By Mwiza Kalisa
After 16 years Far East Handicrafts (127 North 36th Street) is closing its doors. During the economic downturn the store struggled to attract customers and now the owners have plans to start an online shop. The store features goods from Nepal, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia and Laos.
Kirk Richmond, one of the owners, says that the shop fell behind in their mortgage. “People modified their buying and last Christmas suddenly we just didn’t have any business,” he said. “Once we got behind it just started accumulating, we haven’t been able to work our way up.”
Richmond has been involved in the business since it first opened in 1995. He started out as a volunteer but joined the store after the founder, Stephen Novak, passed away. After a two week visit to Nepal, Novak started a business selling sweaters from South Asia. The business then expanded its catalogue; now including Malaysia singing bowls, prayer flags, journals and many other items that will soon be sold online.
Novak built strong relationships with the craftspeople during his time in Nepal. Many of these relationships helped the business survive for 23 years.
“[Novak] created a great opportunity helping craftspeople,” Richmond said. “They’re my very good friends. I’m the buyer so of course they want to sell us things, but I trust them and the ones we work with we’re very fortunate.”
The store works with 26 different groups, families and craftspeople while practicing fair trade.
“We have a responsibility to be good citizens, to send a good note to the world,” Richmond added. As the store transitions to selling items online Richmond says that they will have to find new clients, but will still continue in fair trade.
Richmond has visited Nepal numerous times and he was also a member of the Joy Foundation, along with Barbara Novak, Stephen’s mother. The foundation provided free cataract surgery to people in Nepal.
“Over the years we have to say that because of this economy and having to sell our building to pay debts, in reflection a lot of our goals were accomplished,” Richmond said. “We saw our craftspeople and their children grow up and complete high school. It has been 17 years and 23 years with the company, which is quite a bit of longevity, and that’s done some good.”
The owners of the store are still waiting for a good offer on the building. They believe that the space will be rented by Thanksgiving, or Christmas at the very latest. Richmond said that he had a very good experience in Fremont and will miss working in the area.
“I’ll miss the neighborhood. I like talking to customers and teaching them about Nepal and the products that we have,” Richmond said. “Also, we’re not leaving in a time of retirement, we’re going to have to work the rest of our lives to make up for the property value losses. This has been a real tough situation; I think a lot of us had denial and anger. Now I just have to remember change is everywhere and we just have to respond to it.”
Items will be discounted until the store closes. The website for the new online shop is www.ishopfairtrade.com