Martin, Tennessee, is a town with a population of around 11,475. It’s known for its annual Tennessee Soybean Festival and for the University of Tennessee at Martin. If you drive down University Street, you’ll go right through the university, pass by Sammie’s (an aptly-named sandwich shop), and mosey by several boutiques and small shops. It’s a small, charming place. Locals support the UTM Skyhawks and the Westview High School Chargers and eat at The Grind.
There’s something new and different in Martin, though—a business with big aspirations, set up to assist both the local and global community. When you turn down Lindell Street, you’ll be greeted by free roadside parking and one of the most productive businesses you’ll ever run across in West Tennessee: locally-owned Martin Coffeehouse.
John and Courtney Sellers founded Martin Coffeehouse in January of 2017. About six months earlier, they also started Fernweh Fox, a marketing agency that offers branding, design, videography, and photography. Further, two years before that, they launched Letters in Motion, a non-profit dedicated to promoting literacy in places like Nepal and Kenya. In short, John and Courtney are young, hardworking, amazingly efficient entrepreneurs—even though they’re not fans of the typical entrepreneur ethic. While they’ve seen other business owners wearing nice clothes or buying new cars, the Sellers have lived a vastly different lifestyle to keep their businesses working.
When I sat down with them by the coffeehouse’s front windows, basking in the afternoon sunlight, the Sellers were open and honest about their struggles.
“Our house was empty at one point,” Courtney admits. She looks around the coffeehouse—her home away from home—and points to the furniture. Many items came from their own kitchen and living room, even some of the silverware. “Everything that you see has a story.”
“I have a really big pet peeve about this ‘entrepreneurial spirit,’” John adds. “What it means [to be an entrepreneur] is to live as low as you can—like $15,000 a year. . . . We lived without furniture in our house for a while to start this. And so, a lot of people think, ‘Oh, I’m going to wear all of these nice clothes and sneakers, drive a nice car.’ But this life is the most stressful and hard and painful. If you’re doing it right, you should be living humbly.”
John and Courtney agree that not everyone needs to start businesses the way they have. They talk of things like job benefits and vacations with wistful eyes. The Sellers are dedicated to their work, day in and day out, without many material rewards to show for it. Yet, as I look around their coffeehouse—the comfy brown couches, the fair-trade coffee, the smiling customers—I’m so impressed. The Sellers’ personal sacrifices have made such a beautiful, welcoming space for the Martin community.
But there’s so much more behind what Martin Coffeehouse does. Its goal is not just to provide quality, ethically-sourced coffee to the people of Martin, although it certainly does a great job of this. At Martin Coffeehouse, ten cents of every cup sold is donated to support literacy projects, particularly in Nepal. So far, John and Courtney have been able to create small libraries in Nepali schools, carefully selecting material in both English and Nepali for children to increase their language skills.
The Sellers don’t collect books from the United States due to the high costs of shipping; instead, they buy overseas. Courtney uses her English degree to find the best books for the children, from classic literature like The Chronicles of Narnia to STEM-related textbooks. John hopes to one day build a self-sustaining school or community center in Nepal as well. He’s constantly entertaining big ideas for the future yet also looks at the practical (and admittedly difficult) ways that these ideas can come to fruition. It’s one of the reasons that Martin Coffeehouse exists.
“Courtney and I started to take stock of this movement that we created, and we realized it wasn’t enough,” John muses, referring to their non-profit work before they started the coffeehouse. “We did not have a sustainable structure. To be able to do literacy projects, it takes an enormous amount of money. We started thinking, and Courtney shared with me her passion for coffee shops and community. So, we thought, ‘Wait a second. What if we were able to make it easy for people to make an impact?’ That way we’re not asking them for money. Can we make a long-term, sustainable impact in Nepal as easy as drinking coffee?’”
These were the brainstorming sessions that led to Martin Coffeehouse. The Sellers already had a space in Martin, which they used for Fernweh Fox’s studio; they began to reinvent the space to prepare for their new business endeavor. With help from Nashville’s Bongo Java Roasters and the Cooperative Coffees association, different coffee roasts, coffee equipment, and barista training became available.
“Our coffee is fair-trade, organic, and it comes through Cooperative Coffees,” Courtney explains. “They have about twenty-three different partnerships with different roasters.”
“The help that we got came from the association of buying from Cooperative Coffees,” John affirms. “They’re part of this movement. It’s beyond fair-trade; they really invest in these [coffee] farms.”
From the literacy goals of Martin Coffeehouse to the coffee that they sell in-house, each aspect is connected to building up sustainable communities. It’s an admirable cause, made even more so by the difficulty of making sure that every level of the business reflects ethical values. Thankfully, at the customer service level, John and Courtney have been helped by John’s sister, Rachel Sellers, who works as a manager in the coffeehouse. At the branding level, they’ve been glad to have Tanya Chopra designing with them. And without their regular customers from Martin, Tennessee, they wouldn’t be able to keep doing the many, many projects that they’re working on.
So, what comes next for the Sellers? The biggest event on their horizon is one more personal than business: Courtney is expecting a baby. The Sellers are already planning an ice cream business to be sold out of Martin Coffeehouse named Henry Anderson in honor of their son. They’re also hoping to expand—maybe five branches in five years—and want to continue to connect local communities with communities abroad.
The Sellers are business partners, marriage partners, and champions of humanitarian effort. With John’s drive and Courtney’s people skills, I’d expect that their plans will come to quick fruition—and may even turn out bigger and better than they’ve dreamed. Looking at what they’ve accomplished with the help of friends, family, and the community is an inspiration that you can share and support, simply by drinking a cup of coffee.
Originally from Medon, Tennessee, Olivia Chin is the Circulation Manager at the Union University Library. Her best Halloween costumes (so far) have been David Bowie and Freddie Mercury. Her favorite hobbies include drinking local coffee, reading true crime novels, and going to emo concerts with her husband.
Photography by John Sellers.