The Himalayan Bazaar: A little corner of Nepal in Ann Arbor
ANN ARBOR – Heather O'Neal has an incredible story.
She is the co-owner of The Himalayan Bazaar on Main Street and her shop isn't your average run-of-the-mill boutique.
A born and raised Ann Arborite, she fell in love with Nepal after spending her junior year of college studying in the picturesque country.
"It changed my life," said O'Neal. "I was 20 and this place was so incredibly different from where I grew up. They had given us a bicycle and I had the freedom to roam around Kathmandu."
After 12 years, and a stint in the Peace Corps, she found herself working in Spain, when a friend of hers, whose father worked for United Airlines, presented her with a first-class ticket to fly around the world.
She quit her job the next day and they set off, stopping in Nepal.
One of O'Neals Nepal treks (Photo: Pem Dorjee Sherpa)
"Part of that trip made me think, ‘I cannot let another 12 years go by," she said. "'I’m going to have to make this part of my life.'"
Little did she know how fateful that trip would become.
She and her friend flew into the mountains and stopped at a tea shop before trekking to Everest base camp. A fellow tourist warned them not to do it alone, and urged them to hire a porter.
"I asked in the lodge if they knew of anyone and out comes a very young Pem Dorjee Sherpa, who was 18 at the time. He was straight from the village, although he was working in this tea house to send money back home.
"So we head out, the three of us, and he was amazing. He had three or four English words. So I had good practice chatting with him (in Nepali) and he got us all the way up to base camp and brought us water, held our hands. He was just so attentive and so amazing. As we were coming down, I said to myself, alright now I know what to do. I’m going to go home, I’m going to start an adventure travel company; I’ve got my guy," she said.
(Photo: Pem Dorjee Sherpa)
She told Pem her plan to hire him as a guide for her travel company and he produced an email address. This was 1998 and he was living in a remote village. He had never seen a car or an airplane before.
They decided to communicate via email and had a plan.
"I came home and I put flyers up at Sweetwaters (on Washington). Zola’s used to be a café where you could plaster up flyers," she said. "I would give talks and show people slides. I started doing that and I got my first customer in 2000.
"She’s an Ann Arbor woman, Gena Fine, she had always wanted to go to Nepal, she presented me with a $300 check. My mother said to me, ‘Do you know what you’re doing?’ and I said, 'I think I have the right person in Nepal. I do.' I was so driven back then. Youth helps!"
"And so she and I went and we just had a blast," she said.
Items from O'Neal's travels are for sale at her downtown store (Photo: Meredith Bruckner)
Before the trip, O'Neal wrote to Pem's email address, and crossed her fingers as she got off the plane.
"I remember thinking, ‘What if he’s not here?’ He came through the crowd and recognized me and it had been maybe two years and off we went. And we’ve been working together ever since. Can you believe it’s 2018? This is 18 years (ago)."
To say O'Neal is an entrepreneur and a trendsetter is an understatement.
She says she was the first person to start renting out her house Airbnb-style, long before the short-term rental company existed.
"I actually looked it up to see if they stayed in my house and got the idea, but they had a different story," said O'Neal. "I had the idea first!"
Over several years, more than 3,000 guests stayed at her house on Ann Arbor's Old West Side. She first called it the 8th Street Trekker's Lodge. She has since moved, but still rents out the property, called The Himalayan Lodge, to visitors.
The early days of the shop
She would bring items from her travels back home and set up a shop in her garage and called it the Himalayan Bazaar. She held held three big sales every Saturday before Christmas.
"I remember I had a little cash register that I bought at Staples and there was a line of 30 people," said O'Neal. "I met all my neighbors. I think I met everyone in town because of those sales. I put up this sign, ‘Himalayan Bazaar.’ And some people would come looking for blenders or couches and they would get singing bowls or prayer wheels (laughs)."
Singing bowls for sale at the Himalayan Bazaar. Tip: ask for a demo (Photo: Meredith Bruckner)
Meanwhile, back in Nepal, Pem was climbing Everest and the story of how he married his wife, Moni, made world news.
O'Neal was in Nepal that day he climbed Everest, remembering that he was nervous. He didn't tell anyone, but he and Moni ended up eloping on the summit.
This was a big deal, not only because they scaled the mountain safely, but because they were from different castes and different religions. Moni called her family and told them they should accept her marriage or she will never return home.
The families ended up accepting the union and soon Pem and Moni were living in Boulder, Colorado, where they had their first daughter.
After staying in touch, Pem called O'Neal one day and said, "What do you think about taking your bazaar from your garage to Main Street?"
O'Neal, who was heavily pregnant at the time, said absolutely not.
Handmade felt products are prevalent in Nepal (Photo: Meredith Bruckner)
But Pem assured her he would take care of everything, along with his wife.
Together they opened the Himalayan Bazaar in May 2011, two months after O'Neal's son was born.
Walking into the shop, you are immediately greeted with the smell of incense. You can browse through all the fair trade treasures O'Neal has amassed over the years from Nepal.
It really feels like you're walking into another world.
Be sure to check out the museum at the back of the shop with Pem and Moni's incredible stories along with stories of other local trekkers.
Traditional Tibetan prayer flags for sale at The Himalayan Bazaar (Photo: Meredith Bruckner)
Fun fact: The Himalayan Bazaar also has its own fairy door.
O'Neal will be leading two trips this year to Nepal, one in April and one in the fall.
And keep a look out for their rickshaw, which makes special appearances downtown. "We have this rickshaw from the streets of Kathmandu to the streets of Ann Arbor and it sits in my garage," said O'Neal. "It is the coolest thing you ever saw."
For more information about the Himalayan Bazaar, visit its website.
Learn more about Pem and Moni here.
Learn more about Of Global Interest tours to Nepal here.
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