By Elyse Wild | photography by Two Eagles Marcus
At the corner of Lake Drive and Atlas, words of inspiration illuminate the low Eastown skyline:
“Life should not only be lived, it should be celebrated.”
Every few weeks the message changes: “Calm your mind, open your heart.” “Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.”
The emissary of these heartfelt messages is Spirit Dreams. This month, co-owners Jaye VanLenten and Jackie Bess are celebrating 25 years of providing a meaningful retail experience to shoppers and connecting them to products meant to enrich their minds, bodies and souls.
A Community Anchor
When longtime friends Bess and VanLenten purchased Spirit Dreams together in 1994, the store had been in existence for two years. Bess worked in sports medicine while VanLenten was far into her career as a social worker. They were both dedicated to living ethically, exploring spirituality and promoting diversity. When the store owner contacted them to see if they wanted to purchase the business, they saw the perfect opportunity to expand the impact of their values.
“We truly wanted to honor an ethical business practice,” Bess expressed. “And promote living healthy, being socially conscious and marrying new age, holistic and metaphysical concepts with spirituality and whatever that may mean to people.”
They have nurtured Spirit Dreams into a community anchor, a solace where customers may explore concepts and products that have the potential to help them dig deeper into life.
The store is a gorgeous inundation of color; a world of multitudes. Stunning, multi-tiered displays of handmade goods from all over world: shimmering gems and crystals, stalworth soapstone figurines, singing bowls, candles, incense, jewelry and more. Earthy scents swirl through the air, beckoning you to explore. Toward the back of the store is a door that leads to an area where customers can receive a reading from one of four psychics who work out of the store.
Before such items and concepts began to populate our living rooms and our feeds, Bess and VanLenten boldly carved out a space where Grand Rapids’ shoppers could explore items perhaps unfamiliar, ones that would imbue their lives and space with meaning and act as a token of a spiritual exploration. In 1994 in West Michigan — a time and place where Christian Reformed principles reigned supreme — this was nothing short of audacious.
“We represented diversity during a time when diversity was not too mainstream,” Bess said. “We knew it was needed, and we were following both our hearts and our passions. We were confident from the get-go — we knew we were embarking on a process that was needed and valued.”
Both women emphasize that they have never been motivated solely by money, but rather the potential influence an ethically run business can wage on a community. The products at Spirit Dreams are handmade and imported from co-ops and Fair Trade Groups from across the globe, meaning that the artist behind each item directly benefits from every sale. Everything in the store contains natural ingredients rather than harmful chemical substitutes. Bess and VanLenten go to great lengths to ensure the items they carry uphold their principles, right down to hand picking each stone sold in the store.
“Everything we have here comes from our passion,” VanLenten expressed. Bess nodded.
“We go stone by stone,” she said. “We are so conscious of what we do.”
With a business model that honors all parties involved, the result is a multi-tiered bottom line. Bess and VanLenten are deeply committed to the community in which they have thrived, and they support a slew of nonprofits, including Vickie’s Pet Connection, MacKenzie’s Animal Rescue, Uptown Business District, Eastown Business Association, Local First, the YWCA and WMEAC, among others.
For the past two years, they have donated sales from their “Kindness Matters” yard signs and T-shirts to Catherine’s Health Center, a nonprofit community-based healthcare facility, the YWCA and Planned Parenthood.
“Social activism is important to us, and we were involved in it before, so it was natural for us for the store to become involved in the community in that way,” Bess explained.
Their dedication to the community is so great that when it came between drawing salaries or continuing to financially support the local nonprofits they believed in, there was no question: they chose the nonprofits.
“It’s in our blood,” VanLenten said. “It’s in our spirit. Success for us has always been about being able to empower people in all different ways.”
When talking about their 25 years in business, VanLenten and Bess are gracious in acknowledging each other’s strengths and expressing gratitude for such a harmonious partnership.
“Our goals are the same,” VanLenten said. “Ninety percent of the time, we agree. If not, we respect each other’s decisions, so it’s OK. It takes a lot of trust and respect.”
Bess agreed. “We know we have the store’s best interest at heart.”
They pointedly express that none of their success would be possible without the support of the community.
“So many people have touched our lives here,” Bess smiled. “We are successful because of the many different people who have supported us.”
At the time of this interview, on a Monday afternoon, Spirit Dreams was bustling. Winter sunlight beamed through the windows as Bess and VanLenten laughed with a long-time customer. George, the resident store cat, curled up in his basket by the register and while the chashier, who herself first visited the store as a child, tended to customers. Sadie, VanLenten’s joyous Golden Retriever trotted around, greeting shoppers who were weaving through the displays, contemplating purchases that would no doubt help them to do just what the proprietors so carefully selected them to: celebrate life.