Tuesday, December 13, 2005
BLOOMINGTON — From the opulent, over-stuffed Christmas aisles of American big box stores to the tiny Peruvian town of Chucuito high in the frigid Andean mountain plateau is about as far as you can go on this spinning planet.
In poverty-stricken Chucuito, families have been knitting since before Incan times. Now, women knit together, watching their children as they work. They produce charming and intricate finger puppets, which they sell to a fair trade group.
The money they make allows them to provide up to half of the income for their families. This is one of thousands of fair trade stories that Charline Watts can tell. Fair trade is the reason she and Marilyn Townley founded Crossroads at 428 N. Main St. in 1988.
“We’re a market for artists in impoverished areas,” Watts says.
Fair trade is a different way of doing business, Watts says. Fair trade organizations, such as the 17-year-old Crossroads, seek to benefit the artisans they work with instead of maximizing profits.
Most fair trade groups return up to 40 percent of the retail price of items to the artisans. The results are life-changing, Watts maintains. She tells of a women’s textile cooperative called UPSVIM in Guatemala City.
“It was a squatter community,” Watts says. But with the advent of fair trade opportunities, this co-op has succeeded in building its own child-care center, as well as a health and dental clinic. “They are still in poverty,” Watts says, “but now they can feed and clothe their kids.”
Contrast that with the way most coffee is sold today. Small coffee plantation owners are often paid less than the cost of production, forcing them into a cycle of poverty and debt.
Coffee is the second-most-traded commodity in the world — after oil — and growers have long been exploited. But growers who sell to fair trade groups can escape this “sweatshop in a field” existence and, at the same time, are encouraged to practice environmental stewardship.
Crossroads sells fair trade coffee, tea and chocolate and Watts says those items have seen a big spike in sales lately. People are becoming more aware of the concept of fair trade, she thinks. At Crossroads, she says, roughly half the customers are familiar with fair trade practices. The other half simply comes to Crossroads for unique, high-quality, hand-crafted goods at great prices.
“We buy from 86 different vendors,” Watts says. “Our markup is 40 to 50 percent. Normal retail markup is over 100 percent.” Crossroads is a nonprofit store.
“We have to make enough to pay rent, utilities and advertising,” Watts says. Everyone who works at Crossroads is a volunteer.
Watts and co-managers Townley and Carol Schrantz are also unpaid. Sales at the store were up by $20,000 last year. Watts is at a loss to explain exactly why. “We select items by the seat of our pants,” Watts says. “You never know what people will buy.”
Watts chuckles as she tells of a “recycled chicken” she recently bought. “By golly, a student came in and bought it the day we put it out.”
“Quality of crafts is very important to us,” she adds. “We are not a flea market.” The uniqueness of Crossroads items has kept longtime customers coming back, Watts says. Heavy, lined sweaters and block print jackets with matching purses, all made in Nepal, are hot sellers right now.
“We always do well with our nativities, which come from all over the world,” Watts says. “And we have runs on our chess sets, which are really unique.”
“Our jewelry is always popular,” Watts continues.
Among the hundreds of items available at Crossroads are also candles, hats, scarves, gloves, pottery, collectibles, wall hangings, table linens, lacquer boxes, Russian nesting dolls and handmade toys. Crossroads sells Peruvian finger puppets for $2.25 each.
Many of the items come with a card that tells the story of the people who create them and how they do so. “Our cardinal rule is that we don’t want customers to say, ’This is just like the last time I was here,’” Watts says.
She points with pride to brand new Vietnamese embroideries, which are selling for $60 to $80.
Watts, at 71, says her work hours “vary wildly” but she usually puts in 30 to 40 hours a week. What keeps her going?
“It’s the cause,” she says. “It meets the frustration of ’what can I do?’ It’s how I can make one small difference.” Watts says she first encountered poverty when she went to work for a hunger advocacy program in Cleveland. Some years later, a friend showed her a fair trade Christmas catalog.
With some church friends (Watts’ husband Dick is a retired Presbyterian minister), she started running Christmas fairs to sell fair trade items. That led to a store in Ohio.
When Watts moved to Bloomington in 1988, she and Townley decided to start Crossroads. “We got a fabulous response from churches here,” she recalls. “We got a core of 50 volunteers right away.”
There are now 80 volunteers at Crossroads, ranging in age from high school students to senior citizenss. “We’re always looking for more,” Watts says. Most volunteers work two half-day shifts a month but some work much more, some less.
Working with the volunteers is fun, Watts says. “If this wasn’t fun I wouldn’t stay in it,” she adds. Just don’t call her a do-gooder. Watts’ lively blue eyes flash with indignation at the term.
“I don’t like that. It implies you don’t know what’s going on in the world and I do,” she says. “In the world’s economic rule book, there is no priority given to people or to the environment. My conviction is that we know in our hearts what matters, what makes our lives worth living, and that it’s people and a safe environment.”
Watts says she’s guilty, too, of sometimes buying items and not asking if the people who made them have food on the table.
Crossroads, Watts says, is her way of casting one pebble in a sea of injustice.
Shopping for fair trade items is a way to create a more just world, she says. A holiday gift from Crossroads is a gift that gives twice.