I n 2013, a Bangladeshi garment factory collapsed in the city of Savar. Among the rubble, search-and-rescuers found over 1,100 dead workers, along with tags for J. C. Penney, Walmart, Mango and other major brands. In parts of India and China, you can tell what color is in fashion on the runways this season by looking at the tint of the rivers. Chocolate becomes mostly guilt and little pleasure when you learn that 70% of the world’s cocoa beans are harvested by children in Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire, many of whom have never even tasted chocolate, and many of whom are slaves.
Valuable old arts like textile- and chocolate-making have been hooked up to the pipelines of a globalized economy. The pipes spill the wares into our homes while, on the other end, the workers who made them get barely a trickle. Meantime, companies are rewarded, in a variety of ways that ultimately add up to more money, for how much further they can ebb that flow.
Ten Thousand Villages is in it for a very different sort of reward. One of its outposts is right here in New Haven, at 1054 Chapel Street. Inside you’ll find handmade goods bought at fair prices from 130 different artisan groups based all over the world. The shop sells wind chimes from the Philippines, earrings from Cambodia, chocolate from South America and coffee from Africa, carrying the look of things brought into the world by hands, not machines.
Some of the artisans Villages buys from stick to tradition in a modern world. Some of them use modernity’s artifacts, making clocks from bike chains, boxes from circuit boards, even wall art from oil drums left behind after American military operations. “We’re not getting rich, by any means,” says Shaamsuldhin W. Ashiq, the general manager of the New Haven branch. “We’re just helping people who have so much less than we do here in America.”
The company got its start in 1946 from the trunk of Edna Ruth Byler’s car. On a trip to Puerto Rico, Byler, one of the earliest pioneers of the fair trade movement, visited a struggling village where the women wove beautiful cloth but had no one to sell it to, except the occasional U.S. soldier or tourist. Byler bought some of their cloth, brought it back to the U.S. and began selling it in the sewing circle of her Mennonite church. When she returned to Puerto Rico, she gave the proceeds directly to the makers.
The basic idea remains essentially the same—though now artisans are paid like wholesalers—but the scale of the effort has grown enormously. Ten Thousand Villages is now a multi-million dollar nonprofit retail operation with some 390 stores around the United States. Along the way, Byler put the enterprise into the hands of the Mennonite Central Committee, itself a nonprofit that “strives to share God’s love and compassion for all through relief, development and peace.” To its credit, Ten Thousand Villages is non-proselytizing, and it deals with religious and non-religious makers from all points of the compass.
For all the conventions it breaks, Villages must survive in a conventional marketplace. Competition is fierce and competitors are merciless. To keep its overhead expenses low enough to keep the lights on, Ten Thousand Villages relies on a mixture of paid staff and volunteers.
At the New Haven branch, Ashiq is one of five paid staff, while the rest are volunteers. Most anyone who wants to help is welcome, including teenagers, the elderly and the mentally and physically disadvantaged, Ashiq says.
Through his own story, Ashiq offers a good hint as to why others would be willing to volunteer for what’s essentially a retail gig. “I might be tired in the morning,” he says, “but each day I enjoy coming to work because I know I’m helping someone.”
Ten Thousand Villages
1054 Chapel St, New Haven (map)
Mon-Thurs 10am-6pm, Fri-Sat 10am-8pm, Sun 1-6pm
Written and photographed by Daniel Shkolnik.