Possibility of closing faces Tela Ropa

By NIKKI SCHWAB Staff Writer

From the hippie-inspired clothing to the ethnic tapestries that adorn the walls, to the… From the hippie-inspired clothing to the ethnic tapestries that adorn the walls, to the Beatles’ music playing softly in the background, Tela Ropa Inc. has what the company’s president, Kevin Jaussen, would call a certain “mystique.”

The store caters to the Led Zeppelin fan, the hippie and the pyromaniac. The future of the establishment is up in the air – but not yet up in smoke.

Located on Atwood Street, Tela Ropa greets customers with a psychedelic mural of the Mad Hatter and the caterpillar, of “Alice in Wonderland” fame, smoking from a hookah, encircling the staircase that leads up to the second story location.

The smell of cigarette smoke wafts through the air in a room decorated with designs and animation reminiscent of The Beatles’ cartoon movie, “The Yellow Submarine.” This same room had previously held display cases filled with stickers, patches, clove cigarettes and even pipes for tobacco, but it now houses empty cases, surrounded by several benches and ashtrays where customers and employees can take a smoking break.

A sign written by the management also greets the customers. It confirms what has been rumored throughout Oakland for the last few months – the future of Tela Ropa is in danger. The store may close for good, but the company is trying to renegotiate its lease.

The store holds merchandise representative of more than 30 countries, including a painted, blue, sun-shaped mirror from Indonesia, hand-sewn mittens from Pakistan and embroidered cotton purses from India.

There are tie-dyed T-shirts for the whole family, including a wee one for a baby.

There are numerous sticks of incense giving off fragrances of jasmine and patchouli.

The whole store is a hodgepodge of ethnic and 1960s clothes, candles, incense and jewelry for the entire body.

But since Tela Ropa may be going out of business, everything is 25 to 75 percent off, and the shelves and displays look a little emptier than usual.

The decision is hard for Jaussen, he said. Tela Ropa is his livelihood, and he started building it in 1989. The company moved from Massachusetts to Pittsburgh in 1991, and it moved into the Oakland location later that year. In 1995, Jaussen made what may now seem to be a regrettable business decision. Pushed by nearby competition, Tela Ropa began selling water-pipes and wooden pipes.

Jaussen explained that he called the Drug Enforcement Agency and left seven messages. He also consulted the Pittsburgh police before making the decision to sell pipes.

“The Pittsburgh cops said it was just a misdemeanor, and [selling pipes] was a gray area,” Jaussen said. So, to keep up with area head shops, Jaussen rented out another room on the same floor as Tela Ropa and began selling them.

“I did it because my customers wanted it,” Jaussen explained. Tela Ropa continued selling pipes until 1999, when police gave a warning to the company. Tela Ropa did not sell them again until Christmas of 2002 – to pick up business – this time only in a small section of display cases, he said.

Customer Justin Blott, a former Pitt student, remembers the pipe room fondly. According to Blott, as he was browsing the pipes several years ago, he ran into actor Jason Mewes – known for his portrayal of “Jay” in movies such as “Dogma” and “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back.”

“It was 4/20, and we saw him in the pipe room, and it was the coolest thing ever,” Blott said. “I got his autograph on a Taco Bell receipt.”

Blott acknowledged that he was originally interested in shopping at Tela Ropa because of its reputation for being a head shop.

But on Feb. 24, 2003, as part of a nationwide investigation entitled “Operation Pipe Dreams,” Tela Ropa’s reputation led police to raid the store. Pittsburgh city police raided the store and confiscated the pipes. Jaussen and 27 other individuals from other establishments were charged with conspiracy to sell and offering to sell drug paraphernalia.

After “Operation Pipe Dreams,” the mystique that Tela Ropa possessed turned sour.

“It gave us a bad stigma. Everybody thought we were closed,” Jaussen said. “People kind of ran.”

After “Operation Pipe Dreams,” Tela Ropa remained open, but customers had already been lost. Jaussen admitted that, while the bust wasn’t his primary reason for potentially closing the store, it did hurt business.

“Retail is a very sensitive, fragile balance between you and your customers,” Jaussen said. “I took a chance in selling those pipes, I made a mistake, and I paid for it.”

Besides being unable to sell the highly popular pipes and facing fines from the federal government, paying expensive utility rates forced Jaussen to consider closing the business. He has devoted the past several months to trying to rebuild Tela Ropa and renegotiate the lease, while at the same time getting rid of the merchandise.

“The landlord is very nice. They want us to stay,” Jaussen said. “It’s been a good relationship.”

Jaussen explained that they are remodeling the front room of the store to draw a larger crowd of cigarette smokers. He noted that they are putting up tables, chairs and ashtrays, and will possibly serve tea and coffee to encourage people to come and chill at the store.

“We’re trying to rebuild, and we still have great products at great prices,” Jaussen said.

Jaussen said he realized he could get stuff in to make the store more like the retail chain Hot Topic, which he said is very popular right now, but that’s not what he wants for his company.

“I don’t want to sell ‘F— You’ shirts,” Jaussen said.

Blott also wants Tela Ropa to stay in business.

“I was upset” he said of learning that the store might close.

“It’s always been a fixture of Oakland,” he added.

In the next few weeks, Jaussen will have to make the decision about whether or not to keep his business open. For now, Tela Ropa is still trying to stay alive and unique.