Browsing at Trade Roots reveals a multitude of delights — a saffron-and-burgundy blanket from India made of old saris, South African bowls made with used telephone wire, intricately carved Ecuadoran jewelry boxes made from hollowed-out gourds. Now those delights include fair-trade-sourced Peruvian pour overs, iced lattes, organic Indian chai or Assam tea, and breads, scones and cookies from local bakeries.
Trade Roots opened its doors two years ago in a narrow space between the Arax Cafe and the Golden Valet dry cleaner on Washington Boulevard. When Arax closed shortly after, Trade Roots expanded into its space. And on Labor Day, the small Westover village shop, which specializes in handmade fair-trade goods from around the world, expanded yet again, moving into the adjoining space recently vacated by Golden Valet and opening a coffee shop in the expanded space.
A prominent “Coffee” sign hangs in the front window and a placard is set up near the curb, in the hope that the coffee bar will draw additional foot traffic to the store. On a recent weekday morning, Alison Cuellar perched on one of the benches owner Lisa Ostroff built from reclaimed wood, sipping coffee while chatting with her sister, Jessica Turner, who lives several blocks away. Cuellar, who has long relied on Trade Roots for gifts, said the new coffee shop is a cozy place to meet with friends.
Ostroff said the new venture is a natural outgrowth of the Arlington County store’s mission.
“ ‘Fair trade’ really started with coffee,” she said, explaining how the demand for eco-friendly, shade-grown coffee and a living wage for coffee farmers energized the Fair Trade movement that started in the 1960s.
The governing principles of fair trade — including environmental stewardship and ensuring the rights of children — are prominently posted at the retail end of the store. Ostroff, who gives presentations on the subject at area elementary and middle schools, said many customers are not aware that the phrase refers to an integrated economic business model.
“It’s about fair wages for the artisans, it’s about sustainable practices, it’s eco-friendly, not using child labor, transparency in relationships,” Ostroff said.
She works with artisans in developing countries either directly or through a close intermediary to help them design products that will sell at the store.
“If an artisan is making something that’s too labor-intensive or it’s just not selling here, rather than shutting that artisan down, it’s working with them, saying maybe if you used this material rather than that material, or these colors, we can sell more of the product here,” she said.
Thirty years ago, Ostroff moved to the Washington area from Boston after graduating with a college degree in international development, working at area nonprofit groups and raising her four sons. Two years ago, a chance visit to a fair-trade store in Warrenton, Va., inspired her to take out a loan and open one of her own. As its successive expansions suggest, Trade Roots is thriving (especially at Christmas — and like most retailers, she would welcome more business the rest of the year).
Since then, she has traveled to fair-trade conferences in the United States, Ecuador, Turkey and Israel, meeting with artisans to build relationships and seek out goods for the store. Ostroff said she plans to continue the effort in the next several years with trips to Guatemala, Vietnam and Nepal.
That attention to the sourcing of products is evident in each carefully ordered inch of the store. A small cluster of long-necked decorative giraffes holds sway over the kids’ corner, crammed with everything from instruments to bracelets to toy animals. On a recent weekday morning, one customer’s preschool son played with a woven basket full of tiny carved wooden animals, while his mother lingered over sterling silver rings and necklaces on display on a table in the center of the store.
Students from Swanson Middle School two blocks away often stop by after school, Ostroff said. The store’s more affordable tchotchkes are a draw, especially for girls who stop by and advise Ostroff on everything from the store displays to her goods.
“They’ll come by and have a cookie, they’ll tell me where I need to put things in the store . . . they love the jewelry,” Ostroff said.
The coffee shop’s locally sourced baked goods are chosen with the same care accorded wares acquired from far-flung locales.
“They’re from LeoNora [Gourmet] Bakery in Clarendon, and from Vera’s Bakery — Vera’s is out of Arlington and just does farmers markets,” Ostroff said. “It goes with our theme. LeoNora is Colombian, and the woman who owns Vera’s is Brazilian, and they’re women-owned. We’re helping [businesses] in other countries that are also women-owned — and we’re supporting local women-owned businesses, too.”
Despite the challenges she faces, this fair-trade advocate who once hoped to join the Peace Corps remains committed to pursuing her dream of helping others across the globe make a livelihood, drawing inspiration from the artisans themselves. Today, the bright orange storefront is accented with baskets, metalwork and a waving flag.
“Lots of people don’t know we’re here,” Ostroff said. “I put so many things up so people will know we’re here.”
Lanyi is a freelance writer.