Carl Braun, long-time supporter of Ten Thousand Villages, writes some reflections about the shop on Crowchild Trail in Calgary and Erna Klippenstein, the founder of the Crowchild store. Ten Thousand Villages, initially known as SELFHELP Crafts, began as a program of MCC in the 1940s.
We hear about the closure of Ten Thousand Village shops across the country. How strange that I would draw attention to a piece of Ten Thousand Villages history at this juncture? Not strange at all. I have no crystal ball to determine what the impact of demographics, on-line shopping, or consumer purchase preferences may have on the survival of 220 Crowchild. What fascinates me is the fact that “The Place” ever came to be. This is a place with a unique history; it is steeped in the richest narrative, and what's more, the narratives are breathed, whispered, and enacted in the lives of people across the globe. And the narratives will persist longer than any brick and mortar structures.
While my direct involvement with Ten Thousand Villages has been limited, I continue to share a passion for the heart of the organization, certainly the commitment to fair trade and the unquestionable far-reaching ripple effects the brand promises. Naturally, my interest is kept alive since my wife, Evelyn, continues in her volunteer role after 33 years. Further, my son, Ted, was there in 1984 as the first chair of the organization and my daughter, Winn, volunteered at the store while she lived in Calgary.
The place on Crowchild had been a tool rental venue owned and operated by Erna's husband, Alfred Neufeldt. After Alfred's sudden, unexpected demise, Erna was left with a rental place. For her, renting equipment and managing a business became stressful and burdensome.
Apparently the first mention of a “craft store” passed from Erna's lips to a small like-minded Bible Study group connected with South Calgary Mennonite Brethren Church. With an unmistakable sense of vision, she expressed her dream of creating a place where self-help crafts would be marketed in that place on Crowchild. She shared her story with others, and before long Erna was surrounded by a small committed group with a common vision. Within a few months, we formed a non-profit society and busied ourselves with renovations to open the store in October 1984.
It would be wrong to pretend that there were no bumps in the road. There were bumps. To understate, sales did not always go as anticipated, and after a few years we debated the wisdom of moving forward. It was through Erna's tenacity and the continuing support of a small group that the decision was made to expand our operations.
From day one, Erna told the stories to anyone ready to listen. No sales pitch ever! The meaning of Ten Thousand Villages transcended unequivocally the financial support of families; it was a place to tell stories about those who were wanting – those without health care, those with poor drinking water, lack of sanitation, food and educational opportunities. All these women and children who inhabited Erna's stories were God's children. She believed passionately that they had a right to a life of dignity and it was her responsibility, and ours, to tell their story.
Those of us who knew Erna remember the sparkle in her eyes when she shared the Ten Thousand Village story with newcomers, and without the slightest hint of focus on herself. Referring to the store, she would exclaim, “How could such a beautiful story come from this place? There is a power greater than any of us to make this possible.” This power, as Erna knew so well, came from her determination through the years to follow the larger than life footprints of the Christ within.
Many shoppers and visitors to the store, captivated by Erna's enthusiasm and touched by her smile and kinds words, joined the volunteer force. In this remarkable way – Erna's way – she created what can only be described as a community of volunteers and managers, all emboldened with a common purpose.
There were footprints that lead
To exotic places – far away;
Footprints defined by special care
From Bolivia to Bombay.
There were footprints, emboldened
In stretches of Afghanistan's sands;
Where school kits brought hope
As they had in other lands.
Footprints showed clearly where Sanji
Proudly displayed her scented soap;
Touched by economic independence,
Even the “untouchables” – found hope.
Hand-knotted rugs from Pakistan,
The art of Haitian metal wares;
A single-minded mission to
Convert shopping trips to ploughshares.
Footprints in Vietnam, in Nepal,
In Laos and Peru;
Footprints everywhere, the West Bank,
All the way to Camaroon.
An angel tracked this maze of prints –
Patterns emerging without fail:
From villages and hamlets worldwide,
They converged on Crowchild Trail.
These prints carried a brand name label
Like fine chocolates and aged fine wine;
Clearly each footprint could be traced
To the House of Klippenstein.