Shop thrives as fair-trade wholesaler
SARANAC LAKE — Once upon a time, White Pine Designs sold polar fleece hats, scarves, and jackets. Now it sells alpaca wool blankets, ponchos and sweaters, and the little store on Broadway, long ago renamed Eco-Living, is the hub of a wholesale enterprise that just added its 200th retail partner.
When Amy Johnstone started her store in the 1990s, the new synthetic pressed fabric known as “fleece” was super-cheap. It was bright, soft and durable, and simple to work with. Johnstone made hats and jackets from fleece, and they sold well.
Then big clothing companies started making items with fleece, the manufacturers moved to China, and suddenly Johnstone had to adapt.
“It went from $2 a yard to $22,” she said. “Old Navy was selling clothing for cheaper than I could buy the cloth.”
She was always interested in sustainable clothing, seeking organic fabrics and eco-friendly products. A member of Rotary Club International, it was her turn to find a speaker for their meeting. The international service club encourages charitable giving and international cultural exchange. She tapped a friend who had a friend with a nonprofit organization in Ecuador.
That small country has been a center of cloth-making since the Inca empire ruled an area from north of present-day Ecuador to the foot of Chile. Since the Inca didn’t use coins or print money, they collected taxes in cloth: Llamas loaded with cloth “taxes” traveled from the far corners of the empire to warehouses owned by the Inca.
Ecuadorians are known for their beautiful textiles, especially those using the exceptionally fine and warm wool of alpacas.
“My friend said to me, ‘Amy, you’ve got to get down here. There’s so many textiles, you’ll flip.”
Johnstone got on a plane, and her friend took her to a studio where a dozen women were sitting around knitting hats.
“The minute I walked into that room, I said, ‘Oh my God, my whole life just changed,'” Johnstone remembered. She spent the next two days talking with the women about hats, including the fact that North Americans have bigger heads, and the women agreed to make the hats to order. Johnstone bought the wool, and the women set to work.
“Nine days later, they have all that done. It was flippin’ amazing,” she said. “They must have worked all night.
“We had agreed on a price, which was four times more than they could get at the market. When I handed the woman the money, she had tears rolling down her face.” Johnstone looked away, visibly moved by the memory. “That was October 2009.”
The indigenous people who live in the mountains of Ecuador are often treated as second-class citizens. Schools and clinics are lacking, much housing is rudimentary, and the government is corrupt.
“There’s a lot of talented people there, but they’re all poor,” Johnstone said. “She cried because she could finally work.”
Since then, four trips a year to Ecuador have become part of Johnstone’s routine.
“I live in two worlds, which is a really beautiful thing,” she said. “If you see that Eco-Living is closed, that’s why.”
Over the years, the weavers, knitters and jewelry makers who sell to Johnstone directly have been able to put their profits back into buying looms and other equipment, and also building community centers. A few mishaps have taught Johnstone that outright charity can be problematic.
“If I just gave money, that created a beggar. There’s no dignity in begging,” she said. “It’s a Third World country, so there’s a learning curve for us.”
Johnstone bought handmade cloth and crafts: clothing, toys, blankets. The blankets were another turning point.
“It just kept growing,” she said.
She couldn’t sell enough in her own store, so she began to look for new ways and new places to market the textiles. When the “retail apocalypse” hit, closing many retail stores, she went wholesale. Several times a month, a tractor-trailer arrives loaded with boxes from Ecuador, and the boxes go into her shop. From there, they’re distributed as far away as Wimberly, Texas, Salt Lake City and North Carolina.
This week she reached a milestone: the 200th store that carries her Ecuadorian friends’ products. In addition, last year she entered her first franchise arrangement with a partner store in Inlet.
For Johnstone, however, the business is the backstory to something else: the people in Ecuador who have become part of her family and part of her world. She’s never entirely here without thinking of there, and her business has a spiritual dimension because she knows it’s helping people.
“They thank me and thank me,” she said. “But I thank them. They have no idea how they enrich my life.”