Jordan Blackhurst admits that people often reference the old ABC sitcom “Dharma and Greg” while they are in her shop in Webster Groves.
“A lot of people say that,” said the 29-year-old owner of Dharma + Dwell, a quaint retail nook of less than 1,000 square feet along Big Bend Boulevard. “Or they think that my name is Dharma [a Sanskrit word that in English roughly translates to “right way of living].”
But while this sustainable lifestyle shop may not bear her name, it does exhibit all of the trappings of her sense of style. Decorated in wicker and second-hand items, the establishment’s furnishings evoke the same ethos as its products, which aim to avoid plastics and packaging in favor of reusable or natural materials. Even the tablet-holder behind the counter is made of bamboo.
Meanwhile, a selection of various cleaning, household and personal care products line the shelves, bringing an unusual twist to otherwise mundane items. Indeed, most things seem to come in formats counterintuitive to the way most people might be used to seeing and buying them.
Toothpaste is offered in tablets. Dish cleanser arrives in blocks. Cologne is presented as a solid and contained in a tin. Refillable dry shampoos are available, and soaps come by the ounce from a row of pumps. There are washable paper bags, reusable tissues, package-free chunks of deodorant and even biodegradable hair ties and compostable bandages.
Some of the wares at Dharma + Dwell are defined not just by what they are but by what they aren’t. There are “unpapers,” “unsponges” and “unpastes.” In a modern universe burdened by glitzy plastics, a clean, earthy array of simple wood and glass dominates here.
“Not only do I try to find products that have minimal packaging, but I also work with suppliers and vendors to ensure that when I’m receiving the products that even the packaging from shipping is minimal,” Blackhurst said. “The entire intent behind the refill concept is that you are using the item over and over again versus throwing it in a landfill.”
That makes Dharma + Dwell more than just an outlet for metal straws and bamboo toothbrushes. It is very much a representation of a shift in lifestyle. A shopping trip to Blackhurst’s enterprise seems to represent a fundamental reconsideration of how we source, consume, package and throw away the items we use every day. From the organic tampons to the biodegradable phone cases, this is a place designed to shift paradigms of personal living.
And like so many great ideas, it began in the bathroom.
“A few years ago, I had started becoming more environmentally and socially conscious,” said Blackhurst, a native of central Illinois who now lives in Richmond Heights, a St. Louis suburb. “One of the things that I realized in a moment of looking at my own shower is that I had plastic bottles everywhere. I was thinking, ‘I wish that I had a space that I could go to in which I knew who made the products and I knew where they were coming from and I knew I could trust them’.”
Her original concept was a consulting business, but she quickly moved to doing pop-up shops at various venues. This will be fun, she thought.
“I’ll get to meet people with similar interests, and I can introduce them to low-waste [or] zero-waste products,” she said. “Then the pandemic happened.”
With gatherings and events off the menu, Blackhurst pivoted to the world of ecommerce. Then, last spring, a vacant storefront in the Old Orchard neighborhood of Webster Groves caught her eye. In a good omen for her line of products, the space was painted green.
“I always thought that maybe eventually I would have a brick-and-mortar [store], but it wasn’t something that I was really actively pursuing,” she said.
She also wasn’t looking to be a full-time entrepreneur, as she wanted to keep her regular job in human resources. As a result, she unlocks her storefront only on Fridays through Sundays. Dharma + Dwell, which has been open at this location since November, is her weekend gig, and she admits that the unusual schedule makes her feel like she is “starting over again” every time she opens for business.
“It has slowed down now since January, which is nice,” said Blackhurst, noting that the December holiday season had been a busy time. “I like a slower and more steady pace. It gives me an opportunity to interact with people — talk with them.”
She referenced a customer who was leaving the shop.
“That woman who was just in here — I love being able to learn that she’s moving and why she’s moving, just to get to know a little bit more about her,” she said.
Of course, retail is a people-focused business, and the learning curve for the public concerned Blackhurst somewhat.
“I was curious to see when people walk into the shop: Would they get it? Would they understand it?” she said. “I’ve been surprised at how many people have said, ‘I’ve been waiting for something like this,’ or ‘We need this everywhere.’”
Still, she’s seen her share of blank “What are you doing?” stares.
“I’ve gotten a few of those, too,” she said with a chuckle.
Given that her shop isn’t her full-time gig, Blackhurst is free to be a bit more experimental in her outlook than others managing a startup. She describes the venture as a “creative outlet”.
“I kind of stepped into this as a learning opportunity, a way to exercise a little bit of my own creativity,” she said. “I think what is different about me from other entrepreneurs is that I do have a complete other career, so for me this is more like an exploratory project.”
That lends itself to a bit of informality when she’s asked about her business plan.
“When you say things like business plan or model, I feel like I’m continuously evolving and integrating based on the questions and feedback I’m getting,” she said.
There is also a missionary-like quality to the endeavor. Selling toxin-free toilet paper and plant-based sunglasses provides a bit of a teachable moment. Blackhurst said she hopes that Dharma + Dwell will provide her with a platform to engage more with the community about sustainability issues and a zero-waste lifestyle.
And of course, she just likes talking to folks as well.
“I feel like that’s what’s been really fun for me too — just meeting people who have turned into friends who have the same values that I wouldn’t have connected with otherwise,” she said.
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