EPHRATA, Pa. -- Wooden giraffes from Kenya, baskets dyed in muted shades from the Philippines and paper mache Hanukkah dreidels -- made, in of all places, India -- fill the shelves of the Ten Thousand Villages store, where shoppers browse to haunting cultural melodies and sample international cuisine.
The colorful world marketplace, resembling an Indiana Jones movie set, is actually nestled in Pennsylvania Dutch farmlands, where shoppers from northern Virginia and New York City travel for crafts handmade by artisans in 34 Third World countries.
"The prices are extremely reasonable, and I like the fact that everyone is represented. It's really great," said Elaine Levkoff of Heidelberg, Pa., a former United Nations worker who visited the store for the first time this month for some Christmas shopping.
"There is something to please everyone here, and I like the concept of helping the little man."
A shopper can find a gift box of handmade stationery from Bangladesh for $5.95, a basket woven in Uganda for $15.20 and a 24-inch tall giraffe from Kenya for $39.95.
Headquartered in the Lancaster County town of Akron, Ten Thousand Villages is a nonprofit network of 33 affiliated stores in the United States and 45 in Canada. It is overseen by the Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches.
"They're the pioneer -- the granddaddy of fair-trade businesses. Consumers can have absolute confidence in them," said Cheryl Musch, executive director of the Fair Trade Federation, a coalition of wholesalers and retailers who guarantee fair prices to help improve producers' quality of life.
Ten Thousand Villages works with craftspeople who would otherwise be unemployed. Artisans receive 50 percent of a contracted price before they begin the work and then are paid the rest when the items are shipped out.
This year, the group reports U.S. sales of more than $8 million -- a 17 percent increase from last year. Of that, $3.4 million went directly to the artisans. For items sold in North America, the artisans don't split 50-50 with stores because of the increased expense of building rentals, utilities, store managers' salaries, shipping and other sales-related costs.
Artisans are encouraged to tailor their products to appeal to the Western culture. Instead of producing a vest that would be worn in Latin America, artists might create a backpack for collegiate shoppers in the United States. Baskets that would be perched atop a woman's head in Kenya are transformed into picnic carryalls, complete with compartments for silverware or a bottle of wine.
Western tastes are even woven into Oriental rugs made in Pakistan by JAKCISS Oriental Rugs, a cooperative group of 500 families in 69 villages.
"All the artisans have to do is tie the knots. I find out what colors will work out here. I'll say, `Instead of this leaf, can you put this flower here?"' said Yousaf Chaman, whose father, a Baptist minister, started the partnership.
Most of the stores are staffed by volunteers from churches and community organizations, keeping product prices low, said spokesman Larry Guengerich. At the Akron warehouse, volunteers sort and organize products, filling orders from stores around the continent.
"It humbles me to realize we can help people all over the world from here," said Micki Warkentin of Winnipeg, Canada.
The group is also placing stores in urban shopping districts that draw the higher-income female shopper, such as Baltimore's Inner Harbor or across the street from Yale University in New Haven, Conn. Promotional mud-colored banners tie seasonal themes to products, such as "Tea for Two" to sell teapots for Valentine's Day or "Seeds of Friendship"' to sell pots and planters for springtime patios.
At the Ephrata store, a tea room serves cuisine from a different country each week for lunch and dinner, drawing visitors who want to make a day trip of their shopping excursion.
"I like the restaurant. I plan my visit here for lunchtime to try the dishes," said Monique Dolmans of Sinking Springs, Pa.
Women shoppers say they also are attracted to the stores because they enjoy knowing that a purchase will help employ another woman in a Third World country.
"There's a lot of good that comes from the money spent here," said Mary Semones of Manheim, Pa., who was shopping for wind chimes with her daughter Sara. They have been customers at the Ephrata store for 15 years.
Kathy Scogna of Warnersville, Pa., said the shopping experience is unique.
"You get into a spirit when you come here," she said. "You find extraordinary things you don't see anywhere else."
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