Memphian to Meet: Karen Lebovitz

Posted on October 26, 2014

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By: Kendra Lyons

image1Otherlands is an oasis in the heart of Memphis; an escape from the norm and social expectations I find myself experiencing during the daily grind; a place where I can just be myself, unapologetically.

I’ve been to Otherlands countless times to work, eat, get my caffeine fix, and socialize, but when I walked in last weekend to conduct my interview with owner, Karen Lebovitz, I took some extra time to take it all in.

A friendly Otherlands worker with a bleach blonde bob and a jewel fixed in the middle of her forehead happily ate a pimento cheese sandwich at the bar and chatted with the barista standing behind the counter. Indie tunes floated from the speakers and a customer asked the barista who was singing. They talked about music and Memphis and Pandora radio stations for a while before the inquirer ordered an iced coffee.

I took my seat at a chair that looked like its previous home was a schoolhouse, situated at a wooden rectangular table with chipped paint and names and words and figures etched into it. I thought about all the people who had probably sat there and talked about absolutely nothing or maybe everything or completed their work or just had a great cup of coffee and a “bagel sandwich thing” before continuing with the rest of their busy day.

Lebovitz returned to Memphis in 1980, when she worked for Memphis City Schools and a natural foods restaurant on Park called Lamontagne. After deciding that she wasn’t cut out for work in the school system, she became immersed in the natural foods world and picked up an interesting craft from her co-workers at Lamontagne: futon-making.

“My fantasy had been that I would have a crossover- a hangout coffee shop slash place where people could display art and I could sell futons,” Lebovitz explains. But after three years of running a storefront out of The Gilmore, “the futon business went bust bit by bit. My main vendor was killed in a plane crash and his company went down and futons were being sold in Wal-Mart. A futon is a complicated thing to sell.”

Luckily, Lebovitz had two helpful ingredients to make it possible to continue her career as a small business owner in Memphis: determination, and an investor who believed in her.

That investor happens to be Jefferson Holt, who you might remember from the band R.E.M. Lebovitz got to know him after someone she used to date opened for R.E.M before they hit it big. She used Jefferson’s support to purchase the building that is now Otherlands at a great deal, shortly after the futon business was liquidated.

Lebovitz decided this was the perfect time to bring her coffee shop dream to life.”I just went, ‘I’m gonna do it.’ I had no idea what I was going to do.”

She started out by picking the name Otherlands, a spinoff of her futon business name, “Cottland,” which was inspired by the fact that she was making cotton products in, well, the land of cotton.

Lebovitz got straight to work and renovated the building, which was previously used as an ad agency on one side and a piano rental store on the other. For Otherlands regulars, this will explain the piano sign that still hangs above the entrance at the porch today.

“These were pre-Starbucks days and there weren’t really that many places to hang out,” Lebovitz explains. This inspired her original concept for Otherlands which you can still see a strong influence of nearly two decades later.

Her vision for the shop was based on “that silly sitcom, Cheers. I fell asleep to it every night. I loved that they could just show up and everybody knew their name.” The concept quickly became a reality. “I used to have customers that if they came in and someone was sitting in their seat, they would be upset.”

The eclectic furniture you’ll spot in Otherlands comes from a wide variety of sources, one of which was a Board of Education warehouse, where Lebovitz says, “you could get chairs for two dollars a piece.”

Lebovitz recognizes that the coffee shop culture has evolved drastically since she first went into the business. While it used to be focused on hanging out and relaxing with friends, coffee shops now must accommodate to customers who want strong coffee, and a comfortable and efficient place to get their work done. Lebovitz is proud that Otherlands has been able to serve as a multipurpose host, without losing its charm.

Lebovitz says you can’t go wrong with coffee or food from Otherlands, but she suggests one item in particular: “It’s really good if you can afford the calories and you really want to get some stuff done, eat the carrot cake.”

Check out live music at Otherlands on Friday and Saturday nights and next time you are there, make sure to notice the art on the walls and quirky decor. More than being aesthetically pleasing, it tells the story, history, and significance, of the coffee shop many of us consider our home away from home.

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Posted in: Memphian to Meet