Karen Lowman didn’t open Sacred Grounds coffeehouse to become rich. More than a coffee shop, it’s a community commons with a book and video library and wireless high-speed Internet, but, most importantly, it’s a forum for exchanging ideas.
However, Lowman is concerned that legislation like the U.S.A. P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act has scared people away from freely speaking their minds.
A sign about the Whisper Campaign to stop discrimination against gays and lesbians is taped down next to the register. There’s a bucket of condoms in the bathrooms whose walls are adorned with fliers for local events and grassroots groups.
Born and raised in the Bay Area, Lowman attended St. Petersburg Junior College and finished her four-year geography degree at USF. It took eight years to complete because she put herself through school, working for six years as a telephone operator for the Home Shopping Network.
“The values that my parents had taught me is if you find a company you like working for, then you need to stick with them and you help them, and they’ll help you,” she said.
Lowman, a lesbian, subsequently experienced discrimination working for a local environmental company from a coworker. “He was pretty weighted in the company, so I really didn’t feel that I could have fought anything and really gotten anywhere,” she said. “So I just did my job so they couldn’t fire me, and they ended up laying me off.
“I was just so disgusted with the system, by that time you really get an idea of what’s going on. There are a lot of ways around environmental situations, all in the name of money,” Lowman said. She said that her bright hopes of contributing to making things better environmentally, really dimmed down that path.
So, Lowman opened a coffeehouse with a friend who was simultaneously getting laid off from HSN. When that went out of business, she decided to open Sacred Grounds with the help of her life partner at the time. They did so Nov. 11, 1996, at 11118 30th St.
Lowman first started looking at the segment of the population that was gay and lesbian because in her old job it was obvious to her that if she were different in any way from her employer that it was frowned upon. “I wasn’t being flamboyant or anything like that, I’m just me, but I’m not a typical woman. I don’t look like a typical woman in high heels with 36-28-36. I think I was born with a 28-inch waist, you know what I’m sayin’? ”
Lowman started offering coffee and tea as an alternative to alcoholic places. A stigma got attached that it was the “gay coffeehouse,” which she tried to shake. “Yes we’re in touch with an immediate community, and I’m part of the gay and lesbian community, but inherently that is part of a larger community],” she said.
“The point is there’s non-discrimination and that’s how the shop started. We’re all people,” she said.
“Several times in that time frame we could’ve closed the doors,” Lowman said, “because, certainly, my skills were mighty green, and (because of) my education.”
Lowman said someone came into the shop the night before and asked her, “Is it worth it?” She said some days she feels like, “What’s the point in doing it if you’re not getting any money from it?” She’s hoping the hard work she’s putting into the coffeehouse will show it’s all done out of love, that it’s a mechanism of love that keeps the shop going. She would rather create another job than pocket profit.
The business moved five years ago from the original location to the present 4819 E. Busch Blvd. location, doubling the shop’s size. Lowman is once again looking at relocating to a larger location, possibly in Seminole Heights, because “Tampa needs more community in the center of town.”
“The whole coffee thing and the cost of the coffee and all that is really just incidental,” she said, “(Love is) something that any kind of business that’s based strictly on economics and money will always fall short on.”
Lowman intends to maintain and grow a sense of community in a non-corporate environment, telling everyone Sacred Grounds is a cool cultural place to be. “We’re focusing on local talent, like music, poetry,and art, because everybody has it in ’em,” she said. “When you start dealing with corporations, you lose a sense of community, and I think we’re all connected within a community.”
Lowman said she would rather teach another how to open a coffeehouse than to start a chain.
“Starbucks is in it for Starbucks,” she said, “Compare the CEO’s salary to what’s given to the community members working for minimum wage and pushing an inferior product.”
“We have everything in this country and this world to help one another out, rather than killing each other out of fear,” said Lowman, “And that’s where the current turn of our leaders of this country (is going), that we’re only headed for doom if we keep reacting out of fear.” She said we all have the capability of fear and of love.
“Really, all it is is a shift of consciousness and intention.”