A story of faith, justice and retail success

oriental-rugs-6BY DEBRA KEEFER RAMAGE

On St. Paul’s Grand Avenue, along a route noted for upscale markets, high concepts and trendy boutiques, is a store that so easily holds its own, you would never suspect its secret. Despite being a model of retail excellence, this store and others in its chain are non-profit, and it had extremely humble and almost anti-capitalist beginnings. The store is Ten Thousand Villages, the products are primarily artisanal, crafted items ranging from expensive Oriental rugs to little baskets made of recycled paper. The manager is Kathy McGinley, who has been in the role for 17 years now, at two different St. Paul locations.
The store is currently located in the very elegant retail complex Victoria Crossing. A smaller shop opened last year in the equally splendid locale of 50th and France Avenue in Minneapolis. Kathy says the countries of origin vary from year to year, and currently number 34. The products are a mix of artisanal home décor, clothing, jewelry and gifts. There is also a small amount of fair-trade food, including soup-mix packets from a US-based project called the Women Beans Project.
Kathy says that although the location brings in plenty of “tourist shoppers,” and its proximity to Macalester College brings a seasonal influx of students and their families, “we do have a demographic” — it’s basically women age 40 to 60, many of whom are fanatically loyal supporters. There are also around 100 volunteers, who enable the fair-trade model to be so successful in combatting poverty among the producers. Of course Ten Thousand Villages has mailing lists, both an older snail-mail one and an email newsletter, that you can sign up for at http://www.tenthousandvillages-.com/stpaul on the “About” page.
The history of the enterprise that would eventually become a 501c(3) corporation with loose ties to the Mennonite Church is very interesting, both the global and the local versions. It all started in 1946, when Edna Ruth Byler, wife of a Mennonite Central Committee administrator, traveled to Puerto Rico, where she met women artisans living in extreme poverty. Her idea, which seems commonplace now, but was amazingly revolutionary at the time, was to connect these women to buyers in North America as a way to fight poverty in Puerto Rico and elsewhere in the developing world. (The term “third world” did not even exist in 1946, let alone “fair-trade.”) She began by selling needlecrafts from the trunk of her car in her home state of Pennsylvania, and worked tirelessly on the project for 30 years, eventually leading to the beginnings of the fair-trade movement itself.
The Twin Cities version of the story began in 1981, with a young member of Faith Mennonite Church in Minneapolis. Judy Harder was the catalyst who worked toward opening what was at that time called a “Self-Help” store in Minneapolis as a mission of the church. Other members got on board. At that time other Self-Help stores combined fair-trade items with thrift store items, but it was felt that the thrift-store charity market was already too saturated in the Twin Cities. Faith Mennonite took a gamble on a new model, combining self-help handicrafts with books on peace and justice, which have a better markup and could lead to a sustainable store while still returning a living-wage to the artisan producers. The first store, the Jubilee Shop, opened on Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis in 1981. Partner churches – New Hope Mennonite Brethren, Park Avenue UMC, and Temple Baptist – were included, and the store was wholly staffed by volunteers. A history document published by Faith Mennonite tells of the great success:
By a year of operation, the Jubilee shop was selling more Self-Help products than all but one other store in the US… A few years later, the store dropped its book sales when it moved to the Riverside Avenue location next to St. Martins Table. And a few years after that, was able to hire its first paid manager…
The name of the organization, and of the many new stores that had adopted the Twin Cities operational model, was changed to Ten Thousand Villages in 1996; in 1997 the Minneapolis store crossed the river to its first St. Paul location, at Grand and Oxford. In 2001, it moved to its present location and recently it has expanded the space to the current 1600 square feet.
Today there are hundreds of Ten Thousand Villages stores in the US and Canada, but the St. Paul location is one of the biggest and best known. It’s really worth a visit, perhaps to check out the Fourth Annual Oriental Rug Event, which is happening Sep. 10 through 14.

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