Starting a Revolution

The Tea Party Bookshop wants customers to declare their independence.
by : 

Jayne Denker

January 1, 2010

It’s more than 230 years later, crates of tea are not involved, and the “tea party” is on the opposite coast from the original location, but the focus is revolution once again. The difference this time is that the Tea Party Bookshop in Salem, Ore., is advocating a different kind of autonomy—the intellectual sort.

“We want to promote independent thinking,” owner JoAnne Kohler says. “We want our customers to be curious, explore what they need to explore, and connect with people of like mind.”

The books and gifts that fill Kohler’s shop are intended to help customers engage in independent thought on plenty of subjects, including—but certainly not limited to—spiritual development, green living and sustainability, politics, and fair trade.

Essentially, Kohler says, “the store is my head turned inside out.” Whatever Kohler is interested in, whatever is a passion of hers, is represented in the store, which is located on a busy street corner just blocks from the Willamette River in downtown Salem.

While Tea Party’s “bread and butter” is books, the 1,400 square foot shop also features gifts, most of which are created with environmentally responsible processes: journals, salt lamps, jewelry made by local artisans and fair-trade organizations, candles, incense, prayer flags, Pagan and Wiccan supplies (although, Kohler points out, “We have books and gifts for every spiritual path”), and meditation items.

And her choices have struck just the right chord with the clientele in this Pacific Northwest city. Tea Party just celebrated its second holiday season and continues to do well not only as a retail establishment, but also as meeting place for the alternative community and spiritual seekers—something Kohler included in her plan for a bookshop.

“I wanted to get the alternative community circle moving, tie it all together,” she says. “That means spiritual, economical, physical, political.”

Not so serious

This is not to say, however, that Kohler ignores the “party” part of the name she chose. “Party is our middle name,” the store’s website (www.teapartybookshop.com) declares. To Kohler, that means “I say ‘yes’ a lot … and have cake whenever possible.”

Tea Party is an ongoing celebration of sorts, a realization of Kohler’s lifelong dream to own a bookstore. “I’ve wanted to do this since I was five years old,” she says. “I’ve always been a reader, and I’ve always wanted to own a bookshop.”

Kohler, who grew up in New York and moved to Oregon eight years ago, holds master’s degrees in public administration and library and informational science, which provided an ideal background for the type of business she had in mind. So in 2008, she took the leap and acquired funding to make her dream come true.

Tea Party opened “just before the economy went south,” Kohler says. “It wasn’t the ideal economic climate, but then again, there’s never a good economic climate. We’ve been extremely well received, and we continue to do well,” which is all that she really wants, she says.

Kohler sees her shop as an educational center, but more of a jumping-off point for people’s quest for knowledge. She and her four part-time employees are happy to help people seeking more information about any subject, whether it’s of a spiritual or environmental nature. But they don’t spoon-feed anyone. Instead, they encourage people to learn to think for themselves.

“If someone comes into the store and needs guidance, we can find something appropriate. But we’ll guide them, not give them all the details. We prefer to encourage discovery.”

So, she says, a curious customer may be pointed in the right direction with a book recommendation or brief explanation of a product; then they’re on their own to learn more. However, Tea Party offers more ways to learn than just reading a book.

An event-ful place

Take a quick look at the calendar on the Tea Party website and you’d think the place was more like a community center that’s been in existence for decades. Each month is jam-packed with daily and weekly meditation sessions, lectures, and more, not to mention monthly get-togethers, such as poetry readings and open mic nights, and frequent special events like book signings, drumming circles, health fairs, psychic fairs, and Pagan meetups. Classes and workshops bring in an average of 10 people; book signings can draw a hundred or more.

“Books are our core business, but events account for about 30 to 40% of our income,” Kohler says.

In fact, so many events take place in the store’s 1,000 square foot workshop space that Kohler created a second business—the website calendar—just to schedule and organize them. The business also takes care of advertising the events.

“There’s always something going on,” she says. “We tend to scale back on classes and other events during the holidays, but in January we’re going to have a full calendar of workshops to support people who have made New Year’s resolutions: self-hypnosis to help them break bad habits, journaling classes—whatever can help.”

Tea Party boasts a list of more than 20 practitioners who teach the classes and workshops. And they all gravitated toward Tea Party of their own accord. “They found us,” she says. “We’re open to anyone who will come play with us. I’m always willing to give people a chance.”

Her practitioners, who pay a portion of their course fee to Tea Party, not only conduct workshops, but also connect with Tea Party’s clientele through individual appointments and by taking part in the store’s periodic psychic fairs. Anything, Kohler says, to “give people the opportunity to be successful in their lives.”

Part of the community

In addition to reaching out to people on an individual basis, Kohler makes sure that Tea Party is an active part of the Salem community. Tea Party is a supporter of Transition Salem, the local segment of the international Transition Movement, a nonprofit grass-roots organization with the goal of fostering close, interconnected local communities that can function as independent entities in the event that the peak oil theory comes to fruition and severe climate change forces communities to become self-sustaining.

“This movement encompasses all aspects of life after peak oil—economic, spiritual. Transition Salem is in its very beginning stages, but we’ve received a lot of support from quite a few wholesalers already, especially Chelsea Green Publishing,” Kohler says.

Another cause important to Kohler is 350.org, the climate-change organization working to reduce the carbon dioxide count in the atmosphere to a livable 350 parts per million.

To help spread the word, Kohler says, “We held a 350 gathering in October, with about 15 practitioners offering free treatments, including reiki, massage, and acupuncture, and we had an alternative health fair that drew health-related providers and community-oriented nonprofits.”

Also in the works, possibly for spring, is a conference on 2012.

“There’s a huge shift going on. People are changing, and it’s fascinating to watch, but again, people need guidance. Our customers know it’s safe to come into the store and speak freely. If they want to say, ‘The energy has shifted—I feel it today,’ they can say it here and we’ll understand.”

And in the spirit of community support and education that is Tea Party’s mission, Kohler is only too willing to help her customers learn more about it.

Tea Party also has participated in a pro-literacy, pro-education conference with the School Library Association, and Kohler looks forward to holding more body/mind/spirit fairs, yet she admits, “I always think I’m not doing enough.” A self-described workaholic who spends her every waking moment working on plans for the store, she says, “I want to grow up to be like those bookshops that have several events going on at once, all the time.”

With a successful store that other shops would envy, and after only two years in business, it likely won’t be long before Kohler achieves her ambitious goals.


Store name: Tea Party Bookshop
Location: 420 Ferry St. S.E., Salem, OR 97301; 503/990-6471
Website: www.teapartybookshop.com
Owner: JoAnne Kohler
Date opened: August 2008
Hours: Mon. - Sat., 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Sun. 12 p.m. to 4 p.m.
Number of employees: 4 part-time
Annual gross: $150,000
Square feet: 1,400 with 1,000 sq. ft. workshop
Best sellers: Books by Paulo Coelho, Terri Daniel, Sara Wiseman, and Devon Monk; Coventry Creations candles; EcoUsable water bottles; Bananagrams; journals
Favorite vendors: Chelsea Green Publishing; Compendium; Coventry Creations
Inventory method: Booklog

Jayne Denker is an editor at large for New Age Retailer and a freelance writer living in a small village in western New York with her husband and son. Visit her at www.dragon-droppings.com.