Bright Idea: Fair Trade at Market Street Cafe

By Seattle Business Magazine August 21, 2008

Seattle shop-owners Tammy and Andy James say that a grateful merchant in northern Thailand changed their lives. The merchant could also say the same thing about the Jameses.

While vacationing in 2006, the coupleowners of Seattle waterfront icon Ye Olde Curiosity Shopvisited a remote village and purchased $500 worth of eclectic merchandise to re-sell in their store. The response they received surprised them. We were told that the money wed spent was enough to put 50 children through school for a year, Tammy recalls.

Thus, the benefits of fair-trade marketing became apparent, and the seeds of a new business were planted. Since last Thanksgiving, the Jameses have operated a new Ballard gift store called Market Street Traders, which operates on the fair-trade model: Artisans who make the jewelry, packaged food goods and other home-decor items for sale in the store are compensated with a livable wage relative to their respective countries. Vendors are certified by the Fair Trade Federation, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group that ensures these standards are met.

Inspired by their experience in Thailand, Tammy and Andy attended a Fair Trade Convention in Washington, D.C., and discovered that other fair-trade storeowners were happy to divulge their complete lists of inventory and vendors. The Jameses also learned that every fair-trade store helps about 10,000 people across the world rise above poverty.

After the convention, the couple embarked on opening their own fair-trade store. While waiting for the approval of their loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration, they heard that Solveig Hatley, the owner of the famous Scandinavian Gift Shop on Ballards Market Street, was retiring in February 2007. The charming chalet style of the building seemed a perfect fit for the James vision of selling sustainable goods in their hometown.

After negotiating with Hatley, the building was sold and the loan approved in November. After only two-and-a-half weeks spent remodeling the building, the Jameses opened Market Street Traders just in time for the 2007 holiday season. The response was immediate.

It was like an ant farm in here, Tammy James remembers. Local shoppers familiar with the 27-year presence of the Scandinavian Gift Shop were curious to investigate. Customers flocked to popular sellers such as Peruvian finger puppets, Indian scarves and purses, and various trinkets from Tibet. Everything here has a story, she adds. And in many cases, you can know about the person who made it.
As the store found its niche in the community, the couple continued to diversify their business. They received a liquor license in December for the sale of fair-trade wine, and The Market Street Traders Cafe opened in June, featuring an array of sandwiches and beverages. We hope the cafe will feed the retail, and the retail will feed the cafe, Tammy explains.

Market Street Traders has 1,800 square feet of second-story space that the Jameses hope to rent to a nonprofit organization, but that is the extent of their expansion plans. The couple is looking forward to nurturing their business while serving the Ballard community. They are partnering with family friend Karen Martinsen to help educate local schools about the benefits of fair trade, with the goal of contributing to a curriculum by the fall of 2010.

Its this passion for giving back that drives the Jameses. Were not selling things that people necessarily need, Andy says. But its just fun. We have people who want to work for us just because they like the idea.

Photo by John Keatley

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