CHAMPAIGN – At most stores, they sell you something, put it in a bag and send you on your merry way.
But at Ten Thousand Villages in downtown Champaign, making a purchase is only part of the experience.
Behind every item on the shelves, there's a story from some far-flung corner of the world. And if you've got time to listen, a sales clerk will tell you all about it.
"We believe it makes the purchase much more meaningful," says Ruth Minninger, Ten Thousand Villages' volunteer and education coordinator.
On the surface, Ten Thousand Villages is a United Nations-gone-retail, an international bazaar where such things as an onyx bowl from Pakistan, jewelry from Guatemala, tapestries from Peru and baskets from Uganda share shelf space.
Scratch the surface a bit, and you'll find Ten Thousand Villages, an organization of the Mennonite Central Committee, is really a mission dedicated to promoting fair trade and the elimination of poverty.
Here's how it works: The organization looks for artisans around the world who need an outlet to sell what they make, then makes the arrangements, provides the market through its retail stores and gets them fair prices for their work.
Artisans are paid half upfront, to cover the cost of their raw materials, and the other half before the item is shipped, so damages and losses aren't their problems, said Naomi Rempe, manager of the Champaign Ten Thousand Villages store.
"They can stay home and make products and raise their families because we've provided a market for them," she said.
The stores help take on the education mission of the organization, striving to spread the word customer by customer that yes, it does matter where you shop.
Rempe said she was first drawn into Ten Thousand Villages' mission through the Mennonite church. She started out as a volunteer with the local store when it opened 20 years ago under the name, Self-Help Village Crafts, and about seven years later was named the manager, one of the store's few paid positions.
"I kind of believed in the organization right from the get-go," she recalled.
So do longtime volunteers Mary Ann and Harold Heiser of Fisher, who first got involved with the store 20 years ago through their church, East Bend Mennonite in Fisher.
Both retired, the Fishers wanted to spend their time doing some service work, and they've very much enjoyed the store, said Mary Ann Heiser, who volunteers on the sales floor while her husband fixes the items that arrive needing repair.
"We like to help people," she added. "We like to meet people."
Rempe said the sales clerks enjoy telling customers more about the items they're buying.
"We like them to get a feel for how people use the resources that are available to them," she said.
Store employees also will search for and order items from specific countries at customers' requests and can order some larger items, such as furniture, that are available through the Ten Thousand Villages catalog but won't fit in the Champaign store, Minninger said.
The merchandise is constantly changing, with 60-plus new items coming in every month, she and Rempe said.
The Champaign store is run with about 50 volunteers, and more are always welcome, Rempe said.
The Champaign store has been in its current building at 105 N. Walnut St. since 1988, and it owns its building thanks to financial help from members of four area Mennonite churches, Rempe said.
As a nonprofit operation, the Champaign store donates any surplus revenue it makes to local charities or back to the central organization to further the Ten Thousand Villages mission, she said.
The store also offers local fundraising organizations opportunities to hold off-site sales of its merchandise and keep 20 percent of what they take in. Some organizations even hold the off-site sales and donate all the earnings back to Ten Thousand Villages, Rempe said.
The Champaign Ten Thousand Villages store is part of Akron, Pa.-based Ten Thousand Villages U.S., which has about 75 stores by that name in the United States, all nonprofit operations.
Ten Thousand Villages also has a Canadian operation, with the U.S. and Canadian organizations run separately due to importing restrictions of both countries. Together, they have about 160 stores in North America – including stores under the Ten Thousand Villages name, and "partner" stores that are private businesses under other names that carry some of Ten Thousand Villages' imported products, according to Juanita Fox, spokeswoman for Ten Thousand Villages U.S.
Fox said Ten Thousand Villages – started nearly 60 years ago by the Mennonite Central Committee, an agency of the North American Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches – has stayed the course of its original mission. And it has seen interest in fair trade grow over the years.
Sales for Ten Thousand Villages U.S. were about $16 million for the fiscal year ending this past March, and sales are up about 20 percent this year, "which is significant compared to other retailers across the country," Fox said.
Rempe said the organization has grown increasingly better at steering artisans into making the kinds of products that will sell in North America. Both she and Fox say the stores keep improving how they educate consumers about the importance of shopping in an ethical marketplace.
"I think people are realizing that it does make a difference, that their purchases do affect people around the world," Fox said.