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The shelves and racks of Ten Thousand Villages, a gift shop on Main Street in Evanston, brim with batik, wood, and woven straw, giving the place that developing-country look. It resembles a Pier 1 Imports, the giant purveyor of imported furnishings and gifts, but the merchandise is more offbeat.

Amid the pro forma lamps and gardening pots are green-and-white ceramic bowls from Vietnam and pieces of oil drums from Haiti hammered into the shapes of angels and deer. The paper in the journals from Bangladesh is made from water hyacinth and jute, Kenyan carvers fashioned the muhuhu-wood giraffe from a single piece, and the Haitian Santa has blue eyes. “We have Nativity sets up the wazoo,” says manager Susanne Donoghue as she shows off a representation featuring Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus in Peruvian garb.

More than the stock, however, what distinguishes Ten Thousand Villages is its philosophy, which is to enrich its artisan-suppliers through nonexploitative business practices. “We’re into economic justice,” says Donoghue, who helped found the nonprofit store. “The best way to make peace in the world is to ensure that everyone has enough.” For devotees of native tchotchkes who are also altruists, Ten Thousand Villages is a two-in-one mecca.

One of a network of 40 stores spawned by the Mennonite Church, Ten Thousand Villages operates on the principles of what’s called “fair trade.” The Pennsylvania-based Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), the church’s relief and service arm, facilitates much of the buying for its stores. It deals only with suppliers–groups of artisans in 35 countries throughout Asia, Africa, and Latin America–that pay a living wage and subscribe to humanitarian working conditions. To add teeth to the process, the MCC is careful to pay the suppliers half their money up front and to make deals that last several years.

Donoghue and comanager Penny Lukens also fill their shop with items from other fair-trade wholesalers. SERRV (Sales Exchange for Refugee Rehabilitation Vocation), a Maryland-based outgrowth of the Church of the Brethren, is another pipeline for overseas artisans. Mixes of beans, chili, and salsa come from the Women’s Bean Project, an operation in Denver that teaches job skills to women in poverty. The Enterprising Kitchen, a similarly geared nonprofit in Uptown, provides couscous and tabbouleh. MarketPlace, an Evanston company, imports cotton garments made by a dozen women’s cooperatives in India.

“If we sell $1,200 worth of merchandise, we have created a job for a person in the third world for a year,” says Donoghue. “That’s shocking, but it’s exciting too. With the money from our sales a person can educate his children and build a house. That can spell the difference between subsistence and poverty.”

Edna Ruth Byler, the wife of the MCC’s overseas secretary, began what developed into Ten Thousand Villages in 1946 by bringing goods back from abroad and distributing them to women’s clubs, running “the whole affair from the trunk of her car,” says Paul Leatherman, the MCC’s marketing director. The MCC formalized the program in 1966 and opened the first store, then called SELFHELP Crafts of the World, in Pennsylvania four years later.

The Evanston store originated in discussions within the Reba Place Fellowship, a cooperative in which members, who include Donoghue and Lukens, share their income, housing, and cars. “We talked for some time about opening a store in a building the fellowship had bought at Custer and Madison,” says Lukens. “I myself saw a shop where customers would come to get things repaired, like toasters. As customers watched the toasters getting fixed, they’d drink coffee and read Christian tracts.” Not surprisingly, Lukens’s vision fell flat. A meeting in December 1996 with the manager of a Ten Thousand Villages store in Glen Ellyn produced more enthusiasm.

Start-up money–$90,000 in all–flowed from the MCC and Evanston’s Saint Nicholas Catholic Church, and Lukens threw in an inheritance from her father. Donoghue and Lukens rented a storefront on a well-trafficked stretch of Main Street and principally used volunteers to convert the space. “We had help from churches all over northern Illinois,” says Donoghue. “The lead carpenter was 85 and a member of the Church of the Brethren in Mount Morris. First Presbyterian Church here in Evanston sent us a contractor who put up walls and helped us with the city inspections.” The store opened in late May of last year.

Lukens, Donoghue, and an assistant manager earn salaries, but for most labor Ten Thousand Villages relies on a corps of 45 volunteers who contribute at least four hours each month. Some haul the trash and others are sales clerks, making sure to drum home the fair-trade credo. They also point visitors in the direction of the coffee corner, where small cups contain organic brew from Equal Exchange, a fair-trade importer in Boston that guarantees its South American co-ops a minimum price of $1.26 a pound for their beans.

Volunteers tend to become converts. “It’s gratifying to help people out, including women trying to get off welfare,” says Jean Duffy of Evanston, referring to the domestic products the store sells. “I’m also used to buying stuff from China in mainstream stores, but now I do without it. Do I need a third pair of shoes if it means they come from a sweatshop?”

Ten Thousand Villages, 719 Main in Evanston (847-733-8258), is open from 10 to 9 on Monday, 10 to 5 Tuesday through Friday, and 10 to 6 on Saturday; closed Sunday. Some goods are expensive (the muhuhu giraffe costs $900), but most are moderately priced; the best-selling item is a 35-cent jute angel. The Glen Ellyn store, known for its twice-yearly Oriental rug sales, is at 499 Pennsylvania Avenue (630-790-1166).

–Grant Pick

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Susanne Donoghue, Penny Lukens; misc photos by Nathan Mandell.