Written by Art Petrosemolo
I literally back into good stories to write for the local newspapers in Lancaster County…literally fall into them. Let me explain.
In January I bought a new Apple iPad mini. (I know, you are asking what does that have to do with a newspaper story?) Well, I had to sell my old iPad and I chose to do so on a social media platform called Facebook Marketplace. I priced it fairly, posted the listing with a nice photo and within a few hours, I had several inquiries.
I made arrangements to meet a buyer at the Dunkin’ Donuts (usually meeting buyers off-site at a public place is the protocol now) in Leola. We met on a Sunday afternoon and the buyer’s name was Yousaf. He bought the iPad for his son and as we talked, I asked him his country of origin (Pakistan) and what he did for a living?
He told me he purchased handmade Oriental rugs for Ten Thousand Villages. We ended up talking for an hour. Tina and I own handmade carpets from Istanbul (that I carried home from the Grand Bazaar in a suitcase) as well as a small, prayer carpet that I bought while on a photo assignment with Afghan Girl photographer Steve McCurry (that’s another story) in the mountains of Afghanistan.
I learned a lot about carpets that cold, Sunday afternoon with Yousaf and, better still, I learned a lot about Ten Thousand Villages with its Mennonite history (why am I not surprised as I tend to gravitate toward stories that have a religions component?). I just knew it would be a great story.
I wanted to know how this store could survive in a buying economy shifting to online sales? Also, I knew one of their stores in Red Bank, New Jersey, near where I lived for 20 years had closed. I figured it would be interesting to track down the “players” as I had no idea the company got its start 70-plus years ago in Akron, Pennsylvania, just a few miles away from us here at Garden Spot Village.
Well it took a few months to finally nail down the CEO (Carl Lundblad) for an interview and I visited the headquarters on Main Street in Akron (in an old shoe manufacturing facility with hardwood floors) in late May. I had the help of Ten Thousand Villages communications director Rebecca Stamp who was professional, efficient and a real help.
I came away from the interview excited and fascinated. First, Ten Thousand Villages with stores at Kitchen Kettle Village (Intercourse), Rockvale Outlets (Lancaster) and on Route 272 in Ephrata is not struggling or ready to close. Like all retail companies with brick and mortar stores, it is facing a changing buying public and adjusting with an e-commerce site and updated marketing and advertising to reach its customer base.
But what really caught my attention is its history. Ten Thousand Villages was started by Edna Ruth Byler of Akron, a Mennonite woman, who on a trip to Puerto Rico in 1946 with her husband, who worked with Mennonite Central Committee, purchased handmade embroidered goods from a local artists in a small town. The work was so good she ended up selling it all to friends and neighbors.
On her own, literally selling from the back of her car at churches and craft fairs, Edna Ruth started a socially conscious company, long before socially conscious was fashionable. She called it Overseas Needlework and Crafts and she worked to sell goods from artists in developing countries in the United States, providing access to a market where the artists had not been able to sell in the past.
With help and supervision from Mennonite Central Committee, Edna Ruth Byler built a company that today works with 120 artisan groups in 34 countries and sells their products in 56 stores in 24 states. She single handedly got the entire socially conscious movement that emphasizes safe working conditions, fair trade pricing and strict child labor laws started and the company remains a leader in the movement. Since its founding seven decades ago, Ten Thousand Villages artists who could have been unemployed have earned $140 million in revenue. Wow, how’s that for the power of a woman entrepreneur?
Today, the company’s staff of merchandisers, marketers and designers advise artists on design, materials and other factors that affect the sale of items in their stores and online. It has to be a win-win situation for both company and artist as in a fair trade contract, the artist is paid 50 percent before the goods are made and the remainder when they are delivered, even before they are sold.
Many of the items sold use recycled materials like used saris from India and recycled circuit board from Pakistan and the trend is growing as socially conscious buyers are willing to pay a little more for fair traded items but they want to be sure they are eco-friendly whenever possible and contribute to sustainability.
It’s a far cry from Edna Ruth Byler selling crafts from the back of her Chevy II in the 1950s and a success story that makes for good reading. If you haven’t visited a Ten Thousand Villages store (they have some very neat stuff for gifts), do so online at their e-commerce store at www.tenthousandvillages.com
If you want to learn more about Ten Thousand Villages, my story will run in the Lititz Record sometimes later this spring.