Ten Thousand Lamentations

The year 2020 did not begin well. We’d all barely finished our portzelky when we were forced to contend with rumours of war and visitations from pestilence. Throughout January, disaster was all around us.

But none of that prepared us for the news that would rock the Mennonite world – the closure of Ten Thousand Villages in Canada.

There will inevitably be people responding to this post that they had seen it coming and that everyone knew — “everyone” meaning the sorts of people who diligently read the Annual Reports for every shop/social enterprise they patronize.

But it was a surprise to those of us who get our news from the pages of the Canadian Mennonite’s business section.

To us, it came as a sucker punch.

My first reaction, of course, was guilt. This winter, recoiling in grief at my mother’s passing in the fall, my family had had something of a scaled back Christmas. I didn’t buy so much as a Christmas card from Ten Thousand Villages this past December.

This is unusual. I estimate that my family typically spent about $100 per year at Ten Thousand Villages. More if we needed to buy a wedding gift that year. And that’s not even including the purchases made by all my second cousins.

But not this year.

I should have somehow known, I thought, that I needed to increase instead of decrease my consumption of artisanal household decor this year. Especially now, as I also needed to make up for the loss of my mother’s purchasing power.

But when I finally looked at those Annual Reports, I saw to my relief that the current disaster was not caused by one family’s less-merry-than-usual Christmas. Even 10,000 families just like mine could not have turned this train around over the 2019 holiday season.

We needed to know earlier.

And I wondered – where were the prophets who ought to have told us we needed to change our ways and buy even more napkin rings lest the Villages collapse?

Did they think that we – the Mennonite shopping masses – would all just intuitively recognize our need to increase our personal fair-trade consumption quotas, rearrange our household budgets and run out to replace our weathered throw cushions with new, fair trade linens made by smiling weavers in Bangladesh?!

Perhaps the TTV prophets were so reluctant in their calling that they chose to remain in the belly of the whale rather than face us with their news of woe.

Or maybe the would-be prophets just didn’t see us as their targets. I fear that the good folks at Ten Thousand Villages never thought of us as their target audience.

I think they have always assumed that they needed a non-Menno customer base since we Mennonites would mostly head to the local thrift shop instead and only make purchases at the Villages when items were on deep discount. Admittedly, they may have come to that conclusion from experience.

And yet, I expect that back in the day when Ten Thousand Villages was Self Help Crafts, it relied a bit heavier on the Menno shopper. If only because the name was confusing to anyone who didn’t already understand it.

But also because the merchandise was different back then. It was, in fact, perfectly curated to draw in any Mennonite householders who wanted to appear as if they had served overseas with MCC. Whether or not they had.

Back then, a living room decked out in Self Help decor veritably reeked of virtue.

But by the mid-1990s, the enterprise was rethinking its niche marketing and, along with changing its name and logo, broadened the appeal of its merchandise. Since then, it has been much more difficult for status-conscious Mennonites to demonstrate their virtue. In recent years, the conspicuous consumption of fair trade goods became almost indistinguishable from conspicuous consumption more generally.

Which was perhaps a dilemma for a certain class of loyal customers.

Not me, though.

I welcomed the new, worldly inventory that accompanied the name change and would gladly have continued opening my artisan-produced wallet to purchase any number of filigree Christmas tree ornaments had I only known that my business would keep this disaster at bay.

How I wish they had just consulted us.

Because not only would we have known that we needed to buy another tin of cocoa camino hot chocolate, we would also have offered up our tidbits of useful advice.

Since the announcement of Ten Thousand Villages’ demolition, I have spoken to at least half a dozen Mennonites who buy things. Not one of them was without their own ideas as to how Ten Thousand Villages could have been saved. I don’t think any of us count ourselves as prophets — especially since our predictions are all in hindsight — but we had some pretty innovative ideas for turning a profit.

I offer up here a few choice examples.

1. Naming Opportunities

Anyone who has wandered into Conrad Grebel College since their last big capital drive will see that Mennonites love to see their names on a plaque.

This isn’t a strategy normally employed for retail enterprises but I say, why not? I personally would gladly have donated a tidy sum to be able to walk into my local TTV store and see the “S.L. Klassen Fair Trade Drinkware Display Case”

2. VIP Rewards

If we run out of shelving units to name after donors, there’s always the tried and true VIP card. Do not for an instant imagine that Mennonites are too humble to flash a VIP card around.

I’m thinking something like, buy ten MCC goats, get a teensy fair trade chocolate bar for free.

3. Auction

If there’s one thing that a lifetime of relief sales have taught us, it’s that auctions are fun. Sure, it would take a bit of work to train the volunteer sales staff in the Ten Thousand Villages stores in the fine art of auctioneering but imagine the crowds that would gather!

And while we’re in a relief sale vibe, maybe just have a few fried foods for sale alongside all the fancy-pants scarves and jewellery.

4. Bring back our Brand

Ten Thousand Villages did its best to hide its Mennonite affiliation, trying hard to appear like any other high-end ethical gift and housewares boutique. But as that didn’t work, maybe it’s time we went in the other direction and capitalized on our Menno identity, instead.

I say, bring on the quilts!

Sure, they’re not from the Global South, but maybe it’s time we recognized that women who do needlework in the Global North deserve a fair wage for their labour, too.

5. Appeal to the Millennial Shopper

First, let’s admit that the name of the store is stuck in the 90s. It was clever enough then to combine an oblique reference a band with a great name and a quote from Ghandi but today’s generation just isn’t interested in a store pretending to sell the candy that everybody wants.

Millennials, apparently, prefer to pay for “experiences” than things and have a fondness for the quirky. I ask you, who’s quirkier than us?

So I suggest renaming all the stores The Ex-Missionaries’ Lair, and start hosting special Mennonite events at the stores to make the visit more of an experience – crokinole tournaments, carpentry demonstrations, dancing quilt performances, hymn sings, hermeneutical disputations, and cocktail receptions, for example.

I’ve already got the cocktail planned.


The Villages Square

image of Village Square cocktail in an old fashioned glass
  • 1 oz rye whiskey
  • 1 oz sweet vermouth
  • 1 oz cognac
  • 1/2 oz chartreuse
  • 2 dashes of peychaud’s bitters
  • 2 dashes hot pepper bitters
  • a twist of lemon or orange peel

This cocktail is a variation on the vieux carre. Mix all the ingredients together in a mixing glass. Stir with ice and serve in an old fashioned glass that was made by artisans who received a fair wage for their labour.