Woodstock’s Dharmaware is downsizing

Erik Holmlin (photo by Dion Ogust)

Erik Holmlin, who’s run Dharmaware in Woodstock for 33 years, was busy last week packing up the shop he actually started in New York City’s West Village in 1976. Well-wishers and those looking for a closing sale deal kept popping in and out of the space across the stream from the back of the Kleinert/James Arts Center where two creeks come together as Holmlin packed items for a major downsizing, started — physically at least — with the shop’s shuttering its doors on Easter Sunday.

Dear Friends, We are closing our main Dharmaware store by the end of the month (March), downsizing and squeezing into our next door office,” was the email he’d sent out in previous weeks. “We will maintain a smaller retail presence on weekends, and focus on mail order and wholesale sales during the week…Thanks for the help, All the best. Erik.”

Holmlin said this week that his decision was based on several things: a shrinking retail climate in town and his landlord’s wish to expand his thriving Taco Lab business in the courtyard behind the Old Forge Building across Tinker Street from The Center for Photography (where Dharmaware started its local retail business in 1985). The space was once Papagallo’s Ice Cream Parlor (where Holmlin moved to in 1993, and operated a Kathmandu Cafe in addition to his store for five years.) Plus Holmlin expressed a wish to simplify his life some, the better to work on a number of projects, his partner Catherine Sklarsky’s In The Northwoods Learning Center, as well as “lots of things that need my attention at home.”

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“It was a difficult winter, with no real Christmas season because of the freezing temperatures,” he noted. “You know we used to have a half dozen employees and for the last six months I did every shift myself?”

What got him going in the first place with Dharmaware on West 4th Street 43 years ago? Holmlin described coming out of Cornell with an MBA in the summer of 1970 and “journeying to the east” through Europe, the Middle East, and down the Nile into Ethipia and East Africa first. He’d started meditating in college, but then discovered the Tibetan Book of the Dead while having an out of body experience in a crocodile-filled Kenyan lake. “I realized the book was a key,” he said. “It was all about the big project: preparing for our transition.”

He took a freighter from Mombasa to what was then Bombay, in India, and made his way to Nepal, where he found his root teacher, Lama Thubten Yeshe, who introduced him to the Tibetan Dharma. 

“I’m still a neophyte,” he added. “But along the way I learned I had a good eye and began buying arts and handicrafts. I found New York City to be the doorway for many of the great Lamas who were bringing the Dharma to the West, I opened a store to sell the various treasures I had found along my travels. I went to the 16th Karmapa to ask permission to call my store Dharmaware. He sprinkled rice to bless the banner I would hang out front of 304 West 4th Street, and I was in business.”

That storefront, where he lved in back for years, cost a total rent of $200 a month. Holmlin started coming up to Woodstock to visit friends, and was present when the Karmapa broke ground for a U.S. base in Putnam County. Later, when that decision shifted, and the property on Meads Mountain was chosen as that American home instead, it made sense to open a shop in Woodstock, too.

“I think the lamas felt more comfortable in Woodstock,” he said. “By the time we were up here there were many teachers who’d found places upstate.”

Holmlin is justly proud of the many people he hosted, and recorded, speaking inside what he describes as his private Buddhist temple, or out on its terrace overlooking where the two creeks came together. He reels off names of speakers — H. H. Dechen Lingpa, Lama Tarchin, Prof. Robert Thurman, John Reynolds, Keith Dowman, Surya Das, Lhundrup Repa, and Lex Hixson; “ecological/political/shamanistic” talks, slide shows and films by William Irwin Thompson, Alex Grey and Mary Thunder;  deeply resonant musical kirtan sessions with Bhagavan Das, Sham Das, and Sruti Ram; singer/songwriter nights with John Herald, Judy Whitfield, Jules Shear, Paul McMahon, Tad Wise, Johnny Asia, Eric Wood, and Clayton Denwood; Jeff Siegel’s Indian music evenings, as well as hundreds of dance, poetry and musical events  featuring a host of local musical heroes, as well as visiting luminaries that included Donovan and Ira Cohen. 

“Swami Satchidananda visited the shop when we were where Taco Lab is now and pointed to the big space we’re now leaving and said it would be where I’d end up,” he said. “He said that in India, a place where two streams come together is where you put the lingam. He said this was a sacred space.”

Erik Holmlin stepped away to speak a moment with his old friend Peter Blum, who used to interview the area’s spiritual leaders for Woodstock Times when he was first coming to town, then continued: “This is a special space.”

Dharmaware’s next incarnation, he said, would be in the office where Holmlin’s been conducting the growing wholesale and mail order side of his business since the 1990s. 

“We are now transforming ourselves into a distilled version of Dharmaware. While we develop wholesale and e-commerce, we will maintain a retail presence, continuing to carry the community’s favorite items: malas, statues, lingams, incense, henna, cotton bedspreads, and yoga clothing. And books, of course,” he said. “Our square footage may be shrinking, but our love and commitment to the Woodstock community remains unchanged.”

He talked about all the improvements he’d made to Dharmaware’s home of the past 25 years, as well as the numerous times he’d made offers to purchase the space. He noted old regrets he used to carry about never having bought a home in the Village, but also the joys he and his partner have found walking miles through back woods from the Mink Hollow cabin they’ve owned for years.

Had Woodstock changed over the years he’s been working with the town’s dharma? Actually not that much, Holmlin noted, pointing out how well most of the town’s been preserved. There’s more money around at present, he added, but also greater diversity in who’s come to appreciate Woodstock.

“Our deepest satisfaction comes from being a meeting place for members of Woodstock’s diverse spiritual community,” he said. “We have watched generations of Woodstock children pass thru Dharmaware’s doors. One day they are hiding in the dress racks, the next they are returning from college to discuss philosophy or preparing to travel to India. Soon they bring their own children to visit. Dharmaware has been blessed with the best customers in the world.”

He paused, then noted how much work he had ahead of him over the coming week before his move is to be completed. But then laughed, quietly.

“The thing about doing business in this town is that the rent and expenses keep going up but winter doesn’t get any shorter. It’s as tough as it’s always been,” he said. “But you know what? Even with the bad feng shui this place had with doors on two sides, I’m going to miss having a little Buddhist temple.”

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