“What would it take to stay open?” asked members of the Edmonton Ten Thousand Villages (TTV) Society after the organization announced its closure in early January. Independently owned stores across Canada held emergency meetings to decide what to do next.
According to Ernie Wiens, a board member of the Edmonton TTV Society and of Edmonton First Mennonite Church, stores were told they could continue to use the “Ten Thousand Villages” name for one year.
The TTV trademark is legally owned by Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Canada. According to Scott Campbell, MCC’s director of communications and donor relations, “Stores that wanted to continue with the Ten Thousand Villages brand could sign on to an agreement with MCC Canada or go independently.”
Two Alberta stores chose independence, along with the Port Colborne, Ont., store. Those choosing to sign a licensing agreement with MCC are in Cobourg, Ont.; Brandon and Steinbach, Man.; and Abbotsford, B.C. Those keeping the brand will be required to adhere to all the principles and practices outlined in the agreement.
The Edmonton and Calgary stores have been successful for more than three decades. In the 1980s, both stores were named Global Village Crafts. In the 90s, they were called Ten Thousand Villages. Today, their names are changed again: Edmonton is now registered as Village Goods and Calgary as Villages Calgary. Same managers. Same boards. Same values.
Roberta Taylor, manager of the Edmonton store, says that the members wanted the word “Villages” in its name to signify the new brand has roots. “Many of the original Edmonton TTV Society members are still involved and continue to be emotionally connected to Ten Thousand Villages,” she says. “Volunteers and customers are just excited we’re still here. People really want a place to buy ethically sourced products.”
Although the TTV news was a disappointment, volunteers have hung in there. According to Charlene Baker, a Calgary board member, “Volunteers have been, and will continue to be, the life blood of our store.” But because many of its current volunteers are older and cannot continue due to COVID-19, the store has hired three summer staff.
The Edmonton store has a larger pool of younger volunteers, so it has not experienced the same challenge.
Becoming independent has been a huge learning curve. According to Taylor, “It’s been terrifying ordering everything ourselves.” TTV Canada did most of the purchasing, so ordering was mainly from one warehouse, but the store has been able to connect with more than 40 fair-trade wholesalers across North America.
Daniel Christie, a Villages Calgary board member who also works at MCC Alberta, hopes connections and purchasing agreements can be made with TTV U.S.A. “We really hope to keep those personal stories and connections,” he says. “We have had relationships with these artisans for decades. At the end of the day, it’s about continuing to support them.”
Another challenge has been the loss of marketing done by the national organization. TTV maintained a website and was responsible for media and promotion. It also provided IT support and training.
Although the Alberta stores enjoyed being part of TTV Canada, MCC is unable to support the stores in the same ways, leading to the decision to become independent. But being independent gives the stores freedom to react better to the market, allows flexibility in purchasing and the opportunity for more targeted marketing campaigns. Another benefit is the opportunity to explore new opportunities, like opening web stores, which was not allowed in the MCC agreement, but which has really helped the stores during COVID-19.
Laura Pederson, manager of Villages Calgary, loves having a web store, which ships fair-trade goods across Canada and already makes up almost 10 percent of the store’s sales. Village Goods also has a web store but only ships in Alberta.
An exciting development for the Edmonton store is that it is now the Canadian home for the Bunyaad Collection, a TTV rug-making partner from Pakistan. Customers will be able to shop its rug collection online.
No matter what each store has chosen to do, they will remain as a family. All seven stores have been chatting monthly on a video conference to share ideas, contacts and encouragement. As a group, they have purchasing power and have sometimes been able to get group discounts.
This article appears in the Aug. 17, 2020 print issue, with the headline “A store by any other name.” Do you have a story idea about Mennonites in Alberta? Send it to Joanne De Jong at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ten Thousand Villages Canada shuts down corporate operations
Assistant manager Alexandra Ketchum, left, and manager Roberta Taylor pose in front of the newly rebranded fair-trade store in Edmonton. The former Ten Thousand Villages store is now called Village Goods. (Photo by Joanne De Jong)