It started with a cardboard box . . . Craft co-op is more than a business

Jessie and Jason Nolan, ages 8 and 10, sit on the floor with their schoolbooks among handmade dolls, wooden rocking horses, woven baskets, and hand-carved ducks. Back in the mail room, Vera Adderholt, head of shipping, huddles with a group of interns over a packing list. An elderly woman pours out a story about her son. At a most atypical business, it is just a typical afternoon.

Nine years ago, 35 craftswomen formed a cooperative in this struggling town of 14,000 to teach craftsmaking and to market goods that women could make at home while caring for their families and farms. In the rural tidewater counties here in eastern North Carolina, families have long depended on farming and fishing, both now in decline. With no major industries, or even a four-lane road through the region, there are few hopes for a share in the urban South's prosperity.

But today, visitors are coming from around the United States and the world to observe the operations of Watermark Association of Artisans, whose 450 members, 436 of them low-income women, wholesaled a quarter of a million dollars worth of handmade goods last year. The group's most active producers are earning $10,000 a year, in an area where per capita income averages between $6,000 and $7,500.

And while visitors come to learn the secrets of Watermark's marketing operation, artisans say their worker-owned enterprise is more than just a business. It is a cooperative in every sense of the word.

``There's always someone here you can talk to,'' says basketweaver Cindy Hamel, Watermark shipping assistant and secretary.

The co-op's business strategy is a wholesaling network that reaches 500 stores nationwide. Retailers, which include J.C. Penney, Hallmark, and Neiman Marcus, still get the lion's share of the profit, marking up items between 100 percent and 300 percent. But Watermark is able to offer its artisans a steady market and guaranteed price.

The co-op buys craft supplies in bulk, sells them to members on credit, and pays up front for completed goods. Any end-of-year profits are returned to members, prorated according to volume produced.

The craft group's expansion was led by potter Carolyn McKecuen, Watermark director since 1981. A deceptively relaxed, middle-aged woman, Ms. McKecuen says she learned how to run a business by reading books and applying lessons she remembers from a small business her father once owned.

In the early days of the cooperative, McKecuen carried craft samples in a cardboard box to retail stores up and down the East Coast. The first big break came when Save the Children, a nonprofit development agency based in Westport, Conn., placed a big order with Watermark. The agency began listing the country crafts in its catalog. Through crafts shows and contacts, the co-op gradually built up its retail buyer network.

Now visitors come from as far away as the Somali Women's Handicraft Center in Mogadishu and the Office of the Prime Minister in Tanzania to learn from Watermark's success. Last fall, three members of the Ramah Navajo Weavers Association in Pine Hill, N.M., came for a week on an internship sponsored by the Ms. Foundation of New York. Twenty-one other crafts groups from around the US have asked to visit this year.

Those interested in craftsmaking are mostly women, and their motive is rarely money. More important are creativity, a desire to continue a traditional way of life, and a search for work that women can do at home with their children.

``Working a regular job, I couldn't afford to pay a babysitter,'' says basket weaver Ann Nolan, mother of Jessie and Jason. For years Mrs. Nolan supported herself and her three children entirely through craftmaking. Although the family was never able to rise above poverty on the return from Nolan's handmade goods, ``You are home with your kids,'' she notes.

Cindy Hamel, a divorced mother of two, was commuting 90 miles a day to a job in Norfolk, Va., before she learned basket weaving at Watermark. ``The kids missed me, I was down and depressed. I was a bottom level,'' she recalls. Watermark did more than just teach her a skill, says Ms. Hamel. In the co-op's supportive and encouraging atmosphere, ``I got my self-esteem back.''

Watermark's six full-time staff members, five of whom are artisans, ``have the right frame of mind to be teachers,'' says Sara Gould, economic development director of Ms. Foundation. That attitude is one of encouragement, determination, and an unwavering belief in what people can learn to do.

``Carolyn's face just radiates when you come in,'' says Hamel, referring to McKecuen. ``No matter if she has 10 things going on, she has time to talk to you.''

In fact, the co-op deliberately reaches out to those in need, and the atmosphere is clearly one of women helping each other.

The craftmaking classes train women referred by the local battered women's shelter, the Food Bank, and the Department of Social Services. Training director Jo Ellen Stephens, whose salary is paid through a grant from the private Northeastern Education and Development Foundation, teaches classes in record-keeping and assertiveness.

``I've seen it help not only financially, but also with morale,'' she says of craftmaking. ``Just finding out that they can create, and that somebody will pay for what they create, is a boost. Sometimes they don't stay. They use it as a stepping stone, and I think that's as it should be.'' Craftswomen from a 10-county rural area come in to Watermark headquarters to deliver their goods and stay to talk. ``They sit and talk, bring their kids. I've stepped over kids going into the office,'' notes McKecuen.

Jessie and Jason come straight from school to Watermark twice a week when Mrs. Nolan teaches a basket weaving class. In the classroom another child plays with an Etch-a-Sketch, and a fourth stares in fascination as her mother bends and presses wet rattan under Nolan's direction. If the cooperative moves this year to new, larger headquarters, it will include a playroom for children, McKecuen says.

Craftswomen treat Watermark as if it is an extension of their own homes because they all own a piece of it, she and others believe. To join the cooperative, each member must submit three samples of work to a quality review panel and buy a $75 share of stock, which can be paid in installments. Each member has one vote in electing the board of directors.

The sense of common ownership has a lot to do with the supportive atmosphere of the organization, says Ms. Stephens. ``They learn from each other and learn how to cooperate, which you don't see in bureaucracies.''

``It gives a real feeling of empowerment when you can say that you own a portion of that business,'' comments McKecuen, noting that volunteers help prepare for craft shows and serve on education and training committees. ``It gives a feeling of camaraderie.''

Founding members chose a cooperative ownership for the business because they were from farming communities accustomed to working with agricultural co-ops, McKecuen recalls. Now those roots and sense of community have brought craftspeople together in a new way, to create with their hearts, heads, and hands.

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