Above; Mary Wedel and her daughter Aine outside the shop
An Tobairin (meaning ‘little well’) Health Food Shop first opened its doors in Bandon in 2000. Ever since, Mary Wedel and her team have been sharing their well of knowledge and health giving foods with the people of Bandon and beyond.
Since its beginnings, An Tobairin has traded in different locations around Bandon town. Its most recent move to a location on Station Road has created even more room for this ‘little well’ to grow. A steady stream of customers flows in and out of the shop throughout the day. Most are greeted by name and many stay longer for a chat. Children enjoy the scents and tastes of the pretty edible garden planted right outside the door. A woman buying pasta is sent home with a bunch of herbs from the garden to finish off her dish. Another is happily waving an organic bunch of kale in farewell. It’s a sunny, friendly scene. “It’s the customers who make the shop,” says Mary Wedel. “I don’t run the shop at all,” she says laughing, “I spend the day chatting.” Although her business methods may not be entirely conventional, with her genuine care for people’s health and wellbeing and her natural flair for business, Mary’s remedy is one that works; An Tobairin has never been busier.
When she’s not in the shop ‘chatting’, Mary is fulfilling her role as Chairperson of the Irish Association of Health Stores (IAHS), the representative body for the Irish independent healthfood trade. “It’s a very challenging environment for Independent retailers at present in the face of multinational investment in healthfood sector. We all need to work together and support each other,” explains Mary seriously. “The Irish public have never been more conscious of their health though and I think that consumers really value the professional advice and care they are given in independent small healthfood stores. People’s confidence in natural remedies grows once they use a product and find that it works.”
Mary’s initiation into the world of natural remedies and organic food began in one of the Camphill communities of Ireland. “I grew up in a typical suburban household in Naas, where ‘organic’ was a foreign word,” she says. I started out working in insurance,” she says laughing. “Can you believe it? But what I really wanted to do was work with people with special needs.” Changing paths, Mary went to live at a Camphill community. Here she learned firsthand about things like biodynamic farming methods, cheesemaking, homeopathy and vegetarian cooking.
Pioneered by war refugees in Scotland almost 70 years ago, the first Camphill community was formed to educate what were then called mentally handicapped children. At that time, such children did not usually receive an education; they either stayed at home or were placed in a hospital.
An International charitable trust, Camphill today numbers over 100 communities in 20 countries, including Ireland. Here people of all abilities including some 3,000 children and adults with learning disabilities, mental health problems and other special needs, live, learn and work together in an atmosphere of mutual respect.
“It was an amazing experience,” says Mary, “a real holistic and therapeutic environment where creativity was nurtured.”
Mary met her husband there. The couple moved to East Cork in 1988 when the opportunity arose to buy possibly the cheapest derelict cottage on an acre in the country. Putting what they had learned at Camphill to use, they lived as sustainably as possible off their land. “We built a windmill and raised chickens, ducks, geese and goats and, of course our two children,” says Mary smiling.
In 2000, after renovating the cottage, they sold up, bought 10 acres in West Cork with another couple and moved lock stock and goats to Bandon. “I opened the shop as an experiment on the suggestion of friends before we had even moved,” says Mary. “So life suddenly became very busy.”
“Despite myself, somehow it worked,” she says.
“I don’t feel like a boss, we’re a family at An Tobairin and a part of the community and I think that comes across to our customers. Running a shop is a really lovely way of connecting with people. It’s also a very interesting experience. I feel very lucky to be involved in this industry.”
An Tobairin sells a broad range of foods for special diets, as well as organic fruit and vegetables, quality supplements and natural cosmetic ranges.
Open from 9.30am to 6pm, Monday to Saturday.
An Tobairin, Station Road, Bandon. 023 8852985,
See www.camphill.ie for more information about Camphill Communities of Ireland.