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Twilight Tea Lounge owner cites dwindling traffic to subterranean storefront

BRATTLEBORO—After over 10 years of pouring pots, Anneka Kindler, owner of the Twilight Tea Lounge, is throwing in the tea towel.

She said financial pressures are the main factor.

“I did a good stint,” she said.

Five original owners started the business as a collective and opened on Valentine’s Day in 2001 in the lower level storefront at 51 Main St., which long ago housed a barber shop (and where the old barber shop chair remained because it could not be easily moved).

Kindler bought the Tea Lounge in 2004, a short time after she moved to Brattleboro from Washington, D.C. to “live the Vermont dream.”

“It was difficult to find an actual job,” she said.

So, to fill her time, she began taking herbalism classes with local herbalist Sage Maurer, who operates the Gaia School of Healing & Earth Education in Putney.

“I loved the original Tea Lounge, so when it came up for sale, it seemed like a fun idea,” she said, adding “it definitely panned out for a number of years after that.”

Kindler “inherited a lovely tea menu” from the founders, and she expanded that menu to reflect what she called “healthy beverages.”

She said Brattleboro, “being one of the more health-savvy locales,” seemed a good place for her business plan.

“I also added vegan goodies, because that’s my thing,” she said, noting she also offered “vegan milky options” for those who did not want animal dairy in their drinks.

A good move, for a while

Kindler said the original location “had too many maintenance issues for a food-service operation” and, five years after buying the business, moved across Arch Street to the lower level of 41 Main St.

At the time, it seemed like a good opportunity.

A yarn store, Knit or Dye, had just opened overhead, and the two businesses were connected by a small stairwell.

“While the knitting shop was there, there was a nice symbiotic relationship,” Kindler said, noting it “made the move a good one, initially.”

But once the yarn store moved to West Brattleboro, the building’s owner divided the space, closing the stairwell.

The Tea Lounge lost its Main Street access.

“People didn’t persevere down the slope of Arch Street,” Kindler said, noting that “accessibility became more of a factor.”

She said there was “some” crossover in business from the new massage parlor, “but not as much” as with Knit or Dye.

Still, Kindler said she made it through some slow times, including Tropical Storm Irene, the recession, a summer of break-ins at her shop and other businesses in town, and the Brooks House fire.

“I was never able to afford employees, so that’s one big overhead cost I never had,” she said. “Having the regular pace was a thing one person could handle, so that helped me limp through the bad times,” she added.

“People locally really love the space and the offerings, but not at a level that makes financial sense to continue,” she said. “There are not enough upticks.”

“There are many more options around town for people to sit with their laptops” now, Kindler said, noting that she was one of the first to offer sit-down wireless Internet access in town, in 2005.

At that time, many rural residents, even townies, had only dial-up access, if they had any connection to the Internet at all.

“Half of my customers are tea-lovers,” she said, “and the other half are people looking for a WiFi place with refreshments,” she said.

Now that more people have high-speed Internet at home, Kindler said, “my perception is that WiFi isn’t something that’s as much a draw as it used to be.”

Another service Kindler offered, aside from more than 180 kinds of teas and tisanes (herbal teas), is education and accessibility in tea.

“People have the idea that tea is for special occasions,” she said. “They think it’s fancy and etiquette-bound."

To leap the “hurdles to getting people to enjoy tea,” she offered “a lot of flavors and answered people’s questions rather than push information” on to them, she said.

“There’s lots of good flavors, it’s good for you, here you go, enjoy it,” she said, of her sales style.

Kindler said the Tea Lounge became “best known for our chai,” which brought a lot of customers.

Kindler noted sales of the prepared Indian-style spiced tea drink, supplied by Guilford’s Chai Wallah, accounted for about half of her sales.

“Most die-hard coffee drinkers ended up getting chai,” she said.

“The other half is everything else on the menu,” she said.

Winding down

Kindler plans Sept. 10 as the Twilight Tea Lounge’s last official day. She might stay open another day or two to extend the clearance sales. She recommends that guests check and the shop’s Facebook page for future events.

“I plan on sticking around the area,” she said, adding her life in tea “might not go completely away,” and she is considering “a pop-up tea night a few times a year.”

She is also looking for a regular job.

“As fun as it is” running the Tea Lounge, “the risk involved in business ownership” is too insecure, she said. “I’m looking for something more predictable.”

In an email to The Commons, Kindler wrote that she wanted to thank everyone who has participated in the Tea Lounge over the years.

When asked to name specific people — maybe the customers, or the artists whose creations adorned the walls, or the poets and writers who read at the Tea Lounge, or those who participated in the shop’s many group discussions — she insisted the accolades go “to everyone.”

“I liked the idea of having a place that’s a little different,” she added. “I like the idea of being part of something that made the town unique.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #321 (Wednesday, September 2, 2015). This story appeared on page D2.

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