Shopping Off the Beaten Mall Path

Ten Thousand Villages, a network of nonprofit stores, offers handicrafts by world artisans.

Only nine Christmas shopping days are left, and the thought of traipsing around one more crowded department store is turning you into a Scrooge.

Does Aunt Gladys really need another cardigan?

Hold on. This year, you might consider an alternative, such as buying something handmade at Ten Thousand Villages. It's a store filled with crafted ceramics, recycled glassware, Christmas ornaments, scarves, jewelry, cards, and musical instruments made by artisans in third-world countries.

The nonprofit stores, in major US cities and Canada, are run by the Mennonite Central Committee, a relief and development program of the Mennonite Church based in Akron, Pa. Artisans in need of income for food, education, and health care receive fair wages for their crafts.

Store artisans live in remote villages where it is difficult for them to make a living. Many work in cooperatives part time and balance farm- and family-related chores at home.

"We try to work with the poorest of the poor," says Karla Klockentegr, a store manager here in Cambridge, Mass. "Our staff lives in these countries and works with cooperatives."

Conrado Conjelado in the Philippines, for example, is a Capiz shell artist who sells crafts to the store. Each day, he rises at 4 start his 2-1/2 hour bus trip to a cooperative workshop in Manila. His long day ends when he returns home at 10 p.m.

But the father of three sons and a daughter is thankful for the money he makes. Eventually he hopes to send his children to college and purchase the land surrounding his simple family home.

His work, which he learned from his brother at age 11, involves transforming delicate pieces of translucent Capiz clamshell into decorative handicrafts such as lampshades, lanterns, picture frames, Christmas tree ornaments, and small boxes.

Another artisan is woodcarver Stephen Wambua of Kenya. Mr. Wambua transforms chunks of wood into exotic African animals - from a seven-foot-tall giraffe to a small rhino head. He uses his income to care for his sister's three children who live with him.

As for consumers, more people these days are keen on buying "fairly traded" products, when workers are treated well and paid fairly on the job, says Nina Smith, director of the Craft Center, a Washington-based nonprofit organization that provides assistance to grass-roots artisans worldwide.

"People have become more aware through all the campaigns around child labor and sweatshops," Ms. Smith says. "They have a choice on how to spend their money. By buying a product, a consumer is endorsing a business practice or business ethic. Consumers want to be able to endorse a good business ethic."

At the crowded Ten Thousand Villages in Cambridge, shoppers politely collide into one another. The brightly lit store that opened last month is chock-full of eye-catching displays. A small cafe features tasty international cuisine while strains of softly playing world music add a lively tempo.

The stores are run by paid managers and a volunteer staff. Prices range from 35 cents to $3,500, although most items are priced from $5 to $15. In 1996, the stores sold $12.3 million in gross retail, which translates into full employment for nearly 11,000 people.

Although products are handcrafted, items have a professional uniform look. And shoppers have a wealth of items from which to choose: hand-polished brass candleholders from India ($16.95), terra-cotta pots from Bangladesh ($5.95), Kissi stone-carved zebra figurines ($42), small ceramic bowls from Vietnam ($7.95), and small heart-shaped or star-shaped Christmas ornaments made of translucent Capiz shells from the Philippines (85 cents), to name a few.

Patrons enjoy the large selection of moderately priced items.

"I am interested in the fairness of purchasing these products," says shopper Laura D'Onofrio, "and the whole philosophy of where the store gets their wares. I really like things from other cultures. I've also seen a lot of this stuff in higher-priced catalogs, so it's a lot less expensive here."

Ten Thousand Villages finds artisans in craftmaking cooperatives. Relief workers help with making products marketable in the US.

"Artisans are given guidelines to things that we think would sell well," says Edwin Neufeld, a store manager.

Occasionally, Ten Thousand Villages brings artisans to its stores to showcase their wares and demonstrate their workmanship to customers. But the overall goal is to promote self-sufficiency, and relief workers encourage artisans to sell in their own culture first.

"We try to not make a cooperative depend on us for work," says Ms. Klockentegr.

The Ten Thousand Villages concept began with Mennonite worker Edna Ruth Byler in the 1940s. On trips with her husband to Puerto Rico, she collected embroidery work from women artisans. She was so impressed with the handiwork that she began selling it out of her car to other women back home in Pennsylvania.

She traveled to churches, schools, and homes to sell her wares. She later broadened her inventory to include crafts from Palestinian and Haitian women artisans and moved her operation to her home basement. By the 1970s, the operation grew into several stores called Self Help Crafts, a name that was changed last year to Ten Thousand Villages. Today, stores sell as many as 2,000 items from more than 30 countries.

Maybe Aunt Gladys can do without that cardigan this year after all.

* For more information, check out Ten Thousand Villages' Web site:

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