In 1946 Edna Ruth Byler, a Mennonite from Akron, Pa., who had done some world traveling with her church, began a little project. Mennonite volunteers in Puerto Rico were looking for ways to improve the lives of poor women, so Byler bought several pieces of the women's embroidery and offered it for sale to her friends and neighbors.
The embroidery sold well, and Byler began buying crafts from artisans in other countries. Soon her basement became a clearinghouse for needlework, carved woodenware and other handiwork from around the world.
Skip ahead six decades. Byler's basement has exploded. Her idea, adopted in the 1970s by the Mennonite Central Committee, has expanded to 180 nonprofit stores across North America -- including one in Old Town Alexandria -- that offer more in the way of hand-woven tapestries, beaded necklaces, bamboo bowls and wooden puzzles than Byler ever could have imagined when she started.
The idea hasn't changed much: Pay Third World artisans much more than they could make at home and sell their work to American and Canadian shoppers at much lower prices than they would pay at for-profit stores.
Last month, the Ten Thousand Villages store on King Street offered something extra: Two Ugandan village women demonstrated how they make the tightly woven raffia bowls that sell in the store for $18 to $29. The women were just passing through -- they headed off to a store in St. Paul, Minn., afterward -- but their presence in a store patronized by First World shoppers underscored the unusual connections Ten Thousand Villages has made.
In the store, which takes up two floors of a small building, items are arranged by color, which gives shoppers a sense that they are entering a different landscape in each room. Rattles from Cameroon give way to ceramics from Vietnam, metalwork from Haiti, onyx candleholders from Pakistan, cotton tablecloths from India, wooden toys from Sri Lanka and coffee from Colombia, which customers can sample from little paper cups.
Last week, Margie Scott and her husband, Eldon, were "drooling" over the wares, as she put it, during a visit from Haubstadt, Ind. They don't have a Ten Thousand Villages at home, but they have come across the stores in Charleston, S.C., and Ontario.
"If we see them, we always stop," she said. "I think they have good-quality things, and sometimes you just stumble upon that specific thing that's perfect."
Byler's basement may not have had color coding, but the stores still follow her basic concept. Mennonite volunteers, on their travels abroad, identify artisans, usually women, whose wares might appeal to a North American market. The artisans send in samples for approval, and then the Mennonites send inspectors to investigate their provenance.
The screening process is tough. The program's artisans cannot use child labor, and they must be environmentally conscious. "If someone is going out and chopping down the trees [to make their crafts], we definitely won't sell their product," said Danwe N'Dikwe, manager of the Alexandria store.
Next the organization looks at how long it takes the artisans to make their products and how labor-intensive the work is in order to determine a selling price. The price is always more than artisans could charge at home, but for shoppers in North America it is often surprisingly low. For example, a piece of jewelry that might sell for more than $100 in a high-end department store sells for a fraction of that at Ten Thousand Villages, where sales volume is emphasized over profit margin.
"Once we cover all our costs, why hike up the cost and have it sit here for months and months?" N'Dikwe said. "We just want to sell them quick and go back for more."
N'Dikwe, a tall, athletic-looking 33-year-old who moved here 10 years ago from Chad, has seen firsthand how poor village artisans live. "I know how much these people are taken advantage of," he said. "It takes them three days, four days to make it, and they maybe sell it [locally] for a dollar."
The Mennonites generally pay the artisans two or three times the local rate and often buy in bulk. "If we think it has potential, we go back and say, 'Okay, make us 1,000 or 2,000 of this product,' " N'Dikwe said.
The artisans are paid half of what they are owed upfront and the rest upon delivery. After that it's up to Ten Thousand Villages to sell the items.
Despite the low prices, the Alexandria store usually exceeds annual projections; last year it made $550,000 in sales. This year, however, it will have to make about 50 percent more to cover the cost of moving across the street. Rent will be higher, but the store will have room to display all the merchandise on one floor where customers can see it more easily.
The business has been successful in an area with high rents in part because much of the work is done by 30 to 50 volunteers, who donate their time stocking inventory or working the cash register.
David Bucher, an administrative trademark judge and lifelong Mennonite, has volunteered at the Alexandria store since it opened in 1994. He described the operation as "the opposite end of the spectrum from Wal-Mart" and said he has seen the lives of its artisans transformed from poverty to a "middle-class lifestyle."
"Young women in the Philippines who used to work selling themselves near military bases now make baskets," he said. "Girls in India who used to be married off to the grizzled old man in the next community now don't have to because their families see them bringing in economic value."
The two Ugandan women who visited the Alexandria store last month told their own success stories. Dorothy Nabakiibi, a single mother of four, earns enough from the baskets she weaves and sells in the stores to feed, clothe, shelter and educate her children. Joyce Nayiga has sent her six children to school and bought a home and land with her earnings.
The Mennonites continue to oversee the artisans over the years. "So if the leader of a cooperative decides she's going to drive a Mercedes and the others are going to be paid slave wages and live in thatched-roof huts, you can be pretty sure that the Mennonites are going to hear about it, because the Mennonite pastor is also living in one of those thatched-roof huts," Bucher said.
In the Alexandria shop, customers are greeted by N'Dikwe, who asks whether it is their first visit and offers to explain how the store works.
Last week, Burke resident Peggy Hu was stocking up on gifts for her godchildren: delicate silver necklaces and red leather cat-shaped purses from India. "It's a good feeling to buy something that you like and at the same time be able to help out," she said. "These are things I might buy at Macy's or Nordstrom."
As customers browsed, N'Dikwe treaded almost reverentially from room to room. He stepped carefully on a small hand-carved shesham wood table from India and reached to adjust a fan. Then he stepped down and brushed off the stool.
"I really believe in it," he said. "Even though we don't have products from Chad, I feel like I'm helping my own people."
Ten Thousand Villages is at King and Alfred streets; 703-684-1435. There also is a store in Bethesda, at 4959 Elm St.; 301-718-3465. For more information, go to www.tenthousandvillages.com.