I have something terrible to confess: I sell fake sweetgrass baskets.
How did this dreadful thing come to pass? A few months ago I opened a retail shop down at Fordham Market.
It used to be a hardware store, but now, as Fordham Market, it provides a few dozen merchants with hard-to-come-by retail floor space in the heart of downtown Beaufort.
There are a lot of things to like about doing business at Fordham Market. There are the usual logical reasons: they’ve got a great location at the corner of Bay and Carteret Streets. They are also friendly and well organized.
What I like most, though, is that they take care of all the nasty nitty-gritty of business, like staffing and paying sales taxes. In short, they take care of the things I dread doing so I can focus on what I love to do. You can’t beat that.
Then there’s the nostalgia factor: I just love that old place. I remember going there when it was Fordham Hardware. It was thrilling in its own weird way because it was the kind of place that filled your mind with possibilities about what you could do and fix and create. When you left you couldn’t help but came away with a tremendous appreciation for the inventiveness of human beings in general.
Not only because of the amazing merchandise, but also because of the ingenuity required to store and display it all. They had everything under the sun that you’d need to get any job done. The only problem was there was SO MUCH STUFF.
Most of the time I couldn’t find anything in there on my own, and I bet half of Beaufort couldn’t, either. Sometimes I would wander the labyrinth of parts and paints just hoping to stumble across what I needed, but in the end I usually had to ask for help.
When I got what I came for, I’d just go up to the counter and ask them to put it on our bill. They had paper records, so it wouldn’t take them long to jot it all town — then I was out of there.
Now Fordham’s has gone in a different direction. They sell jewelry and purses, collectibles and works of art. They have a computerized point-of-sale system and security cameras. If you want to get something on credit, you gotta get out your card.
My little place is called Captain Geech’s. Mostly because I already had a big tin sign with that on it. It was left over from a old tin Sunbeam billboard advertising my mom’s restaurant over on Lady’s Island.
Unfortunately there isn’t enough space in the stall to display the best part of the billboard, which is the section featuring Little Miss Sunbeam’s big giant sandwich-eating head.
What do I sell? Some of it is old stuff I don’t want anymore. Aunt Josie’s Coffin – which isn’t really a coffin, but a big old chest that was on the top floor of our fish market – is in there. It’s put together with mortise and tenon (or “tendon” as some people like to say) and it’s pretty rickety. Definitely a fixer-upper.
Also, I sell my uniquely unoriginal original art. And some prints and cute little note cards featuring a 1920s watercolor by Abby Winch Christensen. Not exactly big ticket items.
And as big an advocate as I am for all things local, I have to admit that baskets from Bangladesh are my bread and butter.
These baskets look a lot like local sweetgrass baskets – it’s the same coiling technique with a similar grass — but they are way, way cheaper. That’s because people in Bangladesh don’t get paid very much.
According to the World Bank, Bangladesh’s per capita gross national income (GNI) was $470 in 2005.
In China it was $1,706. In the United States it was $43,560.
All you can say is….dang.
What’s even sadder is that the GNI for Bangladesh included wages that people send home from abroad. Many people from Bangladesh don’t actually work in Bangladesh. They are far away from home, working in the oil-rich nations of the Middle East. The remittances are a godsend but they drive up the GNI.
So it’s not like $470 per year is an actual wage being earned by someone in Bangladesh. That figure is more like $260 a year, according to the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), a faith-based relief and development agency.
That’s who I buy my baskets from.
MCC operates Ten Thousand Villages, a fair trade organization with retail stores across the United States as well as a thriving e-commerce site. Ten Thousand Villages also has a wholesale division that distributes fair trade goods to individual merchants like me.
The women who make my kaisa grass baskets work for Dhaka Handicrafts, a project of the Geneva-based development agency Enfants du Monde.
The workers at Dhaka Handicrafts get good money. Good for Bangladesh, at least. There are other benefits, too. They participate in a compulsory savings plan, they have a fund for emergency medical services, and dividends the group receives are used to provide toilets, wells, houses and saplings to group members.
When’s the last time you had a job offer that included awesome perqs like toilets and saplings?
don’t try to hide the fact that the baskets are from Bangladesh. They are not collector’s items, like our locally made sweetgrass baskets. They aren’t as pretty or as tightly woven. But for everyday use as a fruit basket in your kitchen, or a waste basket in your bathroom, they work just fine.
And these kaisa baskets, created out of the hope and determination of women in Bangladesh, still inspire in me same feeling I used to get at Fordham’s: a deep appreciation for human inventiveness.