Looking for a Christmas gift? Try the Villa Shoppe

By jeanne starmack


villa maria, pa.

Down a country road and tucked away in a private community near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border, a world of shopping awaits.

And though the Villa Shoppe at the Villa Maria Community Center off Evergreen Road is only about 10 minutes away from a Walmart, those two shopping experiences are worlds apart.

Experience one: You trudge through a sprawling big-box store where shelves are crammed with mass-produced goods.

Experience two: You peruse the shelves and glass cases in a small room in the center, which is run by the Catholic order called the Sisters of the Humility of Mary. Items there, many of them one-of-a-kind and handmade, are carefully — one could say respectfully — displayed.

The world is represented at both stores, but only at the Villa Shoppe are you sure the money from that scarf, bowl, purse or jewelry you just bought is going directly to help sustain the livelihood of the person who made it.

And that, the sisters believe, makes the world a better place.

The store faithfully subscribes to a shopping concept known as fair trade, said the center’s marketing director, Julianne Arena, as she and store manager Barb Lepre opened the shop Friday for the first of three days that items there, with the exception of cards and books, are 15 percent off. The other two days of the sale are Tuesday and Friday.

Fair trade, Arena explained, is returning a fair price for an item to its maker in a third-world country. The person who made the goods is not only fairly compensated, but the money is used to improve living conditions in that person’s impoverished village.

At the Villa Shoppe, she said, the sisters are not trying to make money. All the money, except shipping costs, is returned to the village, or cooperative of villages, where it was made.

“It’s political consciousness with your cash,” Arena said, adding that the concept started out largely with coffee and chocolate but has expanded to include other goods.

“Coffee and chocolate was the worst,” she said. “We charge $5 for a cup of coffee, and they made 10 cents a day — come on!” she said.

Whether you are buying a $25 handwoven, hand-dyed scarf from India or $7 silver ring from Mexico, you know that if it came from the Villa Shoppe, it is a genuine fair-trade item, Arena said.

“‘Fair trade’ became a buzzword, like ‘organic,” she explained. “Things were going to market that weren’t really fair trade.”

But Lepre follows up to ensure the cooperatives from which the store buys are registered with the screening organization called the Fair Trade Federation.

The goods can be ecological as well because some are made from recycled garbage, Arena said, pointing to purses in the front display window that are made from candy and cracker wrappers and beverage-can soda pop tops. At $80 and $90, they were the most-expensive items in the store Friday morning.

“These people are so inventive,” Arena said. “I’ve seen tire purses.”

Try to find one of those at Walmart.

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