Thursday, November 30, 2006

Incense? Not a Problem!

The catalogues telling me what to buy have been arriving daily for the past few weeks. Most of them go unread into the shiny new trashcan in the kitchen. I did take a few moments to look at a catalogue from a company peddling religious icons and other religious wares. On a back page, I read this statement: “We can solve your incense problems.”

I hadn’t been aware of having any incense problems but it got me to wondering about incense. On my first day at the new job at 55 West & Co., Stephanie, the store’s owner, went through the list of procedures for opening the store each day--such things as wiping down the marble ledges in the exterior entrance, turning on the lights and music and . . . lighting the incense.

Stefanie said customers have varied reactions to the Nag Champa incense made in India. Nag Champa is often used in cathedrals (not without problems, apparently!) The pungent odor reminds some customers of high times in the dim city apartments of their wayward youth. As I’ve already said, so far, I’ve had no “incense problems” to speak of myself.

At 55 West & Co. we burn Sai Baba Nag Champa. According to their literature, it is enjoyed by millions and is the most popular incense in the world. Nag Champa is a hand-rolled blend of highly fragrant rare gums, resins, powders and pure Mysore Sandalwood Oil. It has been “appreciated for decades as an exceptional quality incense for deep calming meditation and for creating sacred spaces.” The scent of it will linger for in your room for hours.

Soon after I began my job, we ran out of the little sticks of incense and resorted to re-lighting the small remaining sticks left in the jar of sand behind the counter. Everyone breathed a gigantic sigh of contentment the day we received a huge shipment of Nag Champa and the store again smelled the way it was supposed to smell. Nag Champa adds something indefinable yet intriguing to the atmosphere at 55 West & Co. Stephanie sometimes describes what goes on in the large rambling two-story building in Millersburg as the “55 West Experience.”

Incense is only part of the “55 West Experience.” Other elements include the interesting and often funky music constantly playing on the stereo, the eclectic mixture of old and new home furnishings and apparel, and the hand-crafted, off-beat and interesting wares for sale throughout. Many visitors can’t resist the lure of “Salvage Central” in plain view but off limits to customers. There Stefanie and her crew give old tables, cupboards and chairs a quick coat or two of thin paint pastel colored paint. The creaking staircase with two landings leads to another whole floor of equally interesting stuff.

The place is a sensory feast and now that I’ve been working there a few weeks I’ve begun to unravel the mysterious draw the place has for me. According to Stefanie, people come back because of the entire atmosphere, including the friendly, energetic staff, and the relaxed ambience, the quirky merchandise and the strange aura of creative energy that seems to hover in the air of the store. She didn’t mention the dog, but I suspect some come in just for the chance to give Stef’s dog, Otis, a pat on the head as they walk by the counter.

As I listened to my new boss talk about her philosophy, I felt relief that she didn’t use words like “marketing,”, “customer service” or “retail sales.” In the end, her message was about the same as the words of one of my first employers, a newspaper editor whose parting shot was “Just be interested in other people and you’ll do fine.”

Maybe incense is the opposite of nonsense, I don’t know. At times the store takes on the qualities of a sacred space. It is not so far-fetched as one might imagine—the store as a cathedral. Here are objects artfully placed; light shines onto surfaces, people kneel to peer inside a cupboard, or raise their arms to lift something. There is a friendly welcome, someone willing to listen and care about your life. There is music, energy and respite from both the drudgery and madness of everyday living. In addition, there is that soothing scent, so indescribably aromatic, exotic and mysterious that it seems to awaken one to the sublime.

I have considered, this Advent season, sneaking into our church each Sunday at 8:00 and lighting a stick of Nag Champa. Then I would be singularly responsible for solving our “incense problem” something few people even know exists, unless they’ve lately perused a religious catalogue.
Lofty Thoughts


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