Still-evolving Austen & Company hopes to become a community hub
Located in Merion Village, the multifaceted room currently operates as a tea and coffee house, a used bookstore, a bar, an event space, an art gallery and more
When Kay Austen Johnson was laid off from her corporate accounting job in 2016, she started to brainstorm her next step, knowing she didn’t want to return to office life. At first, she considered owning and operating a tea shop. And then a bookstore.
With Austen & Company, which opened in Merion Village in November, Johnson opted for both, and then some. The large space, located at 1530 S. High St., focuses on tea and books, but it also includes a bar (dubbed Bar Edna, Johnson said she envisioned it as a place one could order a scotch to sip while browsing), walls filled with local art for sale and even a dartboard tucked hidden away behind a bookshelf.
It is also gradually becoming a neighborhood events destination, hosting the launch party for the literary journal Tomorrow and Tomorrow, weekly Wednesday punk music nights and regular open mics, the next of which is slated to take place on Saturday, July 3.
Still, there were some ideas Johnson had to scrap, such as a planned bakery, which would have required extensive and costly renovation of the building’s kitchen. The owner also said the space is still evolving as she learns more about the neighborhood, adjusting to meet the needs of the people she hopes will make the shop a regular home.
“I knew what I didn’t want, and I did go around to a lot of coffee shops, and a lot of them are very industrial, where they don’t really decorate,” said Johnson, who looked at a number of potential spaces in Olde Towne East and the Discovery District before landing on the current location. “I knew I wanted it to be comfortable, welcoming. I didn’t want it to be, ‘Here’s your coffee.’ I wanted it to be, ‘Here’s your tea and let’s talk about it.’”
Johnson said this desire for a more meaningful connection was amplified during the pandemic, which also delayed the shop’s opening by eight months, stretching the family finances to the point where she wondered if it would ever become a reality. “I say that I aged 40 years during the process,” said Johnson, who attributed some of the permitting delays to the realities of many city employees working from home amid COVID-19.
Since opening, though, Johnson, who runs Austen & Co. alongside a handful of family members, including her daughter, Alicia Austen Zimmey, has seen glimpses of what she hopes for the space as more people begin to discover it via word of mouth. There was the night that Chris Shaw led a song share in the front room, with four musicians taking turns sharing new tunes, surrounded by friends and family members. And then there was the Tomorrow and Tomorrow launch, where a group of more than 30 people listened to readings and then engaged in a thoughtful discussion that stretched into the evening.
“I envisioned this place being the center of the community, a place to exchange ideas, almost like a revolutionary back room where people would talk about ways to make the world better, and I saw this [at the journal launch],” Johnson said.
The owner then leaned over the bar, speaking directly into the tape recorder. “Not plotting to overthrow the government,” she said, and laughed. “Well, maybe a little.”