On April 30, the Ten Thousand Villages fair trade store –stocked with things like shawls hand-woven in India and jewelry made by the Tuareg tribe in Niger–that had sat in Denver’s Cherry Creek North shopping center for over 35 years shuttered its doors. Founded in 1946 and the oldest fair trade supplier (even though the designation wasn’t formalized until 1958) in North America, the organization’s more than 75 retail outlets had faced a tough couple of years as e-commerce sales grew and more fair trade purveyors opened as competition; around 30 Ten Thousand Villages stores have closed since December 2016. The Denver community was devastated; loyal patrons flocked to the shop’s Facebook page to talk about how they loved visiting the store to buy gifts and support its mission of sourcing from 20,000 makers in 30 developing countries.
But Amy Lavan, who had moved from Richmond, Virginia to Denver around two years ago to work as the assistant manager of the Cherry Creek North store (the same position she held at Richmond’s Ten Thousand Villages outpost, where she had worked since graduating college), decided to take action. “Villages was the only place I had worked since graduating,” Lavan tells Fast Company. “I couldn’t just let it go.”
Soon after the Denver store announced its closure, Lavan took to Craigslist to source a vintage Airstream, with the idea that she could open a mobile Ten Thousand Villages shop for the community. She’s currently crowdfunding on Indiegogo to launch the shop, which she’s calling the Dream Stream, in the fall of this year.
The reason why Ten Thousand Villages’ brick-and-mortar stores have been suffering in the face of online sales—and the reason why Lavan is able to launch a mobile franchise—is because the organization’s retail stores have only loose structural connections to the central company. While online profits go straight to the company headquarters, the retail stores, Lavan says, are opened and run by small teams of staff and volunteers who operate independently of the company but use its branding and logo, and of course, source Ten Thousand Villages products to sell. If in-store sales slip—especially in increasingly expensive places like Denver—it’s difficult to hold onto retail property.
A mobile unit, Lavan thought, would be more manageable. She found a gutted 1975 Airstream, once used as a tiki bar and painted on the outside with tropical flora, and is aiming to raise $16,000 by July 9 to install solar panels (the whole operation will run on renewable energy), renovate and re-wire the interior, and weatherproof it. Following the Indiegogo campaign, Lavan is also looking into entering startup competitions or applying for small business grants to get the Dream Stream fully operational by the fall.
Lavan imagines the Dream Stream will use Denver as its base; in addition to the globally sourced fair trade products like Peruvian scarves and Senegalese baskets that will be sold in the Airstream, Lavan will also source from local Colorado-based makers with a social impact mission. But it’s a mobile store for a reason, and her ultimate goal is to take the Dream Stream on the road to festivals like South By Southwest and Coachella. “I’m trying to recreate the feeling of surprise and not knowing what you’re going to find that people associate with going to a market,” Lavan says. “It’s just a more modern approach.”