Though he may have passed on, a local shop owner, one who helped pioneer the health foods market on Long Island, is still appearing to thank people passing by his small corner store.
Back to Basics, a natural food store in Rocky Point, has been vacant for months. In its window a sign is posted: “Thanks for 43 Years.” The longtime owner of the shop, Drew Henry Tyler, 67, passed away June 8 after a battle with adrenal cancer.
His wife of little under 28 years, Lee Frei, is a longtime resident of Shoreham village. She and her future husband originally met at the store.
She got to know him as an honest and quiet man, but the kind of quiet that hides a unique intelligence. She said if he hadn’t passed, he would have likely still been there, manning the counter and talking to customers about anything from politics to music to yoga.
“There was so much to Drew,” she said. “He was calm and wise. I often thanked him for that.”
Tyler grew up with his brother Rick on a chicken farm in Lake Ronkonkoma, back when the area was still mostly rural, and some of the main roads still remained dirt paths. Rick Tyler called that just your average life of “barefoot boys growing up in the woods.”
The two were introduced to Provisions, a health food shop in Port Jefferson back in the 1970s, the brother said. Working there, the two formed a side business called Journey Foods, where the two would go into New York City, bringing back “tubs” of tofu, sprouts and other such items to sell to the still-small market of health food stores on the eastern side of Long Island, back when many wholesale distributors didn’t come out past Route 110. The brothers even got into the business of growing sprouts, which Rick said were “temperamental.”
The two made connections with many of the health food retailers on the Island, but the brothers had a unique opportunity when the original owners of Back to Basics in Rocky Point were looking to sell.
Jane Alcorn, who now helps lead the effort to transform the Shoreham Tesla property into a museum and science incubator, started the store in 1976 with her husband and two friends. When a few years after opening, her business partners moved away, she and her husband decided to sell to the Tyler brothers, who had expressed interest in the place for a while. She thought of Drew as a “kind man — he was quiet and hardworking.”
“It was always a pleasure to go there and see how they had made some changes, but still kept the essence of the store — natural foods, and healthy and specialty products for the people of the surrounding area,” Alcorn said. “He obviously did a good job to have been in business so long. Back to Basics was one of the oldest stores in Rocky Point and, even now, I’m sure many people, like me, miss running in to pick up some special items that aren’t available anywhere nearby.”
The store was impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, Frei said and, after Drew passed, family came to help sell the remaining merchandise at cost.
Rick Tyler, who now lives in Pennsylvania, worked at the store for a little over a decade before moving on. As the health food market boomed, he said it got harder to compete, and they were “always fighting against the mass market and Trader Joe’s.”
Still, despite any difficulty. Rick said his brother was the kind of man who would leave the counter to help a woman bring her purchases to the car. He was the kind of man who engendered trust, and when Rick came back to Long Island to help with closing down the shop, he and those manning the shop were greeted with a bevy of longtime customers who fondly remembered the store owner, some young enough to say they had been coming there for practically their entire lives.
“He was a very gentle, kind, smart, funny guy — he was very well liked,” Rick Tyler said of his brother.
Jan Tyler, the brothers’ mother, said the people who came to the store in those final days were coming in with both sympathy and expressions of sorrow.
“I think you couldn’t help but love Drew,” the mother said. “He tried to help everybody he could, he would drop everything and help a woman with bundles in the rain. On the whole everybody cared a great deal for him.”
Linda Stever, who worked for Drew at Back to Basics for several years, said the owner was inherently trusting of his customers and community. She wrote in a post to Tyler’s obituary that from the first day she worked for him, the man simply trusted people.
“I lived in Rocky Point for years, but I never felt such a sense of community until I worked with Drew at Back to Basics,” Stever wrote. “He was my boss, but I considered him and his wife Lee to be my friends as well. I’m thankful for knowing him.”
Tyler was well known in Shoreham village, especially as a man who was competitive on the tennis courts. Frei said he loved the “mechanics of moving,” of having motions done with expert grace. Family friend Laura Baisch wrote in a tribute to Drew that he was known for his “quiet laugh and look of complete satisfaction when he hit the perfect shot.”
Frei said he was in the village doubles finals one year, and residents would come to watch because he was so much fun on the courts.
“His perspiration would make a heart-like mark on his shirt, and the crowd would chant, ‘I heart Drew,’” she said.