A few years before the first Whole Foods Market opened in Austin, Texas, two recent transplants to Maine decided to open a kiosk in the Airport Mall in Bangor that specialized in healthy and natural foods. Called the Natural Living Center, the business thrived.
Bill and Barbara Geiger have grown the business considerably since opening in 1977. These days the store occupies an 8,000 square foot storefront located at 209 Longview Drive in Bangor near Target. It has been there for 13 years.
Still, while the business has grown, the basic mission of the NLC has been steadfast: to sell food, beverages and health and home goods, made with all-natural, usually organic and often fair-trade ingredients.
“Back then, they called us the fad,” Bill Geiger, 78, who with Barbara is now semi-retired. “But we weren’t the fad. Processed foods were the fad. Natural foods are here to stay. … It’s pretty gratifying to see that society has progressed. We were already there back there.”
In the mid-1970s, Barbara and Bill Geiger had recently relocated from Pennsylvania to Maine, where Bill was a newly appointed mathematics professor at the University of Maine. Barbara noticed their young son, Robert, was greatly affected by sugary, processed foods.
“He had a glass of Hi-C and was just bouncing off the walls,” she said. “It’s those artificial colors and flavors. They were just not good for him. … That’s one of the things that got me interested in health foods and natural foods.”
That early interest quickly turned into a passion. By 1977, their two children were in school. The couple wanted to start a business — something Barbara could do while Bill was teaching at UMaine. The couple signed a lease on a tiny kiosk in the Airport Mall, selling nutritional supplements such as ginseng and fish oil and bulk foods such as flour, nuts, beans and rice, which remain the core of what the NLC sells today.
As Bill Geiger recalled, the years spent running the first location for their business were a major learning experience for the couple, who had no prior retail experience.
“I’m amazed we made it with that kiosk. If we didn’t have a two-year lease, we’d have just called it quits,” he said. “We learned the hard way how to make it work. … But we did have customers. And some of those customers stayed with us. Some of them are still with us, in fact.”
By the time their lease was up, the Geigers thought they’d throw in the towel. Instead, they were approached by a local realtor about moving their business and expanding. In spite of the difficult time they had keeping the original NLC in business, they decided to take the chance and moved into a much larger space in the Brewer Shopping Center off Wilson Street.
In the 1970s and into the 1980s, Maine was at the peak of the back-to-the-land movement, which saw an influx of people in their 20s and 30s moving to Maine in search of a rural, self-sufficient lifestyle. Their early customers included original back-to-the-landers Scott Nearing as well as Burt Shavitz of Burt’s Bees.
The NLC stayed in Brewer for more than 20 years, adding a second store on Stillwater Avenue in Bangor in 1991. The two stores operated simultaneously until 2004, when both closed and the NLC consolidated all its operations into the current store on Longview Drive, where it remains today.
Over the years, the Geigers have amassed a large, loyal following from folks looking to supplement their diets with vitamins or extracts to vegetarians, vegans and gluten-free eaters seeking more food options, to home brewers buying supplies to make their own beer. A small lunch counter offering soups, sandwiches, smoothies and baked goods has also been a staple of the business.
In addition to its core clientele of natural and organic food lovers, the NLC also has operated as a de facto international market. Until very recently, items such as Korean Gochujang chili paste, za’atar Middle Eastern spice blend or real Japanese miso were, for the most part, only available in the Bangor area at the NLC.
“For many years, they were the only place in the Bangor area to get those unique things,” said Cheryl Wixson, a longtime Bangor-area chef, former restaurateur and food writer and current owner of the Stonington-based Cheryl Wixson’s Kitchen, a line of Maine-made organic food products. “As society as evolved and tastes have become more adventurous and creative, supermarkets picked up on those sorts of things. But [the NLC has] always been there. … For a lot of years, Bangor was a food desert, but they were a kind of oasis.”
Though the majority of its customers come from the Bangor region, the Geigers have repeat customers that come from as far away as Presque Isle and eastern New Brunswick to stock up on items, particularly the bulk goods that the couple is understandably proud of — the NLC boasts the largest selection of bulk products in the state.
“We have a few customers that have been with us since we started at the Airport Mall,” Barbara Geiger said. “You see them same people, year in, year out. You get to know them.”
Though customers have been loyal, a number of staff members have been loyal as well — co-managers Jesse Thulin and Jaime Royer have been with the business for 16 and 10 years, respectively, and run the day-to-day operations of the NLC with the Geigers semi-retired.
“I grew up in New Brunswick, but my grandmother lived in Hampden, and every time we came through we’d stop at the old NLC in Brewer,” Thulin, 36, said. “I’ve been coming here my whole life. … People are incredibly loyal. We have people that live in Florida that have us mail them supplements.”
“I moved to Maine from Louisiana 10 years ago, and this was the only job I applied for and the only one I’ve had,” Royer, 37, said. “We have a rapport with people that’s probably a little deeper than most people have with customers. We work with all these local farms. It’s really personal.”
The Geigers acknowledge the food landscape in Greater Bangor has changed a lot in the past decade, now that organic foods are widely available at supermarkets, there are many more farmers markets statewide selling local produce (including one in Bangor), and online shopping has created much more competition for things such as supplements and specialty items.
“You can’t get expertise at a supermarket,” Barbara Geiger said. “If you have a question about something, we can talk about it and try to help. … It’s frustrating when people scope us out and ask us questions and then buy things somewhere else, but that’s something a lot of people have to deal with. That’s part of being a small business.”
The Geigers haven’t made any decisions about to whom the business will pass when they’re finally ready to fully retire — Barbara and Bill still sit at the customer service desk several days per week, answering questions. But with recent improvements such as a greatly expanded craft beer selection and a renovated and enlarged organic produce section, they don’t appear to be letting anything slide in terms of staying current.
“We talk to people. I think that’s been a big part of why we’ve stayed successful,” Bill Geiger said. “We always listen to our customers.”