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Keeping her Karma going

Newton boutique’s social mission persists after cofounder’s death

Phuni Meston is surrounded with artisan goods from around the world at her Newton Centre store, Karma. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Shopping can be cathartic, competitive, and - especially with the holiday season upon us - chaotic.

But rarely is it compassionate.

The latter has been the aim of Phuni Meston for the past five years, ever since she and her late husband, Daja Meston, opened Karma, a socially minded artisan boutique in Newton Centre.

Compassion has always driven the store’s business model, Meston said. It shapes everything, from the fair-trade merchandise Meston sells to her support of nonprofits and her interactions with customers.

Now the fate of her store hangs in the balance, in part because of the economic downturn but also for a more personal, painful reason.


Daja Meston, a human-rights activist who was ordained as a Buddhist monk when he was a child in Nepal, took his life in July 2010.

“At least in Western culture, people are uneasy and don’t know what to say to me,’’ said Meston, who was born on the border of Tibet and India to nomadic Tibetan parents.

Some loyal customers have stopped coming to the shop. Yet Meston doesn’t fault them. She sees their absence as indicative of their grief over Daja’s death.

“After his passing there were so many who told stories of his compassion,’’ said Meston. “He touched people’s lives in ways I can’t imagine that most of us ever do.’’

But some are showing compassion in return. Lev Friedman, former owner of Kolbo Fine Judaica in Brookline, is a supportive fan - and customer - of the Union Street boutique. Recently, he has begun to offer some advice to Meston based on his nearly 30 years of retail experience.

“She’s just the kind of person I wanted to help,’’ said Friedman, 61, of Newton. “She certainly doesn’t need help with merchandising. She knows how to display her stuff beautifully.’’


So instead, he offers tips on staffing, marketing, and advertising.

“Those are three very important things I’ve done in my business,’’ he said.

Friedman said the store emits warmth. The staff is friendly. The merchandise - ranging from $5 notebooks to dazzling jewelry in the three- to four-digit price range - changes frequently.

One of Karma’s trademarks is its connection to social justice and sustainability. Meston buys much of the store’s wares from women’s collectives overseas, as well as from independent artisans who create limited-edition pieces that tell a story and preserve their heritage.

“We are very much in a global world, and what we do today can impact someone else,’’ said Meston. “I go into family communities, and they make these things because it is spiritual and it has a soul.’’

When the Mestons opened Karma in 2006, they wanted to create a space where people could learn about the larger world.

Friends told them to separate their personal and professional lives, but they found it nearly impossible to do. That’s because their life experiences - Phuni was a victim of human trafficking when she was brought to the United States in 1985, and Daja grew up as a white American in Nepal - softened them to other people’s life stories.

“Being a Tibetan, you’re taught to be empathetic,’’ said Meston. “Whether talking about children, family, or spiritual life, we feel we’re living in the same world.’’

It’s that type of interconnectedness that propels her to use Karma as a catalyst for social change. Through Karma, she has organized fund-raising events for nonprofits that hit close to home, whether it’s because of their mission to educate women and children - or keep them safe.


Recent fund-raising efforts have benefited the Cambridge-based Transition House, a domestic-violence shelter, and Barakat Inc., an education initiative that supports women and children in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India.

According to Juliet Schor, a sociology professor at Boston College, community outreach is typical among certain businesses.

“Karma is part of an emerging sector of small businesses that are trying to promote local economy in sustainable and ethical ways,’’ said Schor, who is also one of Karma’s customers.

As an antidote to contemporary consumer capitalism, Meston said she wants people to “consume consciously.’’

So she bucks the trend that sees stores and their owners selling products without knowledge or interest in who made them. Meston wants the customer to know how her merchandise made its way to Karma’s shelves.

“She is a human connection between the artisan and the customer,’’ said Schor, author of “True Wealth.’’

While Karma is known for its handcrafted items from the East, the store also supports artisans based in the United States, such as Shira Entis, 31, a Newton native living in New York City.

Entis is the cocreator with Alex Bell of Fleabags, a line of ecofriendly designer bags made in the United States that feature vintage postproduction and organic materials.

At a time when so many people have turned to online shopping, Entis said, traditional stores have to stand out.


“The value of the brick and mortar is the social interaction - knowing the shopkeeper,’’ she said. “What’s great about Phuni is it’s important to her how her customers are. She asks ‘How are you doing today’ - and actually means it.’’

It’s because the personal and the professional are so blurred for Meston that she is determined to persevere, despite the economic difficulties the store faces.

“I have to give my best to find ways to keep it going because there’s so much beauty in it,’’ she said.

Daja grew up eschewing material objects, Meston said, and Karma drew him into a world where buying and selling goods could be an impetus for social change and activism.

“Karma allowed him to understand the power of human creation in its artistic form,’’ she said. “Karma helped him come out of his shell in a way, so I think it would be a shame to have Karma be gone one day.’’