BAY ST. LOUIS — Lily of the Valley is not a run-of-the-mill shop. The door is open, allowing the breeze of a warm spring day to blow through while the owner and two employees hold hands and begin the day with a prayer. They stand before a bank of large windows overlooking a beautiful view: a steep cliff filled with a canebrake, wildflowers and sea grass giving way to the Bay of St. Louis and red-winged blackbirds flitting back and forth. But since it’s Old Town Bay St. Louis, this scene is not surprising.
Nor is there anything run of the mill about proprietor Lily West. The native of Panama is a certified herbalist and runs her health food store and flower shop with zeal. She is the purveyor of vitamins, herbs, diet and sport nutrition, aromatherapy, natural weight loss and beauty products and healthy snacks. But her main products are the passion and enthusiasm she dispenses to every person who enters her business.
“There are people in this town who think she walks on water,” said Mike Cuevas, cultural affairs director for the city. “She’s highly regarded.”
Floral arranger Grace Ladner says, “It’s an adventure to work here.”
That’s a sentiment echoed by 82-year-old Harold Lappeaux of Pass Christian who delivers flowers for the ladies. An added bonus is the view, which Ladner says is something people pay big money to see and she gets paid to see it.
West claps her hands and proclaims in accented English, “Honey, you are what you eat! That means lots of fruits and vegetables, water and natural foods. And positively no scavengers. They eat pollutants that move through the food chain.”
The effervescent West was turned on to natural drugs and a healthy diet 15 years ago when she was in great pain with a fibrous ovarian tumor the size of a cantaloupe. She was 45 years of age and living in California.
“It was not cancer but it was close to an ovary, and the doctor wanted to do a hysterectomy,” she said. “He said ‘You are old, let’s just take it all out.’”
Instead, she turned to a friend who took her to a herbalist and from there to buy a juicer and a natural cookbook.
“I changed my diet and got lots of exercise and in six months I was better,” West said. “I went through a storm in my life and found Jesus Christ. Without God you are nothing.”
West, who will be 60 next month, is a ball of energy as she delivers her philosophy and excitedly goes through a stack of magazine and newspaper articles that support her theories. “No coffee; it washes calcium away. Absolutely no smoking. No eating in between meals and no large meals at night,” she says. “Eat like a king or queen in the morning and then start coming down to less as the day gets later.”
The digestive process takes five to six hours, she says, so eating more frequently stops that process. She jumps up to demonstrate some of her daily exercises and stops to shout greetings to all who pass along the street.
West came to Bay St. Louis on vacation with her son 10 years ago. She felt led to open a health food store when she saw the town didn’t have one.
“I liked it here and prayed about it,” she said. “I said, ‘Lord, if you want me here, provide the money.’”
She forged ahead and was painting the shop before opening when an out-of-town visitor stopped to ask for help with a stomach problem. She sold him a digestive enzyme and another cleanser from her meager merchandize. When she called a week later to check on her customer, an attorney from Louisiana, he reported being much better and offered funds to help West with her venture.
That loan, along with a small business loan, got Lily of the Valley up and running.
“Business is good,” she says. “I am so blessed. I have people from all over the Coast and I mail things to people all over the country.”
West’s shop attracts tourists who visit the town and part-time residents who flock from Louisiana to spend weekends and vacations. Other out-of-town visitors, as well as some from out of the country, are parents visiting sons enrolled at St. Stanislaus College Prep school. She has a card file full of names and addresses of satisfied customers and gives several examples of those she has helped.
“I said to a man from Gulfport who had a heart problem: you take good care of your car but not your body. There are instructions for the body just like the car,” she said.
Her husband of seven years, Larry West, is a special example. He was depressed and overweight after the loss of his wife of 35 years when he met Lily.
“He had a bag of medicine and I told him to throw it all away,” she said. “I told him no fast food, no fried food, drink lots of water and take natural vitamins. In six months, he was thinner and much better.”
West, who teaches classes in nutrition and health, admits that doctors don’t want to hear what she says and that drug companies hate herbalists. She readily points out that while medications do provide help, many also have harmful side effects.
“I tell people to go to doctors to find out what is wrong but to make a choice about drugs and diet,” she said. “Don’t waste money on herbs if you aren’t willing to change your diet and follow it.”
West was born Lily White in Panama. Although her parents were born in Nicaragua, her paternal grandfather was from Canada. Her father retired from working on the Panama Canal in 1979 when the U.S. turned the Canal Zone over to Panama. The parents and six children came to this country. West has two daughters and a son and three grandchildren. In addition to training as a herbalist, she has a bachelor’s degree in business administration and is working toward a master’s degree.
Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at email@example.com.