Follow the aroma to the back of Maude Alley and you can find Gudrun Feigl amongst her many fragrant hand-crafted products.
Over the last three years, I’ve stopped in here and there and watched the shop outgrow its first storefront—a narrow, hallway-type room—to the larger, square space equipped with a kitchen at the back of the alley. At first, her products fit comfortably in the big, new space; perhaps it even felt a bit empty. But now I see, visiting for a chat more than a year later, it appears Mount Pleasant Herbary—now in its 10th year—is outgrowing its home again, as its counters and shelves are packed to the brim.
Growing up in the Black Forest of Southwest Germany, Feigl enjoys her home near Pleasant Mount. “The rolling hills as you find them here, it reminds me very much of how I grew up.”
Her mother always kept a garden—still does today—and it’s one thing Feigl credits as sparking her interest. Perhaps she wasn’t a master herbalist at age 3, but she was concocting (or pretending to) with foraged nature since her childhood.
“One of my earliest childhood memories… I visited my friend across the street. We were barefoot, running, and we smelled the flowers in her grandmother’s garden.” She explains that, though she didn’t know it then, the “bright orange flowers with an amazing citrusy smell” were calendula flowers, which she now uses in all of her salves and teas. “Every time I smell this flower in my garden, this herb, I go back to this childhood memory. I remember we had these polka dot bowls—we picked the flowers and put them in the bowls and pretended like we were cooking.”
In Scranton, PA and far, far from home, Feigl began to miss the wide selection of herbal teas she could choose from her homeland in Germany. So she started to grow her own herbs, blend them and give them away at Christmas. When her friend suggested she make them to sell, she wondered, “Who around here will buy herbal tea?” Feeling like she needed another product, she decided on herbal soap, and then a third product, “dream pillows,” to tuck into your pillow case. They’re filled with mugwort, traditionally known for helping people remember their dreams, and lavender, to promote relaxation. “My first table [10 years ago at Bethel Woods] was very clean looking. Three products,” she said, laughing. “And now I have, I don’t know how many, but we just made new labels—75 labels—so there’s a lot more products now.”
She grows all her herbs by herself on a two-acre farm at her home. “People always think I have this huge herb garden, but no.” With herbs, a little goes a long way. The more you clip the herbs, she tells me, the stronger they grow back. Then they sit in the drying shed beneath the sun to get ready for storage. “And in the winter, I just enjoy the break growing herbs. I usually run out [of stored herbs] by springtime, right in time to begin growing again.”
Before she obtained her own storefront, she was partnering with The Cooperage to teach workshops. She continues to teach today, holding a space for attendees to come and create a product of their own to bring home; the workshop series had regular attendees reappearing each month. “I also help with The Cooperage’s after-school program, the Pop-Up Club… their summer-lunch program. We’ll make some felted soap with the kids this October.”
Feigl didn’t go to school for herbalism or botany, nor did she ever sell products before leaving Germany. She studied social work and was a passionate member of her field. Though now completely abandoned for lavender, chamomile and plantain, her love of social work is what landed her in the States in the first place when she participated in a work-exchange program in which Germany sends 10 social workers to work in a random place in the United States.
“I was hoping for San Francisco, Chicago, but they sent me to Scranton…” She trailed off. I laughed and asked her how that was. “Back then, it was horrible. They were getting better, but it was still very depressing, kind of. But that’s how I ended up here.”
And when she did end up in Honesdale in 2002, it didn’t feel much better. “[It felt] very abandoned and sad, and there was nothing going on. Then slowly but surely,” she said, going on to describe the ripple that spurred growth on Main Street. Starting with the opening of the Himalayan Institute (now Yoga International), then Milkweed and The Cooperage… “ is so much coming back to life.” Once her daughter finished homeschooling to move onto public school, Paul Ludick and Bill Anton of Milkweed, the founders of Maude Alley, asked if she wanted to open a store in 2016. “It was perfect timing and it was so much fun to be part of this rebuilding of Honesdale.”
Feigl feels lucky to be able to grow her business slowly. The gradual pace allowed her to avoid any first-time entrepreneurial mishaps, and every year, she says, has gotten easier.
Feigl is just one participant of the entrepreneurial community that has taken over Honesdale’s main strip. “Black and Brass just ordered a second batch of coffee soap... I buy their coffee, and I also have Moka Origins coffee… Sometimes people come and make things and ask, ‘Can you sell this in your store?’ If it fits in, I’m more than happy.” Currently, she has soap dishes and mugs by a local potter. “Artists bring their art and hang it on the wall—we actually just sold a painting. I’m glad to have the art on the wall, and the artists are glad for the exposure. Even with Ba & Me, people sit out here and sometimes say, ‘Try the ice tea of the Herbary’ and I’d tell people how great [Ba & Me’s] food is.”
When asked what she envisions her 15th or 20th year in business looks like, she laughed. “I haven’t even thought about it. If it keeps going as it keeps going now, I’m very happy. I always have ideas for more products.
“The mix of making different things, so I’m not making the same thing everyday… Everything is in small batches, so the next day or next week is something different. But the process of creating new things, I love that very much. You have an idea, you make it and then it works out, it’s very satisfying.”
Those days playing pretend, taking the scents of nature and making a healing product with them, have clearly come to fruition for Gudrun Feigl, and the joy she feels in sharing it with the community is there, obvious, on her face.