By the sound
by Kathleen Schenck
From the January, 2018 issue
As the sun streams through the windows at By the Pound, Michael Leech pours fresh coffee beans into plastic dispensers. Slight of stature and unassuming in metal-framed glasses and black tennis shoes with thick rubber soles, the soft-spoken Englishman has worked at the bulk foods store for twenty-two years. He's been here so long and knows so much that a lot of people think he's the owner. "And that's great," says the real owner, Glenn Bourland.
Leech does everything at the store on South Industrial from restocking bins to inventory to helping with ordering. A coworker describes him as "the go-to tea man." Leech nods. "I like coffee, but being English I'm not going to give up the tea."
Invisibly, he also curates the store's soundtrack. Hearing exquisite classical music is as much a part of the By the Pound experience as bringing your own Tupperware. Drawn from his own "huge" record collection, the music is dynamically optimized for the space. Without his software manipulations, he explains, "the soft stuff you couldn't hear and the loud stuff would blast you away."
Asked what's playing at the moment, he answers without hesitation, "Rachmaninoff's second symphony." A shopper hums along while strolling by the bins of nuts and seeds, and, as he crosses over to the candy, breaks into a whistle.
Before he worked at By the Pound, Leech was a professional cellist. "First time I came here I was playing with the Scottish National Orchestra," he recalls as he rests his hands on the counter. "The first place we played in the United States was in Ann Arbor, in Hill Auditorium. It was in 1975. It was the first time I'd left Britain."
By 1979 he was in Mexico, playing with a university orchestra in Guanajuato. That's where he met violist and soprano Kathy Worsham, an Ann Arbor native and graduate of U-M's music school. "I just happened to be seeing off a friend of mine who was going
to--actually I think it was the same bus he was going on--to Guadalajara. And she got off that bus. So I met her at the bus station by pure chance." They soon fell in love and moved to Guadalajara, where he played in an orchestra and Kathy sang in the state choir.
After two years, the couple decided to move to the States. They considered Michigan, but "the economy was really bad" at the time, Leech recalls. They had friends in Texas and decided to move to San Antonio.
The couple lived there for a dozen years, freelancing as musicians--Kathy played in various places and also taught strings in the public schools, and Leech played weddings and corporate events, as well as concerts, ensembles, operas, and musicals at a downtown theater. He also backed singers such as Tom Jones, Burt Bacharach, Smokey Robinson, and Rod Stewart.
Kathy also earned a nursing degree that opened the door to returning to her hometown to be closer to her parents. She got a job at the U-M, and in 1995 the couple moved into a duplex owned by Kathy's parents on Pauline near Stadium. That's when they became regulars at By the Pound, then nearby on S. Main.
Leech had hoped to continue in music, but his eyesight was getting worse, "and to play in orchestras really does require good eyesight." One day when Kathy was shopping at By the Pound, Bourland asked if she knew of anybody who was looking for work. She basically interviewed on her husband's behalf, and that's how his tenure began.
Still fit at sixty-four, Leech credits Iyengar yoga with keeping him healthy. "We're really lucky," he says, because his teacher, Laurie Blakeney, studied with founder B.K.S. Iyengar himself. Due to Leech's eyesight he doesn't drive or ride a bike. Since Blakeney's early bird yoga class starts before the buses run, he walks a half hour from his house off Miller to get to her downtown studio, often in the dark, then walks back home. Since By the Pound moved to South Industrial in December 2016, he takes two buses each way to work. If they don't connect properly, he walks the two miles home from the Blake Transit Center, mostly uphill. "I like walking, it's no big deal," he says. "Well, when we get bad blizzards, it's chaos."
Besides the missed connections, Leech misses being downtown. "But downtown Ann Arbor is changing," he says. "To my way of thinking, not for the better." He pauses to ring up a customer then laughs, "Well, the old fogies always see it that way, right? The world's not what it used to be."
"Two ninety-nine," exclaims a sharply dressed woman as she plops a sack of gummy worms on the scale, then adds with a laugh, "as you know." Leech does indeed know most of the store's prices by heart. "He is amazingly knowledgeable," says another customer, Eric Bassey. "And he's a really good guy." Bassey places bags of peanut butter-filled pretzels and chocolate-covered treats on the counter and announces that he has "all the American food groups--salt, sugar," and, Leech adds, "fat."
A vegetarian, Leech has been cooking Indian food since his college days in Glasgow. He expanded the store's selection of Indian foods and spices soon after he got here.
"My wife used to say she didn't like food that hurt," Leech says. When they married, "I had to do really mild. But over the years, little by little ... which is good because we went to India for our yoga, and she was able to eat and really enjoy it." Leech adds, "We have a lot of the more exotic spices here, like the asafoetida," which is also known, Google says, as "the world's smelliest spice" and "devil's dung." Leech walks down to where it is kept inside containers and opens one: if onions and garlic had children, this is what their feet would smell like.
Any guilty pleasures? "That's a dangerous aisle, that one," he says, pointing to the candy. "Dark chocolate malt balls. My wife and I love those."
Leech's favorite thing about his adoptive home? "The people," he says. "That's what makes Ann Arbor. That's what makes this job so incredible, too."
[Originally published in January, 2018.]
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