By Kim Hogstrom
Twenty years ago, OutSmart’s publisher, Greg Jeu, stopped by Wabash Feed and Garden in the Heights to meet the store’s owner, Betty Heacker. Jeu shook Heacker’s hand and told her that he was grateful for her support of the gay community. (The term “LGBT” was not yet in our lexicon.)
“At the time, I remember thinking to myself, ‘Does he mean there are businesses that don’t support the gay community?’” Heacker recalls.
Heacker, herself an out woman, has never been one to see the elements that divide humans from one another: color, class, origin, religion, or love. Some rare, gentle souls are simply blind to the darkness in humankind. We are pleased to share this gentle soul’s story.
In 1987, Betty Heacker bought an old plumbing-supply building on Washington Avenue in the Heights. What is now a heavily trafficked corridor of trendy bars, eateries, businesses, and townhouses was a dangerous part of town back then. “It was dicey, to say the least,” Heacker remembers.
When the entrepreneur applied for a permit to build out her garden store to replace the plumbing supplier, she received the first building permit that the City had issued on Washington Avenue in 10 years.
The store soon gained a fan club. When the news of her authentic urban/country feed store spread, customers started coming from all corners of Houston.
Why? Where else could one find live egg-laying chickens, organic garden soil, antiques, veterinary supplies, top-of-the-line pet foods, yard art, fresh honey, bee-keeping materials, and cold, locally brewed beer?
Wabash became a destination. Customers would stroll its nooks, crannies, and garden spaces for hours. Some would spend an afternoon in the rocking chairs on the front porch sipping hand-crafted suds.
In addition to the wealth of sights, the store’s aromas and sounds whisked visitors away from the stress of city life. The smell of blooming citrus, native flowers, fresh soil, ground grain, and baled hay made each visit an experience. The honking ducks and crowing roosters were simply sensory icing on the cake. A Wabash billboard ad describes it this way: “It’s like Green Acres meets Modern Family at a feed store, and hilarity ensues.” Like Wabash’s mish-mash inventory, its name is an acronym for a crazy-quilt of cool stuff: “Washington Avenue Bric-Brac, Antiques, Sundries, and Hardware.”
A native Houstonian, Heacker holds a degree in biology from Rice University. And while she will not admit it, she was the first to introduce organic gardening to Houston. She carried earth-friendly materials at Wabash years before the masses caught on to its value to our health and the planet’s well-being.
“The organic movement was not an easy sell,” Heacker explains. “There was a time when folks who used the old, toxic chemicals thought that organic gardening was voodoo—that it was nonsense. It took a while for people to understand that the lawn on which their children played could be a danger to them,” she explains.
When Heacker placed her first order for organic fertilizer in the 1980s, it was for four bags. Today, Wabash orders the same soil by the palette, and it’s hard to keep up with the demand.
Always a bit of a pioneer, Heacker has been an out woman for several decades, and she is glad that it’s never presented problems. “My personal life has remained private. If anything, in the business arena, I think I have had more problems simply because I am a woman.
“I have had the classic challenges women face, such as difficulty securing bank backing, or being taken seriously. There are very few women in business who have not experienced [this to] some degree, but it is getting better,“ she concludes.
No matter the challenges, Wabash continues to grow and flourish in its new North Shepherd location. (For years, Heacker had to shoehorn customers into her small Washington Avenue parking lot, maintain a small inventory that moved fast, and pay property taxes that just kept rising. By 2014, it was either time to sell and hang up the hoe, or find a new location. She chose the latter.)
“A store by any other name would be called something else.” —another Wabash billboard
Oddly enough, Heacker found another old plumbing-supply store at 4537 North Shepherd, just north of 42nd Street. While cutting her current property taxes nearly in half, the new building occupies 7,000 square feet, nearly double the size of the old store. Additionally, it has more than 30 parking spaces.
The new location will soon include a greenhouse and a separate building containing a community room and display kitchen for classes on beekeeping, organic cooking, and more.
The bigger store has the same fun and funk of the old one, but a more diverse inventory and conveniences such as a loading dock for soil and feed. It’s still a work in progress, but it’s already a home run.
Lou Congelio is the founder and creative director of CongelioVB, a full-service advertising agency and one of the most respected ad men in Houston. Congelio teamed up with Heacker to help get the word out about the new store, and says the Wabash campaign was the most fun he’s had in his career.
“Betty is an old soul who values honesty, integrity, and doing the right thing,” Congelio explains. “If it was up to her, she would garden all day, raise bees, and go fishing in between. But she’s deeper than that, and that’s why I love her.
“When she sold the Washington location, she could have easily called it quits and retired, but she didn’t. She was concerned about her employees, so she decided to invest in a new store that would continue to provide jobs for her staff.
“That’s Betty—always thinking of the welfare of others,” Congelio concludes.
As much as Heacker’s employees would have felt the loss of Wabash, so too would her customers. The store has earned a place in the very fabric of Houston, and Houstonians know it.
“There has always been something kind of magical about Wabash,” Heacker states. “People seem to feel like they are a part of it, as if we are all connected somehow. I would have let many wonderful people down if I chose to close. I just couldn’t do it,” she says.
“We’re not just a throwback to the good old days, we’re pretty much a slam dunk.” —a third Wabash billboard
Kim Hogstrom is a guest writer for OutSmart magazine. She is also a documentary film producer and slave to a spoiled Chihuahua.