JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – A new kind of space came to Johnson City this year, one that business owners hope will offer a creative spark to the region.

The Philosopher’s House opened at 117 W Fairview Avenue in early 2023 and has offered a wide slate of experiences to anyone who walks through its doors. From relaxing tea ceremonies to guided meditation, the space offers a little bit of everything. The idea for the house was born across the Pacific Ocean when co-owners Jesse and Jessica Shelton moved to Japan.

“We lived in Shikoku Island in Tokushima, pretty rural Japan,” Jesse Shelton said. “So while there I was studying ceramics and we were exposed to tea culture and all this other stuff. I didn’t really realize that we liked tea that much until we came back and this place started to develop. But while we were there, we learned a lot about community, how important it is to have a strong community, lots of things going on. And when we got back to Johnson City, we wanted to help bring a little bit of that back.”

The Sheltons are a married couple, and began their business journey in 2020. Two years and many hours of labor later, they’ve built a teahouse and community space. The two were already involved in the Johnson City scene before their departure, but realized that they were looking for something just like it when they left.

“When we were moving back we had to make a decision, where do we want to move?” Jesse Shelton said. “We went to school at ETSU, so we were comfortable with our city. We made a list.”

“We wanted it to be a university town, but we also wanted to have a low cost of living. We wanted there to be a little bit going on in the community, but not too much. Enough that we could get in and really start something and help that grow. It’s kind of hard if you drop off somewhere when there’s so much going on, there’s lots for you to do, but it’s really hard to make a larger impact. So we made this list and we looked at it. We realized we just described Johnson City.”

The tea service side of the nonprofit is only a portion of what patrons visit for. Classes of all kinds are led by local educators and enthusiasts:

  • Guided Meditation
  • Eastern Philosophy and Religion
  • Literature Discussion
  • Tea Culture Courses
  • Fencing Lessons

The Philosopher’s House was built to connect others and provide a space for local culture to happen, the Sheltons said.

“The great thing about the space is so many people have been very willing to engage with others and want to be around other people,” Jessica Shelton said. “So sometimes you will see people sitting, you know, obviously engaged in their own individual work, like on a laptop or something. But then you’ll also see people maybe with a book in their hand sitting enjoying the space. And it’s very easy to just start a conversation. I’ve met a lot of new people that seem very excited to just make a new friend.”

Another part of the house’s model is a close focus on the ethics of its business. In a rare break from usual prices, milk alternatives are actually cheaper than cow’s milk in beverages. To-go containers are a no-go, but the Sheltons and staff are more than happy to fill a container that you bring in.

“The strains of environmental concern, animal welfare concern, social concern runs pretty prevalent through the house,” Jesse said. “So for example, we upcharge for milk, but we don’t charge for milk alternatives. I think we’re the only place in town that does something like that. And the reason is trying to price based on the amount of suffering that particular item produces.

“Nothing wrong with drinking milk. I drink milk all the time, but our milk is grass-fed organic. It’s as good as we can get, as ethical as we can get, and we try to carry that into all of our teas as much as we possibly can. So you’ll see that throughout the space. It’s not really in your face, but you’ll notice it if you pay attention.”

Whether you’re a tea drinker, coffee snob or just a fan of communal spaces, the Sheltons hope it offers something to you.

“If you are not familiar with tea, please don’t be intimidated,” Jessica said. “All of our teachers are trained to walk you through the process of choosing a tea. So if you walk in and say I have never had anything other than sweet tea, that is totally fine. And I know it feels a little intimidating to people, so I don’t want people to feel like they can’t come. We will guide you through the whole process.”