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Profile: The Healthy Back Store [Massage magazine]

by Hope Katz Gibbs
Massage magazine
January-February 1997

Three stores Healthy Back Stores in the metropolitan Washington area cater to taking the ache out of backs. The stores are filled with chairs, Temper-pedic beds, and assorted gadgets to help relieve pain—but what has lured many shoppers are the handful of folks standing behind the seated massage chairs.

“Seated massage has really caught on,” said Tony Mazlish, The HealthyBack Store’s founder. “We were only going to have the massage at store openings, but it was so popular we decided to keep it on as a permanent fixture.”

Since opening his first shop in Rockville, Maryland, in March 1994, Mazlish has opened one in the northern Virginia shopping Mecca, Tyson’s Corner, and another on a busy street in downtown D.C.

“Sitting in my seated massage chair has become a weekly event for many of our customers,” explains Vika Mutter, a certified massage therapist. “Some customers who work downtown come in twice a week. Even though we work through clothes in the seated massage, it is very intimate for our customers who aren’t used to getting touched. They feel so much relief when we do the massage. They are so grateful, they bring in their coworkers, and family members for a massage. We’ve gotten to know some of our repeat customers so well, it is sort of like a big family for us, too.”

With a degree in art history from Duke University, Mazlish didn’t set out to be in the back business. He fell into it, quite literally. It was 1986 and he was moving into a new home. With a boxed television set in his arms, Mazlish jumped to the ground from the bed of a Ryder truck.

“I heard something go snap,” Mazlish recalls. “ It started as a twinge, but the pain kept getting worse and worse. Within six months 1 had gone to several doctors, but none of them could really help me.”

Mazlish says he learned to live with the pain, but the then-second grade teacher kept searching for comfort. He found temporary relief from stretching while studying for his MBA at Georgetown University, but when he landed a job at the Hungarian-American Enterprise Fund as an investment analyst in 1991, he spent hours sitting at a desk.

“My back really starting acting up again,” he admits, and went looking for a comfortable chair. “I looked everywhere and eventually found it at a store that is now one of my competitors.”

Mazlish also found his future business. “The shops I was searching through weren’t giving me everything I needed.” So he put a business plan together and started looking for investors. By 1994 he had gathered $184,000 from 12 investors, and opened his first store.

Mazlish knew it was important that his salespeople relate to the customers, and in fact found employees who suffer from back pain themselves.

Take Mike Thompson, a salesman at the Tyson’s store who hurt his back in August 1993 when his car was rear-ended while stopped at a light. The resulting injury was a displaced disk in his lumbar region.

“I actually think I can be more sympathetic to a person with a back problem than a doctor can,” Thompson says. “I had those MRIS, physical therapy and the constant pain. A doctor might only be able to guess what it feels like.”

He and other workers are instructed to assess customers’ needs by asking a series of questions:
• How do you relax?
• How do you sleep?
• How do you sit?
• How do you work?
• How do you lift?
• How do you travel?
• How do you care for your back?

“A lot of people don’t really think about these things,” Mazlish believes. “We get them to think about how they move, how they live, because that’s the way we best can help them heal.”

Of course, for $1 per minute, the massage therapists on staff are happy to lend a helping hand.

“My job is very intense,” confides legal assistant Teresa Hall. “So once a week I treat myself to a seated massage at the Healthy Back Store. I consider it my non-food related treat. And I’ll tell you, the difference between the times I come in and the time I leave the massage chair is dramatic. My shoulders feel better, my headache is gone and I am actually in a good mood.”

Comments like those got Mazlish thinking he should find more venues for his massage therapists and recently began booking them at office parties and other events. Last Christmas, NBC affiliate TV station, WJLA, took him up on the offer.

“We wanted to do something special for a party that celebrated our 11 o’clock news team,” said newsroom manager Anne Kessler. “One of our anchors, Doreen Gensler, suggested we get a massage therapist after she did a segment piece on The HealthyBack Store. It turned out to be the perfect party favor.”

Mazlish says he’s happy to be of assistance. “Nearly everyone I know has back problems. The products we sell, plus the therapists on staff, help ease that pain. It’s a lot of fun being in a business where I help people feel better. “


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"I get by with a little help from my friends," says Hope, who gives special thanks to:

• MICHAEL GIBBS, website illustration and design: www.michaelgibbs.com
• MAX KUKOY, website development: www.maxwebworks.com
• STEVE BARRETT, portrait of Hope on Bio page: www.stevebarrettphotography.com

Contact HOPE KATZ GIBBS by phone [703-346-6975] or email.