Gentle Wind evokes a contemplative retail mood inspired by Chinese philosophy.

When Nancy Grote and Pat Bares decided to sell New Age books and merchandise in Columbus, Ohio, they envisioned an atypical retail space that would provide customers refuge from the stress and strains of everyday life.

"We wanted to create a gentle shopping environment," Grote says. Called, appropriately, Gentle Wind, the store opened last year at Stone Ridge Plaza in the Columbus suburb of Gahanna.

To bring their concept to life, Grote and Bares hired Chute Gerdeman, a Columbus-based retail design firm. In an effort to meet the mandate of the store's motto, "Books and Gifts for Conscious Living," the design team of Ellie Chute, Maribeth Gatchalian, Alan Jazak and Greg DeLong patterned the 3,200 sq. ft. store to reflect the harmonies of nature and spirit. They even read up on Feng Shui, a traditional Chinese system of arranging physical spaces to bring individual environments into balance with the Tao, or universal flow.

The result is a space that seems as much gallery as retail shop. The use of natural wood for shelves, cases, columns and flooring imparts a sense of warmth and beauty, while recessed lighting casts a soft, relaxed glow that displays the merchandise to full effect. Wind chimes, splashing fountains and quiet music further the contemplative mood.

According to Gatchalian, the selling floor is conceived as a circle divided into four quadrants aligned with the directions of a compass. Each quadrant represents one of the four elements of traditional philosophy: fire, earth, water and wind (or air). Each element corresponds to its own merchandise category: crystals and gemstones to water, books to fire, Native American crafts to earth, and literature relating to angels and spiritual guides to wind.

DeLong says the team also provided individual graphic and architectural cues for each quadrant. The water quadrant, for example, is painted in a shimmery aqua and features a small fountain, while the walls in the wind sector have what DeLong describes as a swirling, pearlescent quality, with suspended wind chimes tinkling above.

Holding the space together at the center is an elaborate stone and amethyst fountain fed by an overhead vine-covered aqueduct. The aqueduct begins at the entrance, leading the customer's gaze into the heart of the store. The ceiling is painted a deep blue that gradually fades into darkness, with power lamps and small, twinkling lights giving the impression of celestial illumination.

Although the choice to locate Gentle Wind in a contemporary suburban shopping center might seem capricious, Grote assures the decision made business sense, and that the concept is easily absorbed by customers.

"You could come in from almost any path [of life] and feel comfortable," she says. "You could just come in gift shopping. You don't need to have an interest in metaphysical ideas to enjoy the store."

Gatchalian says the integration of design with the store's concept gives the store its mood. "The store appeals to all five senses, and its sensuality becomes a selling point," she says. "It feels good to be in the store, and you want to be able to take that feeling home with you."

John McCloud is a contributing editor to Shopping Center World and INStore.