Story by Georgia Shenk | Photography by Georgia Shenk + Courtesy of Ten Thousand Villages
It’s difficult not to fall in love with all the bustling stores in Old Town Alexandria, but one small boutique on King Street stands out from the rest. From the minute you walk into Ten Thousand Villages, you’re likely to feel like a kid in a candy store. The first thing you’ll notice about the shop is its eclectic collection of beautiful fair trade items. Everything – including jewelry made from Cambodian war artifacts and Nepalese singing bowls – is ethically sourced. The second thing you’ll notice about the boutique are its people and the stories they’ve collected over the years they’ve been in business.
Ten Thousand Villages is gearing up to celebrate its 25th anniversary and the excitement is tangible. Branching off from the corporate division of Ten Thousand Villages, the Old Town location has a story all its own. Employing mostly female artisans from more than ten thousand villages worldwide, the company puts people and the planet first. The store ensures their makers earn a fair and livable wage in safe working conditions while creating wares that come from recyclable and renewable materials in their own environments.
Veteran volunteer Julie Becker first came to Ten Thousand Villages as a shopper 22 years ago but connected with the mission and wanted to get more involved. “I love that we’re able to sustain our artisans, instead of just offering a one-time sale,” Becker said. “In the holidays, we get these beautiful palm leaf garlands. There was a young woman with two children named Ronnie Mani. Ronnie Mani was living in a mud hut on the side of the road and she showed us that she could make these folded palm leaf garlands. Ten Thousand Villages made arrangements for her to build a workshop, and in time, Ronnie Mani became the president of her village, her children went to college, and she employed most of the town.”
Stories like Mani’s whisper out of almost every corner of Ten Thousand Villages. “We’re providing vital income for people who can’t find it in their home countries. We give them the dignity to say that they’re earning their own living. It’s not charity, it’s a relationship that we’re building with our artisans,” said Kate McMahon, director for the Alexandria division. “I get excited about the creativity of the products that the artisans make, the resources that they use, and the stories we get to share with our customers so that we can buy more.”
In one such story, McMahon talks about Rosa, a domestic violence survivor who moved just outside Lima, Peru, to work to support her nine children. In the process of trying to rebuild her life, an earthquake destroyed her home. Rosa was resilient, taking her homemade vicuna dolls to the local market to sell. Ten Thousand Villages took note of them and soon placed an order for 1,000 dolls, paying for them up front. As a result, Rosa was able to rebuild her home in a safe area, send her children to school, and opened a storefront within the village.
“I think people know that we’re a global maker-to-market, but I don’t think people often know that we’re a nonprofit,” McMahon said. “We’re engrossed in our community — we have a local board of directors that oversees our store, we have volunteers that are all a part of our community. We carry the name Ten Thousand Villages because we want to support our artisans. We’re a part of that network and proud to be part of that network.”
With an average buying relationship of 25 years, it would be easy to be proud of that network. Artisans have watched their communities develop and thrive with the resources afforded by Ten Thousand Villages. In the time Ten Thousand Villages Alexandria has been open, parents have seen their children grow up healthy and go to college, artisans have rebuilt homes, and handicraft skills have been passed from one generation to another. As the Ten Thousand Villages website boasts, “When women gain financial independence, their daughters, families and communities flourish, breaking the cycle of poverty.”
“When women gain financial independence, their daughters, families and communities flourish, breaking the cycle of poverty.”
October is Fair Trade Month and Ten Thousand Villages is celebrating with several events and sales. A fair trade clothing event will run all month with ethically sourced garments from such brands as Mata Traders, Passion Lilie, Maggie’s Organics, and Global Mamas. You can also join the staff and volunteers for wine and refreshments during Ten Thousand Villages' 25th anniversary party from 6-9 p.m. on October 25. With volunteer opportunities and a bustling boutique full of beautiful wares, stories, and volunteer opportunities, the only thing missing is you.
Ten Thousand Villages is located at 915 King St., Alexandria, VA 22314. For more information, call 703-684-1435 or visit www.tenthousandvillages.com/alexandria.