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Freeland fair-trade importers done in by an unfair economy
After 19 years as fair-traders, Kris and Michael Barker are hanging up their ponchos and looking for other creative opportunities.
“Basically, it’s the economy,” Michael Barker said Monday at his showroom and warehouse in Freeland, while getting ready for this weekend’s going-out-of-business sale at La Vida Verde Inc.
Since 1990, the couple has been wholesaling home accessories and furniture purchased from local artisans in Colombia, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Peru.
They have done so following the guiding philosophy of fair trade: Work directly with artisans in sustainable and environmentally friendly ways, permit no exploited labor and pay wages that make the locals happy.
“We wanted it to be a win-win situation for us, for the artisans and for our customers,” Barker said.
La Vida Verde began in a garage in Los Angeles and outgrew two warehouses in Southern California before it was moved to Whidbey Island nearly six years ago.
The business weathered earthquakes, hurricanes, flooding, port and transportation strikes and corporate knock-offs, while creating work for more than 1,000 people in Latin America.
The couple worked with more than 100 single artisans and 20 co-ops.
“Some of these folks have homes now, where they had only a workshop and a blue tarp for shelter back in the ’90s,” Barker said.
The Barkers also designed furniture, lighting, ceramics and basketry for the artisans to craft.
“The trust took years to develop,” Barker said. “Most of the artisans we work with have been with us from the beginning.”
Through the years, the Barkers have sold merchandise to several large accounts, including Coldwater Creek, Nordstrom and Sundance Catalog. They’ve delivered large orders to Australia and Iceland, and to more than 100 museum stores across the United States.
Then the bad times began to roll.
Gradually sliding sales turned into a 40-percent drop in the third quarter of 2007, Barker said.
“That’s when the still-unspoken recession became apparent to us,” Barker said.
This past January, sales dropped another 60 percent, with a corresponding difficulty in filling small orders.
“It got tiring swimming upstream,” was how Kris Barker put it this past week, when announcing the weekend’s sale.
The Barkers’ fair-trade adventure started 20 years ago, when the couple, yet to be married, took a vacation trip to Costa Rica.
“We fell in love with it,” he said. “We almost decided to move there.”
They also fell in love with a particular style of rocking chair, made by local artisans. They bought a few of the chairs and shipped them home, and the rest is history.
“There are a lot of those chairs on Whidbey today,” Barker said.
The Barkers have raised money through the years to support a school in Nicaragua. They collected enough to pay the tuitions for more than 100 students for several years.
In August, they teamed with local musicians to raise money for Whidbey Island Share a Home.
“Whidbey Island has been very supportive of our store and our fundraisers,” Barker said.
Michael Barker, 58, is from Missouri, and his wife Kris, 43, is from Michigan. They have two daughters, Maddie, 11 and Emma, 9. The couple had visited relatives on Whidbey Island for 15 years before moving here about six years ago.
Both have extensive theater and arts teaching experience. Kris Barker has already pieced together several jobs in the area, and her husband is directing two plays at Whidbey Island Center for the Arts, and has created a couple of improvisation workshops.
He said they will keep their hand in importing on a limited basis. The rest remains to be seen.
“It’s hard to know where we’ll land,” he said. “But I’ve had to have this kind of faith before,” especially during his years as an actor and director in Los Angeles.
Whatever happens, they have no plans to leave the island.
“We love Whidbey,” Barker said. “It’s the best place to raise our children.”
As for fair-trading, which has grown popular primarily through coffee importing, Barker said he and his wife may try it again, “in another life.”
“Fair trade has been blooming in a very big way,” Barker said. “These companies might be small, but they’re potent.”
“Nineteen years ago, it wasn’t the buzzword it is today,” he added. “A lot of people confused fair trade with free trade. They’re not the same thing.”
This weekend’s sale will be from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at the La Vida Verde showroom and warehouse, 1715 E. Main St. in Freeland, at the rear of the Interstate Label building.
Barker said the store will stay open on a limited basis through December and perhaps beyond, until the inventory is gone.
“It’s been great fun,” Barker said.
For information about La Vida Verde, visit www.lavidaverde.com or call 331-4078.