Beyond Avalon

This Orlando store is a world between worlds for its loyal customers.
by : 

Jayne Denker

March 1, 2010
Beyond Avalon

Miranda Sophia Solace, owner of Avalon in Orlando, Fla., refers to her shop and everything associated with it as living beings. If she talks about her inventory, she’s more likely to say “The incense lives in this room,” or “This is where the candles live,” than make an offhand reference to stocking the shelves. The glass display cabinets that house the jewelry and where the cash register rests is the “face” of the store, the old fireplace in the 1920s bungalow is its “heart.”

The fireplace houses an altar and a statue of Ganesh that had been for sale, but instead decided to take up residence. “People started leaving money in front of him,” Solace explains, so it was apparent Ganesh was supposed to stay.

“The store is like an entity unto itself,” Solace says.

An integral part of the entity that is Avalon, far more than any architectural trappings, Solace says, is the people. “The employees, the psychics, and the clientele come together in a symbiotic relationship based on the love of the store,” she says. “It’s like a plant you have to nurture and care for, and it blooms for you.”

In other words, she lets things at Avalon happen organically, but tends to every single detail of the shop to ensure it’s healthy. And it seems she has nurtured it in just the right way for more than 10 years.

Located near downtown Orlando, a fair distance from the Disney complex and other tourist attractions, Avalon has served the area’s Wiccan and Pagan communities since 1993, under various names and owners. One thing that’s remained constant, however, is Solace’s presence.

Solace started out as a part-time employee in 1994, back when the store was called Dragonwood and was owned by Hillary Morgan, a Wiccan high priestess. When Morgan sold the store in 1997, Solace “came with the place,” which was renamed Herne’s Hollow. The new owner, however, soon found out that running a retail establishment wasn’t to his liking, and in 1999 sold it to Solace and her business partner, Digby Bertram, for the same price he had paid—$25,000.

“Digby put up the money for the deposit,” Solace says, as well as $1,000 to stock the almost bare shelves with books.

While Bertram is vice president and co-owner, the shop is solely Solace’s baby—as, it seems, it always has been.

A few thousand miles

Solace says it’s a bit ironic that, although she was born and raised in the United Kingdom, she had to travel thousands of miles and take up residence on another continent before she could fully study the Pagan traditions of her home country. Yet that’s exactly what happened.

Eighteen years ago, Solace married an American she had met on holiday in Cornwall. She believed their stay in Florida would be a temporary measure, but while the marriage didn’t last, in hindsight, Solace acknowledges it was the catalyst that brought her to where she was needed.

Solace’s purpose, she says, is to “provide a healing and sacred place for the magically inclined community in Orlando.”

And that includes “being there” for her clientele, whether they come in once in a blue moon or every week. “So many customers talk about how the store, and what we have done for them, has brought so much comfort and happiness to their lives. Sometimes it’s just through the small things—listening, dispensing a cleansing salt bath—but mainly just being there. And we make sure this place is a world between worlds—pretty and calm—for the customers who need that in their lives.”

To that end, the various rooms of the old house are painted a high-vibrational purple and filled with an inventory worth approximately $55,000, including books, Pagan tools, clothing, jewelry, and “groceries” (popular items with high turnover, such as incense and candles)—quite a change from the scant $12,000 inventory that was left in the store when she and Bertram took it over. It was so bare, in fact, that Bertram filled the shelves with stock from his other business, Avalon Distribution, a separate entity that is not associated with the shop, almost as a showroom for his wholesale business.

Now, however, the store is full, not only with standard wholesale items and products made by local artisans, but also wares Solace makes herself—jewelry, spell kits, and pendulums.

“I’m on management salary,” Solace says, “so I make jewelry and other items to supplement that, and I’m able to indulge my creativity.” (Bertram, she explains, gets a payout at the end of the year when they’re able to afford it.)

Solace doesn’t publicize that she makes some of her own items—the spell kits, “Sophie’s Potions,” are said to be made by “The Magickal Faeries”—but her jewelry and goddess rosaries carry the name “Solace in Stone.”

“Old Age”

Although Solace is a busy shopowner, she still makes an effort to do more. The shop is open every day from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. “The only day we were closed was when I got married, but we told everyone ahead of time,” she says and, more often than not, her husband, Mike, and her two children, Ruby, 7, and Becket, 2, are there with her. Becket already shows a penchant for the tarot, and Solace named a room in the shop, Madame Ruby’s Psychic Parlor, after her daughter.

Solace laughs, “I’ve had people call the store and ask for a reading with Madame Ruby.” While there’s no psychic by that name, Avalon does offer sessions with four psychics. Each is available one Sunday a month; if there’s a fifth Sunday, a guest psychic or Kim Wade, one of the four regular readers and Avalon’s “in-house psychic,” will fill in. The Sunday readings are on a first-come, first-served basis, but Wade also is available by appointment and on Saturdays and Tuesdays for additional walk-in sessions.

With a full roster of psychics working at the store and more waiting in the wings, Solace has plenty to call on for events at the store as well as parties. “All our readers have to go through an approval process, become part of the Avalon family, before I recommend them. And they must be ethical, professional psychics—it has to be their primary profession.”

Avalon also hosts psychic fairs, fairy fests, and two seasonal sales—summer and pre-holiday—that she turns into events, with themes such as “medieval market” or “peace.”

All of Avalon’s employees multitask; the psychics and employees teach a wide variety of classes. Wade teaches six-week tarot and rune courses; others affiliated with the shop teach one-off classes or multi-class courses. Topics might range from basic magic, numerology, herbal medicine, and crystals, to anything else customers might request.

Despite the shop’s former affiliation with a local Wiccan group under Morgan’s ownership and the large number of magic and “Intro to Wicca” classes, Avalon is not associated with any single coven or organization. A witches’ group uses the store as a meetup location once a month, but “they just use the space,” Solace says.

“I don’t consider myself a ‘witch’ anymore; I practice everything from Paganism to Gnostic Christianity,” she says. And her stock reflects this broadening of her horizons. “We’re carrying more self-help books, Thomas Moore, Eckhart Tolle.”

One thing Solace eschews, however, is the term “New Age.” “It’s not New Age,” she says, “it’s ‘Old Age,’” honoring millennia-old traditions of every type, and invoking the power of the sacred location of Glastonbury in her native country.

Positive energy bubble

Years ago, Solace says, Avalon and nearby spiritual bookstore Spiral Circle were unique to the neighborhood, which was primarily a community of Vietnamese immigrants. But recently, with an influx of young people interested in spirituality and green living, the area has been evolving, filling up with vegan cafes and yoga studios.

Solace says the neighborhood offers a feeling of mutual support and an opportunity to foster a “positive energy bubble” as the shops and restaurants engage in cross-promotion.

“I bought gift certificates to the vegan cafe,” Solace says, “and gave away two a month in a drawing. But the winners were required to come into the store to pick them up. It was a great way to encourage new traffic.”

Likewise, when designing, printing, and mailing glossy promotional postcards to advertise store events became cost prohibitive, Solace opted to print far fewer than the 1,300 that would have gone to the people on the shop’s mailing list, and instead leave them on the counters at the other businesses. That kind of promotion works just as well, she found.

Solace does send out an e-newsletter, The Grail, created with Constant Contact (www.constantcontact.com), once a month to share news of upcoming classes. The e-newsletter has links back to the store’s website (www.avalonbeyond.com) for more information.

In existence since 2005, the website features online sales, but the items are still pulled from the store’s shelves, and the charges are run at the register. “We get two or three online orders a week, which is fine right now,” Solace says. “The site is more a place where customers can go to learn more about events and classes we’re having. We prefer to have customers come into the store; part of the reason we’re here is to help educate people. We’ll take the time to listen to our clientele and offer advice and suggestions.”

The Avalon employees, Jackie Dombovy (full time) and Michelle Orwick (part time), also advise customers and encourage them to browse the store’s extensive book collection. “We sell more merchandise than books, but the store wouldn’t work without them. Books are so important. People read them and buy the tools.” The curious may start with books to learn more about a topic, Solace explains, which leads to the purchase of stones, tarot decks, besoms, cauldrons, herbs, candles, and other tools of the Pagan trade.

The new economy

Business has been brisk and steady for the most part, and the store has stayed solvent, but not because Solace has sat on her laurels. “We didn’t have a Christmas in 2008,” she says. “That fall, there was a 20% dip in sales, and that Christmas we had $27,000 in sales, when we usually have sales well above $30,000. So last year, I started doing some reshuffling, evaluating cost versus pricing. I’ve been doing this long enough to know fair pricing, but we had to be aware of rising expenses, like shipping, and the need to cover those costs.”

In addition to increasing the number of private-label products she produced, whenever possible Solace started purchasing from wholesalers that supplied an array of products without a minimum purchase requirement. Her careful analysis of the business paid off.

“In 2009, our income was steady, and up from 2008, which was the only year we showed a ‘loss’—although because I have always planned for a rainy day, we were still completely solvent in ’08,” she says.

Solace notes that Christmas 2009 was profitable and much better than the previous year’s. “We didn’t overbuy for Christmas, but we did make sure that the shop was well stocked with all our regular items to make it abundant.”

While the economy might not be booming like it was when Solace first took over the shop in 1999, surviving and thriving—and enjoying the ride—is always entirely possible, she says.

As Solace wrote in her anniversary e-newsletter, “Though the mystery may sometimes seem so far away, if you pay attention to the strangers that you meet, keep your faith (whatever it may be), the light is only ever around the corner … waiting for the next peculiar adventure!”

Jayne Denker is an editor at large for New Age Retailer, freelance writer, and Pagan living in a small village in western New York with her husband and son. Visit her at Dragon Droppings (www.dragon-droppings.com) or her blog, http://dragondroppings.wordpress.com.