The shop window on West 63rd Street in Brookside is filled with 150 handmade Nativity sets made by artisans from more than two dozen countries. It’s perfect for a place called World’s Window.
One of the Nativity sets comprises five small figures — Mary, holding baby Jesus, Joseph and the three wise men — that were created by Mai Vietnamese Handicrafts of Vietnam using recycled magazine pages.
The mission of World’s Window goes beyond offering consumers a romp around the world through its exotic merchandise. It also places an emphasis on selling items that are produced and imported under fair-trade policies so that the artisans who make them earn a decent living.
The Mai Vietnamese Handicrafts company was started by two social workers who wanted to help street children and single mothers in Ho Chi Minh City and ethnic minorities in mountain villages.
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Believing that social development is tied to economic self-reliance, the social workers provide marketing and training to artisans in under-served areas while returning some of the profits from the sales of the work to fund social work projects. According to the company’s website, 300 Vietnamese artisans work with Mai Handicrafts today, earning between $50 and $70 a month in a country where the average monthly income is $20 to $30.
World’s Window also carries a beaded Nativity set from Kenya and a metal Nativity sculpture crafted from steel oil drums in Haiti.
The beaded set came from Bamboula Ltd., a small company dating to the 1970s that tries to get more market exposure for more than 100 African artisans to expand employment opportunities.
The metal sculpture was hand-crafted from cast-off 55 gallon steel drums. This particular art form is four generations old in Haiti. Artists begin by visualizing the designs, then chalking them onto flattened metal and shaping them with a hammer and chisel.
Jan Buerge, who co-owns the shop at 332 W. 63rd St. with her husband, Lonnie Buerge, says that not everything in the shop is fair trade.
“Our preference is to always buy fair trade,” she says “But in Brookside and through the recession, clothing is what has kept us alive. In order to carry folk art and merchandise that’s a little more unusual, clothing was the staple to keep our store going.”
Though Buerge said not every customer inquires about fair trade, she thinks it’s important to carry the items.
“They may want to hear its story or they may not. But if little by little they surround themselves with this stuff and enjoy its beauty and also learn about fair trade and find it’s something they want to embrace, so much more wonderful.”