BY PETER DORFMAN
Merribeth Fender, co-owner of Athena, invites people to step away from work, put down their smartphones, and try to reconnect with the tangible — the objects, sensations, and beings that have meaning in the non-virtual world.
Having worked 36 years in retail, Fender, 65, has seen tastes and habits evolve. “People go by every day, staring at their phones, talking to people who aren’t there,” she muses. “They look so lonely.”
At Athena, on the east side of the downtown Square, Fender surrounds herself with objects of stone, wood, clay, fiber, metal, glass — resonant things that invite the beholder to see and feel them as they are, not as they look on a glowing screen.
They’re here and now things, but connected to the long ago and far away: jewelry and art, incense and herbs, clothing, Asian and African drums, didgeridoos from Australia, Asian singing bowls, rocks and minerals with decorative and ritual significance. Fender and co-owner Lynda Gates have traveled as far as Indonesia and Bali sourcing these objects.
“People are distracted, but they’re looking for meaning,” Fender says. “Often it’s a need for healing or an affirmation of something better, something natural. Some people find it in fascinating stones. They’re beautiful objects formed in the earth, naturally.”
Fender’s first career was as a glass artist. She converted her Grant Street studio to retail space, sharing it with several partners as a women’s co-op. Fender and Gates relocated to a more visible space on East Kirkwood for 15 years, until the building was sold. Athena has been at 116 N. Walnut for eight years.
A focal point in the shop always has been music. It has been a meeting place for musicians and has hosted workshops for novice players — for drums, the didgeridoo, flutes, even the ukulele. Fender has demonstrated the didgeridoo at local schools. In summer, and especially during fall’s annual Lotus World Music & Arts Festival, drumming draws a crowd to Athena that often spills out onto the sidewalk.
A storefront renovation, completed in August, opened the façade and brightened the space. Fender hopes the change in ambiance will encourage people to stay longer, communing with Athena’s two resident rescue dogs and enjoying the southwest light. “I’ve always wanted this to be a gathering place,” Fender says.