Where would you go if you needed some skin ointment made with oil from the Australian emu bird, long believed by aborigines to have healing properties?
Or a bottle of jun, a fermented drink made with green tea and honey sometimes referred to as the “Champagne of probiotic beverages.”
Or horny goat weed tablets, a Chinese remedy for “sexual vitality”?
Just head to St. Clair Avenue in St. Paul and look for a little storefront with a giant aloe vera plant in the window and a yellow sign in the front saying “Mastel’s Health Foods.”
Claiming to be the oldest health and wellness store in the state, Mastel’s has been an institution in St. Paul’s Mac-Groveland neighborhood for more than 50 years.
Founder John Mastel decided to open the store after experiencing several illnesses as a young man, which led to an interest in vitamins and nutrition. Mastel, who had a job in the engineering division of the state’s highway department, worked in the store part time at nights and weekends and hired relatives to keep it open during the day.
After about 10 years in business, Mastel left his state job and ran his business full time, stocking the store with vitamins, minerals, liver tablets, mushroom extracts, natural shampoos and more.
Mastel’s has only about 800 square feet of retail space, but it currently crams more than 4,000 various items — from alfalfa tablets to kudzu extract to zinc lozenges — into a little one-story brick building at 1526 St. Clair Av. near Macalester College. In the narrow aisles between shelves of hundreds of bottles of vitamins, supplements, tonics and dried milk thistle, there’s a subtle, herbal, medicinal scent in the air.
These days you can find health foods in co-op grocery stores or online. But over the years, customers have remained loyal to Mastel’s because of its reputation for having a well-informed staff, hard-to-find items and a wide selection of supplements from reputable sources.
“We really vet all of our products to make sure of their purity and efficacy,” said manager Marie Wilson.
Any drugstore can sell you vitamin D. But at Mastel’s they carry liquid vitamin D, vegan vitamin D, chewable vitamin D and “micellized” vitamin D.
Some customers worried that Mastel’s would go out of business several years ago when a Whole Foods store moved in nearby in St. Paul. But business actually picked up when Whole Foods staffers sent customers to Mastel’s for products the larger store didn’t carry, according to Therese Goddard, a saleswoman and buyer at Mastel’s for 22 years.
John Mastel, 81, has retired from actively managing the store, but he’s still a faithful user of his own products, taking about 14 different supplements including vitamin C, fish oil and ginseng.
“I looked at him and he looked about 20 years younger than he was. I thought, ‘He must be doing something right,’ ” said Barb Wildes, a longtime Mastel’s customer.
“It’s a little bit of classic St. Paul,” said Roseville resident Don Nygaard, who has been shopping at Mastel’s for 50 years.
Nygaard, who got interested in nutrition after becoming a marathon runner as a young man, said the store’s staff stresses helping customers learn how to improve their health.
“It’s not the hard sell. Not just pushing the vitamins,” Nygaard said. “It’s an educational environment.”
Today Nygaard goes to Mastel’s for vitamins and a joint relief product. At 82, he’s still running.
“All the parts are working,” he said.