The Philosopher’s House brings a liberal arts teahouse to Johnson City
When Jesse and Jessica Shelton returned to Johnson City, Tennessee, after living and teaching in Japan, they envisioned a community space—something that honored various Asian tea traditions. Somewhere that celebrated art, connection, and philosophy. Someplace inclusive. But they didn’t know exactly how to describe their vision. And they had no idea what to name it.
It was not until they found the building that would eventually house their business that they landed on the name, the Philosopher’s House—only then could they clearly define its mission.
“Once I had the right language, I could explain that it is a community house, not a coffee shop,” Jesse says. “It was then that people could better understand what I meant by ‘a liberal arts center.’” It’s like a small university in one house, with a cross-section of ideas and spaces.
At first the couple was looking for a space with a lot of land surrounding it because they wanted to offer an immersive nature experience. But those spots, by definition, were remote, and the couple needed some walk-by traffic to be successful. “We didn’t want to sit there all by ourselves,” Jesse says.
Then they came across the big, two-story house divided into seven little rooms just blocks from downtown, near Kings Commons Park. According to Jesse, he and Jessica “allowed the structure to guide the vision.”
While Johnson City might not be widely known to many (except for that shoutout in the lyrics of Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Wagon Wheel”), it’s an Appalachian gem off of I-26, offering scenic mountain views, world-class mountain biking, a selection of local breweries, and a laid-back vibe you don’t get in the nearby, more crowded Smoky Mountains. The Sheltons went to school at East Tennessee State University and appreciated the college-town vibes of the community.
The Philosopher’s House opened in December 2022 as a nonprofit spot for the exchange of ideas, with a tea menu as big as any of the other books on the shop’s shelves. Jesse did some of the labor himself, transforming the building into a home for the extensive tearoom, meditation room, classrooms, and a game room, plus cozy nooks for curling up in front of the fireplace with a good book nabbed from one of the many shelves lining the hallway. A bulletin board offers folks the opportunity to leave encouraging “love notes” for others, and a small set of shelves displays a few items for sale.
The tea menu is massive, with several varieties each of white, oolong, green, and red (black) teas, plus blends and tisanes/herbals. (And, yes, there is a French press coffee option for folks who aren’t fans of tea.) Each tea is served in traditional style, which means some in bowls, others in mugs, and some in dainty English bone china sets. Walls sport tea decor, including teapots Jesse has collected over the years.
The simple food menu complements the community center vibes with small plates that can be shared: hummus with vegetables, lots of toast-based bites, and sweet and savory pastries from local bakeries.
Staff training influences the Philosopher’s House’s unique vibe. Every customer is greeted as soon as they walk in the door. Jesse tells the tea brewers that 70 percent of their job is helping customers choose from the various teas and brewing it. The other 30 percent is talking to them about the many, many classes offered in the building, everything from sewing to yoga, creative cosplay to German language lessons. Most are adult classes, but some are for families and children. The Philosopher’s House takes a cut of fees charged for the classes to support its operation.
A membership program includes free tea and discounts on some programming. Volunteers can earn memberships by washing dishes and setting up for classes. However, you do not need to be a member to enjoy the Philosopher’s House; you can just walk in like a traditional coffee shop.
In a cup (or bowl) of tea, the Sheltons believe they “see the values of the society which developed it.” the Philosopher’s House.From heating the kettle to the details of the ceramics, they say, “Tea engages us and widens our perspectives at the same time.”
- by Erin Byers Murray
- by TLP Editors
- by Erin Byers Murray
- by TLP Editors