Latitudes Fair Trade: A Small Store Making Neighborhood Connections

Latitudes storefrontOnce a full time public school ESL teacher and lover of sewing, quilting, and all things handmade, Lee Owsley came back from a weaving class in 2009 itching with new energy.

“Have you ever taken a trip to a poor country and returned home feeling gratitude for the things you take for granted? Have you then been forced to ask, ‘Why should I have so much while others have so little?’”

These are the questions Lee thought about after meeting her weaving teachers – a group of Mayan women who formed weaving cooperative Trama Textiles in northern Guatemala. Despite the remote location and high levels of poverty in their community, these women found one of the very few means open to them for generating income.

global mamas

Lee visits Esther, business owner and part of a Global Mamas producer group in Ghana

“I realized that helping these women market their products was the perfect way for me to help them help themselves,” says Owsley, who had been looking for a new way to channel her creative and entrepreneurial passions.

Lee made the tough decision to leave her full time teaching job and opened Latitudes Fair Trade Store in the heart of Warrenton, Virginia in 2011. Rather than simply sell fairly traded wares in her store, Lee has prioritized more holistic, long term, and direct partnerships when working with wholesale organizations and the producer groups connected to her store. This fully dedicated approach is at the heart of her business model and the work she does.

“It’s a really cool store, I think,” she says. “We’re in a small town and some people thought we wouldn’t last. It’s been a nice surprise that a town of our size can support a fair trade store so well – we’re the only one and the community has embraced us. In turn, we have totally embraced the community.”

Lee Owsley and son Ben

Lee and her son Ben at the 2013 FTF Conference

Latitudes holds a special place in Warrenton in that its focus lies in connections and networks; her fully dedicated model benefits producers, their families, and their communities, but the store itself has also served as a social and educational gathering place for her small town.

Over the past two years, Lee has hosted a number of talks with special guests to educate her customers and neighbors on fair trade relationships. These events are held in her store, grounding the discussion and giving attendees a chance to see the products up close and talk face to face.

“People constantly thank me for having the store,” she says about the small buzz it’s created in Warrenton already. “They feel happy that it’s here. They’re learning. It’s really lovely.”

As a member of the Fair Trade Federation, Lee has earned an important mark of distinction for her fully dedicated model and has developed a supportive network of like-minded business owners. “I’ve loved the support I have felt getting this thing going,” she says. “Members have been so helpful. Anyone that I’ve called for help has been so open to sharing. I even had a volunteer eventually become a full time employee – and my son and husband have been able to travel and learn with me. This is a great fit for my life and personality.”

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