far more successful than she could have imagined in those challenging early months.
“I was determined that our shop would become a gathering place,” she wrote in “The Little Shop That Could: A Retailer’s Love Affair With Community and Food,” her most recent book. “Neighbors would meet neighbors near the bean bins. We’d have the kind of customers who would buy homemade chicken soup to bring to Grandma.”
Ms. Stark, whose business drew praise from national publications and won awards, died last Monday in Emerson Hospital in Concord, two days after she had a heart attack. She was 75 and lived in Acton.
“Up to the last minute her life was vibrant and full of things she was proud of,” said her son Adam, who co-owns the business.
Along with creating a community among employees and those who walked through the door, Ms. Stark and her store became an integral part of the greater community in the Boston area, the state, the nation, and the world.
“In the last 30 years, our little shop has donated a million dollars to fight hunger and much more,” she wrote in her book.
Her business supported organizations including Gaining Ground, Dignity in Asylum, Women’s Voices From The Earth, Find the Cause Breast Cancer, and the Organic Consumers Association.
“We have participated in Stone Soup, a dinner to celebrate local agriculture,” she wrote. “With some of our neighbors, we founded Give Back Day in West Concord.”
All that might have seemed impossible in 1989, during the stop-and-start first days when local officials twice closed the store over licensing issues. (“Today I pay more attention to what’s needed, and we follow the rules,” Ms. Stark noted in her book.)
“Debra built an amazing business,” said her brother David of Asheville, N.C. “She built it by bootstraps and by strength of will and heart.”
Adam said his mother knew that “it’s a real luxury that few people have where you can really strive toward something that’s a personal achievement, and it’s also fully aligned with your values as a person.”
Born March 18, 1947, in Oxnard, Calif., Ms. Stark was the oldest of three siblings.
The family moved to Baltimore, to California, and then back to Baltimore before settling in Orlando, David said.
The children’s parents were Sidney Stark, an engineer, and Beatrice Lefer Stark, who was her daughter’s inspiration for healthy eating.
Ms. Stark wrote that her mother “ordered 50-pound bags of organic grains from California shipped to our home in Florida, which she ground to make her own breads. Mom loved garlic and used it with gay abandon. She cleaned with vinegar and water and tossed food scraps around the yard (this she called ‘broadcasting’) to make her own compost.”
The family could step out the front door in Orlando and “grab a grapefruit from the tree,” David recalled. “An alligator would come out to sun itself across the street. It was a fun time to be a kid.”
Ahead of the times in the 1950s, the Stark family ran a healthy household while Sidney was an executive at Martin Marietta in Florida.
In a 2013 oral history for the Concord Free Public Library, Ms. Stark said her mother “was a firm believer in natural medicine and natural food.”
That’s not to say that Ms. Stark immediately embraced the approach to food and life she would offer to others with her West Concord store.
“Did I appreciate the juice and all this organic stuff? Nope,” she wrote in “The Little Shop That Could.”
“Today Bea’s homemade bread would have a cult following,” Ms. Stark added. “But back then, I couldn’t imagine anyone getting giddy about it.”
Rather than follow her mother’s natural foods path, Ms. Stark aspired to be a translator at the United Nations. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree from New York University, where she studied Russian and English.
“I think all of us kind of absorbed our parents’ politics, which were certainly liberal,” David said.
Ms. Stark’s marriage to Adam’s father, Boaz Eflal, ended in divorce, and she relocated to Massachusetts to live closer to her parents, who had moved to the Commonwealth when Sidney took a job heading Raytheon Co.’s missile systems division. A second marriage also ended in divorce.
While Ms. Stark initially worked secretarial jobs, she and her mother placed bulk orders for organic food, which friends and neighbors picked up at the house.
When Debra’s Natural Gourmet opened in West Concord, Ms. Stark and her mother worked together until shortly before Beatrice’s death in 2004.
“They were an amazing team together,” David said.
“Mom used to say that if people used their noggins, they’d realize that refined foods are stripped of many nutrients,” Ms. Stark wrote in her book. “She was a great one for common sense.”
Ms. Stark also published “If Kallimos Had a Chef,” “Eat Well Be Happy: A Second Bite,” and “The Blue Ribbon Edition: From Our Kitchen to Yours.”
Adam said his mother “didn’t necessarily undertake to accomplish grand things, although sometimes she did,” often through personal relationships she fostered with employees, customers, and those in Concord and beyond.
A weekly shopper from North Andover told the Globe in 2004 that everything about Debra’s Natural Gourmet made the trip worthwhile.
“The people who work there also eat the food,” the shopper said. “They care about it and it is an important part of their lives. They are involved. And they all seem happy to be working there and care about what they are selling. If you are a regular, everybody knows your name.”
To each interaction Ms. Stark brought “this real touch of humanity, which added up over a lifetime to a genuine sense of community that surrounded her,” Adam said. “She thrived on community, which was her life’s work.”
At home, meanwhile, she “was an amazing grandmother” to her granddaughter, Mira Beatrice, said Ms. Stark’s daughter-in-law, Veena Ramani. “She was principled and ambitious and a visionary, and she was the best mother-in-law.”
In addition to her son, daughter-in-law, granddaughter, and brother, Ms. Stark leaves another brother, Daniel of Asheville, N.C.
A private service will be held at 11 a.m. Sunday in Kerem Shalom in Concord. A public celebration of Ms. Stark’s life will be announced.
Each year on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, shoppers lined up outside Debra’s Natural Gourmet for an early bird discount. Wearing pajamas for that sale was traditional.
“Inside, we have our pajamas on, too,” Ms. Stark wrote.
“Folks who are our customers — neighbors, friends, workout buddies — rush in, bathrobes flapping, some with rollers in their hair. We see hunting caps, silly hats. We hand out warm muffins from our kitchen, there’s free coffee and the music is jolly.”
It was just such a sense of community cheer that she spent three decades fostering, and which she knew was her legacy.
“Debra’s Natural Gourmet is an antidote to isolation,” she wrote.
“The future is fragile and needs our help. I want a future where people listen to one another. Where conversation is thoughtful and has large doses of humor. Let’s none of us settle for anything less.”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.