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It Takes 10,000 Villages

Nurturing a guilt-free shopping ethic takes thought, planning and ... you guessed it.

By Traci Hukill

These are hard times for the enlightened materialist. Torn between a wholesome American desire for cheap stuff and a guilty awareness of where cheap stuff comes from, the frugal-but-socially-conscious consumer must do schizophrenic battle each time he or she sets foot in a store.

At the cheese counter, for example: Mmm, that gruyere sure looks tasty. And it's on sale! But has that cow ever seen the clear blue sky? At the sports store: Gee, soccer's fun! Maybe I'll buy this ball... but no. A Pakistani child had to stitch this ball together for mere pennies. Or at a discount department store: $9.99 for this shirt?! Wait a minute... made in Ecuador? Really, all those tiresome prime-time industry exposés have taken all the fun out of going to the mall and bargain-shopping.

But help has arrived. By shopping at Ten Thousand Villages in Los Gatos, it's possible to appoint a home in tastefully rendered native crafts at practically no cost to one's conscience and little cost to one's fortune.

Dedicated to the unthinkably progressive concept of paying craftspeople and artists from poor countries a fair price for their goods, the nonprofit Ten Thousand Villages openly practices good faith by paying for half its orders up front and for the remainder before the goods leave the country. "That way," says store manager Kimberly Martin, "if I have 100 shesham wood boxes that I don't sell, the artists don't take the loss. I do."

Part of a nationwide program administered by the Mennonite Central Committee, Ten Thousand Villages also assures buyers that artisans see approximately one-third of the ticket price of any given item. The rest pays for export and import taxes, overland transportation to and from a warehouse in Pennsylvania and the cost of running outlets all over the country. To keep costs down, the stores rely on volunteers. The Los Gatos store, for example, is run by 40 volunteers and two paid staff members.

In the small store next to a dry cleaner's, shiny things, wooden things and things made from natural fabrics jostle for space on shelves and along the walls. Ornately carved shesham wood boxes from India, Pakistani marble mortar-and-pestle sets, soapstone chess sets from Kenya and thick placemats woven from soft Indian cotton crowd the shelves. Part of a wall devoted exclusively to satchels showcases bright Bangladeshi jute bags. Jute is a hardy, fibrous material much like sisal or hemp, and it's cheap: $4.95 buys a nice blue one with a splashy white print. A little quick math suggests that whoever wove this bag--and chances are four in five that the weaver is a woman--has received a paltry $1.75 or so for her pains. Doesn't sound like fair pricing.

Martin rushes to the rescue with an explanation. "First [the buyers] based 'fair pricing' on what it would be here," she says. "And all of a sudden basketmakers in Bangladesh were making more than doctors, and it threw the whole economy out of whack. Now the artisan helps decide what a fair price is. Basically, we give them what they ask." In a country whose median income is $160 a year, seven pence is handsome compensation for a couple of days' work.

The priciest item in the store is a five-foot-tall giraffe carved from muhugu, a tree native to Kenya. Martin explains that father-and-son teams do the carving, with each family specializing in an animal like giraffes or gazelles. This specimen runs $800.

The store also sells the work of Seleha, a gifted Bangladeshi woman whose paintings are helping to feed her children and disabled husband. Playful and abstract, as if she were teasing Picasso in his later years, Seleha's bright pieces vibrate on handmade paper and sell for $250 apiece.

Genie Peters, a 17-year-old volunteer at the store, couldn't be happier about the four hours she spends working at the store each week. "Nothing compares to working here," she reports dreamily. "I spend as much money as I want here, and I can feel good about it, knowing it's going to a good cause."

A light starts to dawn at these words, and it brightens as I stand at the cash register writing out a check for a hand-carved jewelry box, feeling not just un-guilty but downright virtuous. If it were anyone but the Mennonites in charge of this outfit, I'd have to accuse them of hatching a brilliant marketing scheme.

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From the Sept. 18-24, 1997 issue of Metro.

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