PENINSULA PROFILE: She inspires customers in an unusual way

By Diane Urbani de la Paz
Peninsula Daily News

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you’ve said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.” — Maya Angelou

PORT ANGELES — Ask business owner Merala Heins to define success, and she speaks of something that’s hard to measure.

When someone walks in to Heins’ downtown shop, she wants him or her to feel relaxed and welcome; cheered up.

And there are times when a passer-by stops in at her place, InSpired! at 124 W. First St., and says, “This is my kind of store.”

But this holiday season, her third one at InSpired!, she met quite a few who asked, “Did you just open?”

The store, filled with candles, books, meditation supplies, art and what Heins calls “goofy stuff,” opened in November 2011. All too many didn’t know because, as they tell Heins, they “never come downtown.”

That’s unfortunate, Heins says, but it comes from the perception that there’s nothing much left here. Which doesn’t fit reality. Citing Port Angeles Downtown Association numbers, Heins reports that though 15 businesses left or announced their closure — Fountain Square Jewelers and Cottage Queen, for example — 17 new businesses opened downtown in 2013.

Take a walk down the InSpired! side of First Street, though, and you’ll see some of Heins’ new neighbors: Moss, a clothing and jewelry store and Easy Street, an espresso bar and cafe. Nearby are other new businesses: the Moxie and Junkyard Lily boutiques and La Belle Creperie.

All are headed, like a train into the dusk, straight toward Port Angeles’ slow season.

“Winter is challenging,” Heins acknowledges. Downtown needs something extra, something fresh, to bring people out in January, February, March and even April.

Success may be about a feeling, Heins says, but she readily acknowledges that survival depends on customers spending.

Yet Heins believes in downtown Port Angeles. She opened her first store, Rose’s Garden, in 1995 and ran it for eight and a half years. It was located a few doors down from where InSpired! is now, in the current Fiddleheads storefront.

When she closed the doors, Heins’ customers let her know how disappointed they were.

“I should have sold it,” she says, instead of closing. The experience taught Heins that to the people who do shop downtown, the shuttering of such a store is a disheartening loss.

There was a time, though, when Heins thought that as a retailer, she wasn’t helping people. She has a master’s degree in psychology, and has alternated between owning a shop and working as a family therapist and mental health caseworker.

But Heins has changed her mind about retail. This work suits her because she just plain enjoys people, and because she’s seen how a warm greeting and a little conversation brightens a gray Port Angeles afternoon.

In this business, Heins says, you can give people a break from their workaday world, share a laugh, help them find something fun to give a loved one. These everyday connections are fleeting — and real.

During her second-anniversary weekend last month, Heins invited her friend Laura O’Neal, aka The Advice Lady, over to offer advice to whoever stopped in. O’Neal and Heins have known each other for about 10 years; they worked together at the Peninsula Dispute Resolution Center, where O’Neal was the director and Heins was a family therapist.

O’Neal calls InSpired! a mirror image of its proprietress. The shop is “fun and quirky and beautiful, yet diverse,” she said.

“But if we cut right to it, I really like that she usually feeds you while you shop: little cupcakes or oranges or some other little treat usually meets you on that front table.”

Downtown Association director Barbara Frederick believes Heins’ success comes from “her ability to see the world the way we all should: as a place full of fun and beauty. She loves people and helping them find what they need.”

Back in 2005, Heins opened her second downtown boutique, the La Vie art gallery and shop. She ran it for two years, a period of time that would bring personal trials: Heins and her husband divorced, and she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Resilience is another of Heins’ foundational qualities. And so after her recovery, she decided to return to the work she loves. With the help of her sweetheart Charlie Comstock, her daughter Adrielle, then 17, and other Port Angeles friends, she opened InSpired! in time for the 2011 holiday shopping season.

This December, Adrielle is home on winter break from college in Bellingham. And Comstock, who recently became Web and membership services manager with the Port Angeles Regional Chamber of Commerce, is busy promoting InSpired! and downtown as a whole. He’s added “Portals,” a three-dimensional photography gallery, in the upstairs room at InSpired!

Heins, meantime, has two part-time employees: Nikkole Adams and Tricia Vail McGrath. Adams, an actress and theater director, is staging a Noel Coward play, “Waiting in the Wings,” at the Port Angeles Community Playhouse from Feb. 21 through March 9 — and has persuaded her boss to appear in it.

Heins has the last line in “Wings,” the story of a retirement home for actresses. It’s her only line, which suits her fine; Heins has her hands full with her shop.

Although she turned 60 in October, Heins has no plans to retire. She’s invested, on all levels, in the future of her store and the downtown. This past summer, Heins went through another trial. And she relearned something about this community.

Heins faced a second bout with breast cancer, and as she went through treatment and recovery, the news reached her InSpired! customers. They did not keep quiet about it.

“People reached out” with vigor, says Heins. They came into the store to express their support for her — and several shared their own stories. One woman proudly showed Heins the tattoo she’d gotten after having a double mastectomy.

These expressions of friendship, from people she knew as well as people she’d never met, moved Heins deeply.

“We are all so interconnected,” she said.

Now Heins hopes for something new in the new year. “I want to get this block together and do some kind of event” other than the same old sidewalk sales.

Another hope for 2014: “I would like to see local people making a commitment to visit downtown once a week, and check out the new stores,” she said.

As for InSpired!, Heins, who belongs to a meditation group, is thinking about offering meditation classes early in the year.

And when she sees empty storefronts downtown, Heins sees not drear, but opportunity. Here, as everywhere, she adds, change is the constant.

“If I had a million dollars,” Heins says, “I’d fill those storefronts” with shops and people.

Meantime, she’ll keep InSpired! and keep preaching the “shop local” message. It can take extra time and effort, she acknowledges. But if you don’t want your town to lose its flavor, choose the local stores and eateries.

“Each dollar you spend locally,” Heins says, “helps keep those businesses you love going.”

Last modified: December 28. 2013 5:42PM
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