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  • Writer's pictureRachael Fulton

Last Chance for a Cup of Tchai?

The aroma of chai and charcoal and the clink of teacups are a source of comfort for many in the west end.

In a tiny tearoom overlooking the river, full of mismatched furniture and foreign trinkets, people come to escape the hustle and bustle of everyday Glasgow.

Friends sit on scattered floor cushions, cradling cups of steaming Faeries Blood tea and flicking through books.

Outside on the porch, chess is played beneath the boughs of trees, shisha smoke unfurling from the lips of focused opponents.

Tchai Ovna tearoom in Otago Lane is the west end's bohemian burrow, a treasured cornerstone of local culture. It is also now threatened with closure, after losing a four-year battle against developers to prevent planning permission for 45 flats and four townhouses on the lane.

Despite petitions and protests from strong community campaign 'Save Our Lane', which saw 4,000 individual objection letters sent to the Glasgow City Council to oppose the project, the development was granted in late August 2012.

For Martin Fell, managing director of Tchai Ovna, the uncertainty this creates for the future of his little tea shop is extremely unsettling.

"The Lane has more value than just physical - it's symbolic," said Martin.

"Symbolic of independence, originality and the alternative. People need an alternative to mainstream businesses, areas and architecture because that's what makes life interesting.

"What's the point in living in the west end, or in Glasgow in general? We don't just live to pay our bills, we live to have a good quality of life.

"That's what Otago Lane does and people really value that."

With Tchai Ovna, Martin has tried to foster a multi-cultural Glaswegian community united by a love of tea. Dreamt up between he and a group of friends during their time at university together, Tchai Ovna is inspired by the tea shops of the Czech Republic and takes its name from Czech language - Čajovny, which translates as 'tea house'.

Pooling their student loans together in 1999, the group of friends set about making their tea shop daydreams a reality. Their vision was to make a hang-out that welcomed all of Glasgow's ethnic and religious groups, promoted musicians and hosted local events in an open, accepting atmosphere.

The project was hurried along when then 19-year-old Martin fell head-over heels in love while travelling abroad. Full of enthusiasm for his upcoming tearoom venture, Martin told the object of his affection he owned a shop that didn't quite exist yet.

When she announced her intentions to move to Scotland, Martin knew he had to 'pull the finger out' to get his west end nirvana up and running in time for her arrival so as not to be found out for his fibs.

Despite his girlfriend's move to Scotland helping to hurry the tearoom into life, Martin's fascination with his new community hang-out eventually consumed him, leaving his young love to fall by the wayside.

"In the end I got obsessed with the tea shop itself and I didn't have enough time for her, so we split up because of the tea shop - our relationship was made and destroyed by the tea shop," said Martin.

Once Tchai Ovna opened in 2000, the team got to work sourcing quality teas from around the globe to serve their little corner of Glasgow.

"Tea doesn't carry a religious philosophy, though some appear in ceremonies," said Martin.

"It's just a basic cultural commodity that people can relate to. People in a foreign country look for things that remind them of home, they find that here because we do things from all around the world.

"People from Scotland also look for the exotic - you might go to an Asian cornershop every day and not consider the culture behind it, other than that they are Muslims, but tea opens up a wee world to that culture which is just next door."

The tea room was not originally built to exist as a commercial venture, but rather to provide a service within the community.

Its founders worked for free in the shop's first year, loosely basing their ethos on the Forrest Cafe movement of not-for-profit tearooms. Over the 12 years since its inception, Tchai Ovna has gradually generated profit, but community spirit remains at the heart of it.

"The concept has never been about making money, it's always been about having a nice place to hang out," said Martin.

"Maybe that's what people see in it - it has integrity in it. It is what it is."

Over 80 kinds of international teas, from Yogi Chai to Turkish Apple, can be found in the little tea room, serving cultures from across the globe. The shop also serve vegetarian food and snacks and provide board games for guests to challenge each other on.

Shisha pipes for herbal tobacco are also available, though since the smoking ban their use has been limited to the outdoor porch overlooking the leafy drop to the river.

"What makes me really feel happy about doing the tea shop is when I see lots of people from different backgrounds and different political persuasions just getting along in one place.

"That's what we've tried to reflect in the tea and the good that we do. We have Pakistani originated teas, Afghan teas, teas that we have learned about through the communities of Glasgow.

"I feel I've achieved something when some proper Gorbalite Glaswegians come through the door and sit along side Asians and Orthodox Jews to hang out. Its quite rare to achieve that."

The Tchai Ovna team remain in the dark about when development will begin on the lane, and so planning for the future is fraught with difficulty.

With a shop that makes little profit, starting from scratch again is a daunting prospect for Martin, and one that he feels may lie out with the realms of possibility.

He retains the belief that true cultural preservation can be found in community projects and groups such as Tchai Ovna, and that these pockets of individuality around the city should be protected by Glasgow City Council.

"It's kind of like being a prisoner that's sentence hasn't come to trial yet - we've not been given much information," said Martin.

"For me, it's very disheartening for this to happen, after spending hundreds of hours on a campaign and thousands of hours running a positive business.

"The achievement we get is from social and cultural aspects, not from material wealth.

"It makes me feel personally that everything we have done and contributed towards the culture of Glasgow has been thrown in our face by the people who should be sticking up for it."

  • To keep up-to-date with Tchai Ovna, visit their website or follow the work of the Save Our Lane campaign here

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