Written by Lindsey Lowe
Photography by Beau Gustafson
There’s not much about Golden Temple Natural Grocery and Cafe that’s new. From the outside in, it’s clear that this place has been around longer than the college students studying in the Starbucks down the street. The front of the building is plain; one could even go as far as using the word dingy. In the cafe, which takes up the right half of the space, there are pebbled floors dating back to the 1920s (the “Cadillac of all floors,” they’re still in terrific shape.) The dark wood benches were built when the store moved to this location on 11th Avenue nearly 40 years ago after a brief stint in Homewood. The bar, too, is the original, built at the same time, and has yoga symbols carved into the front. And while many of the goods Golden Temple sells complement a 2014 healthy living lifestyle—you’ll find boxes of quinoa without so much as a smidge of gluten—many others speak of another time, like a whole section of herbs, often used to make centuries-old natural remedies. There are oils I’ve never heard of, boxes of tea made just for soothing the singer’s throat, and worry-be-gone stones. In short, it’s a far cry from the shiny, modern healthy living stores that have popped up in the past several years. But shiny or not, there’s no denying the bustle of Golden Temple, and it doesn’t take too long for me to figure out why.
Harinam Singh Khalsa, who opened Golden Temple with his wife in 1973, sits down with me in the cafe. He’s wearing a blue golf shirt, khaki shorts, and a white turban, indicative of his identification with the Sikh religion. Khalsa was born in New York, where he lived until he left to attend American University in Washington, D.C. It was there that he was first introduced to the practice of yoga. It was yoga that initially pulled him toward Sikhism—which originated in India about 500 years ago—as well as a healthy lifestyle. Yoga class is also where he met his wife, Harinam Kaur Khalsa; they married three days later. The couple moved to Alabama to teach yoga, landing first in Tuscaloosa, and then in Birmingham, where they taught at UAB.
A few months after they moved, Khalsa got the idea to open a health foods store. “[Harinam Kaur] went shopping and couldn’t find any brown rice. Brown rice is so basic,” he says. “So I thought about it and I said, ‘Let’s open a health food store.’ Obviously there was a need for it.” The store initially opened in Homewood in 1973 and relocated to Southside in 1975, in the building that used to be Fred Jones Bakery.
At the beginning—well, two years in, after the move from Homewood—the entire store was housed in what is now the cafe of the Southside store (there are also locations in Trussville and Hoover.) Khalsa points around the room, showing me where the vitamin shelves used to stand and where a dividing wall used to be (now, it’s just tables throughout.) Tiny as it was, Khalsa had been right—there was a need for it—and the business did well. “It was the mid-70s, and there was a growing expansion of consciousness about healthy eating,” he explains. And Khalsa made sure the store was offering the right kinds of things; in fact, he was the first to offer many things that are now commonplace in Birmingham, including Birkenstocks, bulk foods, and frozen yogurt (Golden Temple had a yogurt machine in the 70s, decades before the froyo craze.)
As we chat, Khalsa remembers customers who have stood out over the years. He tells a story about a woman from Texas who stopped in to buy her husband a pair of Birkenstocks when Golden Temple was one of the only places in the Southeast offering them (Khalsa imported them from Germany.) Her husband liked them so much that she took a detour to get him another pair when she was on a road trip a few years later. “She said, ‘I was driving to Memphis from Texas, and I decided to just hop over.’ Hop over! That’s 250 miles. Just hop over. This is how people think in Texas!” he says with a laugh. “I was really grateful we had his size that day.” The customers aren’t the only ones who are drawn to Golden Temple; many of the employees have been around for years, and some are multigenerational. “I think it’s because we offer a positive work environment that’s real loving and supporting,” Khalsa says. “I think it’s because they get to do a job where they’re helping people. When you’re working here, you’re actually helping people. A lot of times people will come in with health problems. They’ve tried traditional medicine to help them get better. And we can help them.”
In 1993, Golden Temple acquired the store next door, which had previously been a frame shop, and knocked down the dividing wall; four years after that, they expanded even further. This gave the cafe its own designated space. We’re chatting just after the lunchtime rush, but there are still all kinds of people partaking in the day’s offerings, which include many gluten-free, vegan, and vegetarian options, as well as juices, smoothies, and organic, fair-trade coffee. The expansion also made room for the boutique, which now takes up about half of the retail space. This section offers natural, organic clothing and handmade jewelry, much of which is made by local artisans. There’s also an array of gemstones and crystals, which many people say have healing properties. Khalsa imports these things from all around the world; the stones, for example, come from South America.
He says that though they have experienced much success, there have also been tough times. He remembers a day during their first year that they only made 96 cents (they sold a yogurt and two candy bars.) “We occasionally say to each other, my wife and I, when we have a slow day of business [that] ‘It’s better than 96 cents,’” he says. Like many others, they felt the effects of the 2008 recession and have taken a hit by the opening of mainstream health food stores like Whole Foods and The Fresh Market. And, he points out, the Internet has hurt many retail businesses as well. “With the Internet, retail has become much tougher. It’s important for us to offer products that are not easily found on the Internet, which is where the boutique comes in,” he explains. Perhaps surprisingly, they have seen an increase in book sales in recent years. “The amount of books that we sell has gone up so much so that you can’t hardly believe it,” he says.
It seems to me that there has been a surge in health consciousness in the past several years—Can I get a kale, anyone?—but Khalsa says it’s been fairly consistent over the decades. Much of the initial education and understanding began in the 60s and 70s, he says, and while he experienced a lull in the following decade, there was a resurgence in the 90s. Likewise, he says Golden Temple has continued to receive a wide multitude of customers, from college kids who are really into vitamins to women who are looking for the herbs their ancestors used to an elderly man who celebrated his 100th birthday in the cafe. “We get comments from people all over the world. If you come to Birmingham and you’ve got any kind of [health] consciousness, you’re coming to Golden Temple. We have famous people and rock stars come in here, and we have people from other states come,” Khalsa says. “We had a couple come in and sit for a long time, and eventually, I went over to ask them what was going on. They said, ‘Our house burnt down, and we were feeling bad, so we figured we’d come down here.’”
The Khalsas have immersed themselves in the kind of lifestyle and philosophy they hope they inspire others to achieve. They are still avid yogis, practicing each morning. They offer classes at Golden Temple (on Wednesdays at 5:30 p.m.). Khalsa says that the practice does help him balance the demands of the retail business, but that it goes even further than that; yoga, he says, serves as an escape and a way to reach out and experience the world. That’s what has kept him practicing all these years. “When you meditate, and when you practice yoga, you can sometimes achieve the super consciousness,” he says. “You go into a nirvana, and that’s very intoxicating. It’s like the highest high that you can get. It makes you extremely aware of the perfection of the universe.”
That perfection of the universe is something that can quickly pass you by, Khalsa admits. He advises people to participate with nature, whether that’s by exercising outdoors or just taking some time to look around. “Life is beautiful,” he says. “It’s a real privilege to be on this planet. We have a playground. If you think about it, we’re just blessed to be alive, on this planet. It’s a beautiful place to live. Enjoy it. Participate in it. Think about it. Sometimes I just go outside and look around and look at the sky and the sun and it’s just gorgeous.”
Of course, the Khalsas have gotten front-row tickets to the evolution of Birmingham over the past four decades. Khalsa says that he can certainly sense a change. “I think Birmingham is getting better. I can just feel it—It’s moving from the darkness to the light in terms of people and the consciousness of the city.” He tells a story of a couple of guys who drove down from Nashville to eat at Golden Temple; they told him they were just visiting Birmingham for a day trip, since they had never been to the city. “They said, ‘We just came down to visit Birmingham today.’ I’ve never heard anyone to say that before,” Khalsa says. “I never thought about Birmingham being a tourist destination.”
And though there are many new things pushing the Magic City toward the light, there are also certain landmarks that offer their own kind of magic to the place. Golden Temple is one such place. It’s more than health foods and vitamins, though it is that. It’s a whole atmosphere that swallows up those who enter and invites them to stay awhile. It’s a place to eat, sure, but it’s also a place you can sit when you just need to do that for a while. It’s a place where a man with kind blue eyes will come up and ask you how you’re doing. “The way we look at it is that we try to give our customers the experience of love when they come in,” Khalsa says. “That it’s possible to have a life that can be good. We try to convey that to our customers.
“I recently had someone say to me, ‘Whenever I get homesick, I just think of you guys.’ And it makes me feel real good, because that’s what we’re trying to convey.”