Nestled on Main Street, between Shinola and Da Vinci’s Salon & Gallery lies Ten Thousand Villages. Carol Grafton, event coordinator and visual merchandiser for the shop, tells me she loves the location: in the heart of downtown, next to plenty of restaurants, bars and venues that can get crowded during peak hours. Grafton smiles when she calls Ten Thousand Villages a good date store, one that catches the eyes of stumblers waiting for open doors or a table.
It’s easy to see why she thinks so — the interior of Ten Thousand Villages is covered, ceiling to floor, with works of art for sale from around the world. Some of them are more marketable than others, of course, but it’s just enough to get the cogs of the mind turning. Maybe we could put this in the kitchen? This would look great in your bathroom. Move in with me. Er, sorry, I’m getting distracted.
When I walk into the store, however, it’s a rainy Tuesday morning and I’m alone. A sweet salesperson named Bonnie greets me, telling me about Ten Thousand Villages’s mission and variety of artwork. We begin at the middle of the store, perusing some jewelry made of thick shell-like discs and strung together by a rustic cotton cord. Bonnie tells me that the discs are made from the tagua nut, which comes from a South American palm tree species. I turn the smooth, sturdy sections of the necklace in my hand — it feels high quality.
As Grafton takes the lead from Bonnie and guides me throughout the rest of the store, she gives me the lowdown on Ten Thousand Villages.
“We’re the oldest fair-trade store [in the world], started by one little woman: Edna Ruth Byler,” she said. When Byler visited Puerto Rico in 1946 with her family, she was amazed at the diligence and work ethic of the women there. Struck by the quality and uniqueness of their textiles, Byler bought their needlework and brought it to the United States to sell. Grafton also mentioned, “We started the fair-trade federation.”
Since 1946, Ten Thousand Villages has expanded immensely. There are currently 52 locations across the United States that carry more than just Puerto Rican textiles. On my way through the store, I see necklaces made from repurposed bomb casings in Cambodia, coasters made from newspapers in Vietnam and wall décor made from oil drums in Haiti. The necklaces are stylish and fashion-conscious, like something you might see at Urban Outfitters, while the coasters and wall décor are more clearly designed with an eco-friendly aesthetic and mind.
“Ten Thousand Villages encourages recycling and sustainable products,” Grafton mentioned.
“We try to stay with the trends,” she added. Grafton shared that Ten Thousand Villages works on a more personal level with their artisans from around the world.
“We work and cobble together,” she continued. “It’s a partnership. We have to make sure it’s going to sell. It has to be readily available, unique products that you wouldn’t find in other stores. Something a part of their tradition and part of their culture.”
As Bonnie leads me throughout the rest of the store, I see a good deal of other products that resemble what you could see at a Hallmark or a Home Goods. Some of the seasonal goods are very clearly commissioned with a clear aesthetic in mind, and marked down because it’s past the holidays. I point some of these out, wondering how the much artisans are paid after the markdown. Grafton is nonplussed, and said, “When we mark it down, people will come in and ask, well, how much did the artisans actually get paid? We pay them half at the start of the job, and half once it makes it through customs, so the artisans are paid in full before it even sells here.”
I look around some more, noticing that not all of the products seem so idiosycratic. At the back, on a wide table that takes a good deal of floorspace, are beautiful blown-glass goblets, decanters, pitchers and carafes from the West Bank. Each of them has the faint opacity and texture of sea glass, but with wavy and intricate patterns. The most arresting works of art in the store are those that are tied most closely to a region’s heritage, like the baskets from Bangladesh and Uganda or the singing bowls from Nepal.
Ten Thousand Villages usually finds their artisans through co-op houses around the world.
“A lot of our artisans are out in the country,” Grafton said. “We provide health care and make sure the tenets of fair trade are being met. We’re very vendor focused. We ask them what they need to make a living and stick with our artisans for 20 years.”
Unlike some other retail chains, Ten Thousand Villages is devoted to strengthening the communities from which they are sourced. From the beginning, Ten Thousand Villages focused on supporting the work of women — a goal that they continue to strive to meet. Women from around the world are given the work skills they need to be independent and productive members of their society.
Ten Thousand Villages also relies on its rich history of fair trade and international art work with which the average customer may not be so familiar.
“Ann Arbor is a very educated community, but I don’t think that was the case a couple years ago,” Grafton said.
She goes on to explain that much of their training deals with teaching workers and volunteers about the tenets of fair trade. I think back to when I stepped into the store, and Bonnie immediately opened up to me about the principles of Ten Thousand Villages.
Since Ten Thousand Villages follows a non-traditional retail model, many of their workers are volunteers.
“I had been asked to be on the start-up team,” Grafton said. “I started as a volunteer for about a year, and then I started doing some visual merchandising part-time.”
She has worked with the downtown location since it opened 13 and a half years ago. Both her lengthy tenure and the quantity of volunteers leads me to think that those who work at Ten Thousand Villages really believe in their message.
While Ten Thousand Villages has found a home on Main Street, they still struggle to connect with the University of Michigan and student organizations. Grafton makes a point of saying that “it takes eight hours a month to be a volunteer, and we’re always looking for more, especially students.”
Because of this, Ten Thousand Villages has had to reach out to the University, and on Feb. 6, they will be hosting a book discussion on Yaa Gyasi’s “Homegoing” with Brenda McGadney-Douglass, a social work professor from the University of Toledo. For those that can make it, the store promises a bounty of fair-trade coffee and chocolate sampling. But for others, Ten Thousand Villages will remain cozy on Main Street, waiting for a fortunate wanderer to come in and seek shelter from the rain.