The open sign is dark, the gravel parking lot empty, but Ruby’s Natural Foods will not be forgotten. Owner Ruby Bouchard is a local legend in Slidell who recently announced she was closing her doors.

Once word spread, the cards, letters and flowers poured in. Flipping through the customer testimonials, Ruby struggled to keep a dry eye.

A self-taught healer, she opened Ruby’s Natural Foods in 1980 and it’s been her life ever since — w hat she calls her labor of love.

“I won’t miss the work,” she said. “I will miss the people. They have been part of my life for 34 years, and that’s a long time.”

When a local health food store in Slidell decided to sell, Bouchard bought the business. It was her first venture into owning a business and it blossomed for more than three decades.

They moved three times and settled in a house off Gause Boulevard more than 20 years ago. Many heartfelt stories were shared on the front porch rocking chairs and shady benches in the backyard.

Thousands of loyal customers have relied on Ruby’s advice for natural healing through diet and vitamins. She gained most of her knowledge from reading and studying, along with real-life experience in helping her customers.

“You get to know the products,” she said. “And some of it is trial and error.”

Bouchard said it was more of a country store setting, where people would come in and chat about family, seeking solutions for their ailments.

“They trust me,” Ruby said, smiling. “One woman told me, ‘There’s two people I trust: you and my priest.’ ”

Working all her life, seven days a week, sometimes 10-hour days, she looks forward to traveling and spending time with her extended family.

A vibrant 82-year-old, Ruby has enjoyed a couple of late-morning sleep-ins since the store closed.

“No bucket list yet. I’ll write that up tomorrow,” she said, laughing.

Many have come in personally to say their goodbyes, and to thank Ruby for all the times her suggestions made them well.

“You know what, that’s the most rewarding thing of all, a blessing knowing they feel much better,” she said.

She grabbed what she calls her “book of love” and began reading the tidings.

“Thank you for all you’ve done for the community. God Bless. We love you,” Ruby said, breaking down in tears. “I cry easy now. I used to never cry.”

Another longtime customer sent a lengthy note of thanks referencing Bouchard as a beacon of good health in a barren world of junk food.

“You and your Natural Foods have nourished me and my loved ones for my entire Slidell life,” the appreciative customer said.

She continued, “Your inimitable lunch counter, with front row bird and squirrel watching, all the roses and lantana in the gardens, and the rockers on the porch. And above all, you, your caring expertise, personal attention and love.”

Then there are cards from young children with drawings of stick men showing their love and appreciation. One young gent said, “I love Ms. Ruby as much as Disney World.”

Bouchard always kept a big jar of free organic suckers.

“Thank you for the yummy gluten-free food,” one child wrote.

Bouchard laughed and said, “I had that before anyone knew what it was.”

If someone couldn’t pay, Ruby told them to pay when they could. Besides the thousands of local customers, many are from out of town.

“Some were displaced from Katrina and lived out of town,” she said. “They would still order from the store.”

“They come in and cry, and I cry with them,” she said. “I just want to thank all of the customers and let them know I love them, and God bless them.”

One customer told Bouchard they could open 20 health stores and it wouldn’t be the same. Bouchard asked them why and they said, “Because it won’t have you.”

Deborah Burst writes about people behind the scenes of organizations and events in St. Tammany Parish. To reach her, email deborahburst@gmail.com.