From running a small operation out of his parents’ basement in Connecticut 20 years ago, Kyle Tortora has an inventory of about 1,200 Buddhist and Hindu statues stored in an Oceanside warehouse, sold through his website and shipped all over the world.
Tortora, an Encinitas resident, launched his business after originally setting out to be a podiatrist, and then to escape the corporate world in New York City.
This interview has been edited for clarity and conciseness.
Q: What first sparked your interest in the Buddhist and Hindu religions?
A: I read “Siddhartha” by Hermann Hesse like four times when I was growing up and just loved the book, I gravitated toward the book. I kind of thought about, not the supernatural aspects of Buddhism, but just the mystical aspect kind of drew me into it. I was studying pre-med to be a podiatrist, I just thought I’d naturally be a podiatrist. I thought that was my path. I took organic chemistry at the University of Richmond and said, ‘This is totally not for me.’ I switched my major to religion, which is what I was truly interested in. That summer I was like, ‘I don’t want to just go home and be a lifeguard for the summer, or do whatever job everyone else is doing.’ I researched temples to meditate in in Thailand. So, 18-year-old kid, I had a thousand bucks in my pocket and I went to meditate in Chiang Mai for two weeks in a temple up there. After that was done, I spent a month and a half and traveled around Thailand and it was just absolutely amazing.
Q: How did it turn into a business selling statues?
A: I went to Manhattan and sold websites for two years, and after that I was like, ‘This sucks, I don’t like wearing a suit and tie every day, schlepping around Manhattan, so I sold everything and went to India for the first time. Then I was old enough to say, ‘Hey I need to figure out how I’m going to make traveling work.’ I saw a nataraja statue and it just hit me. I’m going to find out where these are made, I’m going to build a website and I’m going to come back here, buy a container, ship it back and sell them. And that’s what I did. Twenty years later, here I am.
Q: Which countries do the statues in your inventory come from and who makes them?
A: More or less all over southeast Asia and south Asia. India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia and China. I don’t go to all of them on every trip, but I definitely hit all those countries in a four, five-year span. I work directly with artisans. I find the good artisans that I can work with who are trustworthy, who are good people. Usually it starts off, they have a stock of stuff and I buy those, but then I just kind of commission orders from them and then they make the statues for me. There are a couple artists in particular that went from basically having a workshop with two people and now its 30 people, and I’m supporting, him, his family and all those people as well.
Q: Do your customers buy these statues as part of their religious practices, or are they more for decoration?
A: Both. I have Hindus buying them who are doing pooja, which is kind of a ceremony, so they’re worshipping these gods daily. I sell to Buddhist temples and Hindu temples. And then I sell to people who just want more outdoor statues. There’s a bunch of very spiritual people who aren’t fully practicing but they feel drawn to these statues. It kind of runs the gamut.
Q: Is there a strong market for these statues locally, given the growing interest in eastern religion and philosophy in Southern California?
A: Absolutely. I live in Encinitas, so that’s like the epicenter of yoga, that’s yoga’s birthplace in America. I’m very happy that I’m in the corridor between L.A. and San Diego because I have a lot of people coming through. This is definitely better than New York City.
For more information, visit lotussculpture.com