Sunday Conversation with … Marg LambertTen Thousand Villages seeks to help artisans in impoverished countries
By Ann Hardie
For two decades, a small store in Virginia-Highland has provided a financial lifeline to artisans in some of the world’s poorest countries. Ten Thousand Villages on St. Charles Avenue sells handcrafted items (including journals made from elephant poop) made in Third World countries. The lion’s share of the sales goes to the artisans, primarily women. That Ten Thousand Villages has weathered the economic downturns in such a high-rent area is a testament to its mission, its loyal customer base and the army of volunteers who make the store tick. Co-founder Marg Lambert talked about the store’s impact and resilience. For more information, visit atlanta.tenthousandvillages.com.
Q: Where did the idea behind the store come from?
A: Giving people in countries around the world income by selling their craft projects is not new — it grew out of the Mennonite tradition and has been around for 65 years. Co-manager Karen Gross, who is Mennonite, came to me with the idea. In the beginning, we put up a little of our money and sold the products in people’s homes, similar to Tupperware parties, and then at a church. We eventually needed a store where people had greater access to the items.
Q: How does the store model work?
A: We are considered a contract store for Ten Thousand Villages, headquartered in Akron, Penn. We are a nonprofit with our own board. Basically, we order products from organizations that work directly with artisans. We have a staff of four part-time people and 40 volunteers.
Q: You are considered a fair trade retailer. What does that mean?
A: There are many principles that go with fair trade. Among them, a person gets paid a fair living wage for their work. Environmental issues are important. We seek to establish long-term buying relationships in places where artisans lack other opportunities for income.
Q: Were customers receptive when you first started out?
A: Most people did not have a clue about what we were trying to do. “Buy American” was first in people’s mind. I think that comes from not being exposed to other countries and the poverty that exists there. When you talk about poverty in India or Guatemala, it is totally different from the poverty that exists in the United States. In some of these other countries, people are literally starving to death.
Q: Are there certain items that sell best?
A: Customers respond when something is cleverly made. For example, Mr. Ellie Pooh is an organization out of Sri Lanka that sells items such as journals and handmade paper made partially with elephant poop. It not only has given people jobs, it has benefited elephants who were being poached for their tusks a purpose. The items are very popular.
Q: You have been doing this a long time now. Are you still energized?
A: Working in a retail environment can be very depressing but feeling like I am helping is energizing. Karen and I go on learning tours where we visit artisans in their village. We see the extent of the poverty. We want those artisans to succeed.
Q: What depresses you about working in retail?
A: To be honest, how much people in this country spend on material things. I am just really, really happy that they are spending it in a way that makes a difference in people’s lives.
The Sunday conversation is edited for length and clarity. Writer Ann Hardie can be reached by email at email@example.com.
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