WELL-KNOWN Holywood shopkeeper Heidi Steffen is set to close her health store after a ‘brilliant’ four decades serving the local community. The Iona health store, in Church Road, has been a regular feature of the Holywood High Street for 37 years, with its wide array of medicines, foods, crafts, books and children’s toys. This dedicated businesswoman first opened her doors back in 1985, and her strong and loyal customer base soon came to call her town centre store simply ‘Heidi’s’. Originally from Switzerland, Heidi initially moved to Northern Ireland during one of the worst years of the Troubles, in 1972, to pursue her dreams of becoming a social worker. What was supposed to be a three months stay with the Camphill Community Glencraig turned into a life-long move to the heart of the local community supporting people from all walks of life. Amongst her customers, Heidi has been privileged to support three generations of some local families as well as a host of local and global celebrities whom she is far too discreet to reveal. Looking back on her career, Heidi said: “It has been a great life, because I am a people person. What I thought was brilliant was my life and work was kind of the one, which I kind of learned in Camphill. I do a variety of things, the book-keeping, the VAT returns and dealing with the ordering and then there are the customers. “I have no regrets at all. I enjoy the variety, I enjoy supporting people. I can stand fully behind my products and I always functioned like that. That has been a big part for me, supporting people and something I believe in.” She said: “Many of my customers have become friends. I have been looking after three generations of some families. So the thought of closing in that respect is quite hard, but I am ready for retiring, it is good to go when you are on a high.” She recalled her arrival in Holywood all those years ago saying: “I came here straight from school, I wanted to become a social worker and to gain practical experience I went to the Camphill Community Glencraig to work with people with special needs.” It was to be a lifechanging experience for Heidi as she explained: “I was meant to stay for three months in 1972 and I never left.” Against a backdrop of violence, Heidi and the Camphill team sought to create a community where the individuality and potential of profoundly challenged children could be developed. Said Heidi: “When I came here it was a war in 1972, but I had a strong feeling that we were doing something good. The Glencraig campus was so sheltered and was nearly all foreigners. “It was a very interesting experience, in this troubled country but we were having this holistic life where we had our own cows, we were making our own butter and cheese. It was a mixed experience of feeling very safe.” After marrying her husband, the newlyweds would become house-parents in Glencraig. Said Heidi: “We were houseparents for 14 adolescent children with special needs. It was quite demanding but I did that for 15 years.” Heidi’s roots in her new home town continued to spread as she became involved in the setting up of Holywood’s Steiner School in 1975 as well the Steiner shop. From these early beginnings, Heidi would go on to open the Iona Health Store in 1985, as she took over the reins of a similar shop that had been operating in the town. She said: “It was a really good time for a health food shop as they were becoming more mainstream. I had more and more supplements and I trained in supplements, it was very interesting.” Heidi explained her passion for alternative medicine began with her parents and her childhood in Switzerland saying: “My parents would have liked me to have studied medicine but I have been a little doctor in here. “My father was very much into herbs and if we were ever ill, the Swiss herb book would come out, and you were allowed to be ill. My mother would have been at home and I remember times of being ill as nice times, even though you were feeling miserable. “I enjoyed growing up in Switzerland and the use of herbal remedies with people trying to look after themselves and not just taking drugs straight away for everything.” Looking back over her four decades in business, Heidi said the past two years of the Covid-19 health crisis have been challenging. “The last two years I have been busier than ever. I was allowed to open as I was recognised as essential, which I took seriously. It was a very tough two years; the bank was open and the chemist but everything else was closed, it was a very strange feeling. “People were coming in asking medical questions, that increased like mad. It was very demanding and I was sometimes here at 11pm at night.” As people began panic buying and supermarkets ran out of supplies, Heidi also faced an increased demand. “The supermarkets had run out of pasta and flour but I managed to keep going only because of my good suppliers. It was amazing, it was really, really busy and then came Brexit,” she said. Heidi spoke of the toll Brexit took on her business and how she was forced to find new suppliers. “It was a nightmare. Suppliers I had for 36 years, over Christmas and New Year they didn’t supply [to her] anymore.” Running a health store that stocks a wide variety of items, Heidi would get one pallet a week with 400 different items: “Each case of different items needed their own paperwork,” she explained. After her supplier ‘didn’t want to deal with me anymore’, Heidi’s search for new stockists began: “I had to find new suppliers, it was very hard. I was used to just ordering every week, then I found suppliers in the south of Ireland very quickly. “They were overwhelmed by everybody wanting them, but I was one of the first customers and I am still dealing with southern Ireland instead of the three suppliers in England.” As many of Heidi’s products are organic, she explained she would have faced an additional hurdle, requiring a special certification, if she had continued to get her organic supplies from England. She said of the difficulties posed by Brexit: “Some people who don’t have to deal with it, like us working in shops, don’t quite understand. Bigger companies have had to employ one person to deal with all the paperwork. “I am quite glad to be leaving at this stage as the issues are still not resolved. I now have less organic items because of it and I used to be mainly organic.” With her retirement on the horizon for the end of July, Heidi’s days of travelling are far from over. She said: “The first thing on my list to do is to visit my brother who lives in the Dominican Republic.”