For 37 years, Thomas Williams, who jokingly refers to himself as a root doctor, has offered herbal remedies for everything from sore gums to stiff muscles.

The shelves at his small downtown Charleston shop are lined with amber-colored bottles of nettle leaf, echinacea root, oat straw and witch hazel, among dozens of other unusually named natural substances.

A yellowed herb and ailment cross reference chart on the wall details remedies such as filling a pillow with hops and placing it on the jaw or side of the head to relieve a tooth ache or ear ache.

Customers often tell him their problem, and the soft-spoken and well-versed store keeper leads them to an herb which might help, explaining its medicinal qualities with ease or opening a well-worn book on herbs to detail additional uses.

But at the end of the month, Williams, who holds a graduate degree in botanical medicine, will no longer dispense his herbal wisdom from the corner of Spring and Coming streets.

He will close Books, Herbs & Spices, a shop that's moved back and forth from James Island to peninsular Charleston for decades before settling in downtown for the past nine years.

"It's been one of the more challenging things I've done in my life," said Williams, whose father was a pharmacist specializing in compounds.

But, he said, the influx of students has changed the local market, and competition from larger chain stores has slowly nibbled into his share of the herbs business.

Williams, who will be 63 next month, also said when the economy tanked and he wasn't able to get a loan, he sank his own money into supplies to stock the store.

"That's a no-no in business," he said. "Sometimes you take a chance, and it doesn't work out."

That was not good news for Mennette Thomas.

The longtime customer, who used to live in Charleston, drove up from Savannah recently to get a mixture of myrrh, clove, goldenseal and black walnut powder for her sore gums when the store keeper broke the news to her that he would soon shutter the shop.

"Oh, no," she said. "What am I going to do?"

Local tour guide Joyce Aungst voiced the same reaction when she stopped by to pick up an herb.

Williams pointed them and other customers to a note pad on the counter, where it politely asked them to add their names to a growing list of email addresses. He doesn't plan to go away completely.

He is moving his business online, hoping his loyal customers -- and some new ones -- will follow him to the Internet at www.herbsbooksspices.com.

Until the end of the month, his shelves will continue to carry everything from honey made in Cottageville to herbal salves, beetroot juice, organic oats and 355 different kinds of herbs and spices.

"I've tried to be more than a health food store," Williams said. "I've tried to get people to take more responsibility for their health by serving the community with information."

Reach Warren L. Wise at 937-5524.