Behind world-class, Boulder-based mindfulness book publisher Shambhala Publications

Buddhist-based publishing house prepares for its next local move

By Tatyana Sharpton Dec 18 2020

Before Sara Bercholz, who co-owns the world-renowned publisher of spiritual books Shambhala Publications along with her brother Ivan and parents Samuel and Hazel, left Boulder for Nova Scotia at age 5, she remembers playing with the other Buddhist children and attending Shambhala Sun Camp with her friends.

Sara Bercholz

She’s back in Boulder now and so is Shambhala Publications, since 2015. Shambhala shares a name, Boulder roots and a Buddhist-influenced mission with the famed spiritual organization Shambhala International, but the two are and have always been separate institutions.

Today, Shambhala Publications publishes work under four main imprints (or trade names): Shambhala; Snow Lion, focused on Tibetan Buddhism and culture; Roost Books, a creative living facet and Prajna Studios, Shambhala Publications’ education and multimedia branch which includes online courses, free audio, and videos. It runs these imprints with the help of the full Bercholz family, along with its president, Nikko Odiseos.

Along with its books on meditation and contemplative practices, Shambhala showcases a wide range of books on spiritual traditions, from Buddhism and Taoism to Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism and Sufism; it publishes books on health, wellness, yoga and martial arts, and features books on psychology, emotional well-being, and mindfulness.

With over 1,600 titles in print, Shambhala publishes around 100 books a year, which include reissues of classics, books previously published in hardcover and between 70 and 80 new titles.

Through its 46-year partnership with Penguin Random House, the country’s largest paperback publisher which puts out 15,000 new titles annually from 250 imprints, Shambhala’s titles get distributed worldwide. Its best-selling title (as it often is, Sara tells us) in 2020 was When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron.

In mid-2021, Shambhala Publications will move from its 4720 Walnut Street outpost to a more flexible, part-time office space in a building downtown in mid-2021. Sara tells BLDRfly the company is in the midst of purchasing the new space.

Its Walnut Street location fits 40 employees, an event space and a book store that doubles a second event space, but with its lease ending, Shambhala Publications has decided to purchase a building downtown to host its office space. Sara tells BLDRfly the company looks forward to being downtown and part of Boulder’s heartbeat.

Downtown Pearl Street’s NiCHE Workspaces, bordering Trident Booksellers & Cafe, still bears the scrawled company title of Shambhala Publication’s  original Boulder outpost. Image: Tatyana Sharpton.

A family affair

Sara’s parents, Samuel and Hazel Bercholz, who owned Shambhala Publications, a publishing house focused on contemplative studies, studied under Chogyam Trungpa, and like many of his supporters, followed him in his migration to Canadian province Nova Scotia in the mid-1980s, taking the publishing company with them.

Now, back in Boulder, Sara and Ivan prepare Shambhala Publications for another move — this time downtown, and now, as part-owner of the publishing house that her parents began over 50 years ago in Berkeley, California.

Samuel and Hazel Bercholz

Samuel Bercholz launched the company by the name Shambhala Book Sellers in the 1960’s as a bookstore for people to meet and share ideas, and the shop officially became a publishing house in 1969 when it sought to share resources further than its Berkeley community.

Its first book, Meditation in Action by Chogyam Trungpa, got 1,000 copies distributed around the Bay Area, and remains in print today. At the time, Chogyam still lived in Scotland, and had not yet brought Shambhala to the U.S.

Initially Sam Bercholz’s relationship to Chogyam was that of an author-publisher, but eventually he and his wife Hazel became his students and in 1976, the Bercholzes moved the publishing house — and their lives — to Boulder for proximity to many of its authors and to just-founded Naropa University’s wealth of contacts.

The first book Shambhala published.

The Tassajara Bread Book, a guide to baking bread written by a young Zen student in the 1960s, made a mark as one of Shambhala’s earliest and best known books, with other early titles including Gopi Krishna’s Kundalini, Carlos Suares’ The Cipher of Genesis, and The Spiritual Teaching of Ramana Maharshi as well as works by scholars Herbert V. Guenther and John Blofeld.

On its way to Canada in the 1980s, Shambhala Publications took a 30-year detour in Boston, Massachusetts, where Sara tells BLDRfly it remained until she moved it back to Boulder in 2015. (It never actually took off in Nova Scotia.)

“It was somewhat of an arbitrary spot,” Sara tells BLDRfly, “but Boston was an established intellectual and academic hub, and it helped Shambhala Publications become what it became — well-established, well-respected part of the accepted mainstream publishing.”

Boulder’s Waylon Lewis, founder of mega-media mindfulness hub Elephant Journal, worked for Shambhala Publications in Boston in the 90s.

In 2012, the company acquired Snow Lion Publications which it had worked with in Buddhist publishing for over twenty years, and with the addition of their several hundred core Tibetan Buddhist titles to our list, Shambhala soared to the premier publisher of books on Buddhism in English.  While people no longer consider Shambhala’s material esoteric, as many other publishing companies have sprouted over the years which publish similar content, Shambhala Publications remains a keystone in Boulder’s (and the country’s) Buddhist-inspired legacy.

Shambhala Publication’s next generation

In 2015, when Sara moved her family and the business from Boston back to Boulder, she and her brother Ivan had already taken on ownership and made company decisions for over a decade.

Other than helping establish Shambhala within the mainstream publishing industry, they didn’t feel Boston did anything for the business, and they wanted to find a place where the company could feel woven into the fibers of the community.

“We really thought about the business,” says Sara, “and what we want it to look like. We wanted to feel that what we’re putting on our pages was also thought about, talked about and practiced in the community we exist in.”

Though she left Boulder at five years old, she always felt a connection and would continue to return year after year, even attending Naropa, where her parents played a founding-member role, for a year.  Boulder came to mind first as the place to move to, but she and Ivan explored other places and communities for a couple of years before landing back on Boulder.

Like other publishing companies, authors or agents submit ideas for consideration, and Shambhala pays them an advance to write. Typically, most manuscripts get delivered about a year from the signing of a contract. Unlike most large publishing houses who work mostly with agents, Shambhala remains small enough to still work directly with authors as well as agents.

Sara tells BLDRfly that audio books account for the number one area of growth in publishing currently, followed by children’s books.

“Audio is the future of the industry,” Sara says, “with no concern about the health printed books.” She also tells us that while e-books have also not hurt the industry, surprisingly; in fact, e-books have helped many to begin reading again which in turn, has raised sales of print books.

[Boulder’s ‘Dharma Brats’ come of age]

Editor’s note: We have updated the article to clarify that Ivan, Samuel and Hazel Bercholz are part-owners of Shambhala Publications along with Sara.

Header image: Sara Bercholz. Image: Sara Bercholz.