Five questions with … Ellen Reich
Three Stone Steps proprietress on running a small Baltimore business with international reach
Ellen Reich, owner of Three Stone Steps, a Baltimore importer of Haitian ornaments and other handmade items. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun / November 11, 2012)
She's the proprietress (she loves that word) of Three Stone Steps, which sells metal art, recycled jewelry and other intriguing items made by artisans in Haiti, the Philippines and other countries. Founded in 2007, the company specializes in "ethically sourced imports," which combines Reich's love of travel with her social-justice background in the labor movement.
What prompted you to start the company? (And does your home have three stone steps?)
I began my company when divergent paths converged. My last inside-the-beltway jobs weren't exact fits. And, despite the fact that I was working in my chosen field, I had a lot of questions about what sort of impact I was making. It made my head hurt when I thought I'd have to take the MARC train from Penn Station to Union Station to work every day until I retired. I needed to do something else.
I've always had this struggle between my "artsy"/aesthetic side and the small "p" political side. I'm passionate about travel. An import business seemed to make all those pieces fit.
Since I was concerned with making a positive contribution, I started with some core values: Three Stone Steps should be environmentally friendly … and the business should adhere to the principles of "fair trade," meaning, among other things, that I would work with people who were economically disadvantaged and pay a living wage for sweatshop-free and child-labor-free products.
And, while the name Three Stone Steps sadly wasn't inspired by Baltimore's iconic marble steps, my rowhouse has four. And Four Stone Steps just doesn't have the same ring to it!
Where are your artisans based? How do you manage a company with international suppliers from a rowhouse in Baltimore?
I mostly work with artisans in Haiti. This time of year, as we head to the "gifting season," I carry a lot of ornaments and dreidels from a women's collective in the Philippines. I work with a small producer in Cambodia for silk and cotton fashion accessories. On occasion, I manage to get select pieces from other places.
A business like mine could, honestly, be run from any place with access to the Internet, couriers — like UPS — and an airport. Baltimore is particularly good since there are three airports in the area.
How did the 2010 earthquake in Haiti affect Three Stone Steps?
In a nuts-and-bolts sense, it had no effect at all. In a broader sense, it impacts almost everything I do.
The earthquake put Haiti on people's radar.
When I sell retail, I get questions about Haiti. They generally fit into two broad categories: The "how are things going there now" questions and the "are you a charity/does the money 'go back' to Haiti/what organization do you work for" ones.
Regarding rebuilding, yes, it does seem to be happening, and yes, it's shocking to see people still living in tents almost three years after the event.
Three Stone Steps is not a charity, and after the earthquake, I think aid, charity and Haiti have become somewhat intertwined. What we provide is economic development, on a very micro-level. Our mission was always to carry products that appeal on their own merits.
On a personal level, I've certainly gotten to know many of the artisans I work with and their families. I know how much money they get producing products on behalf of Three Stone Steps often goes to rebuilding their houses or those of their relatives. I'm constantly inspired that people working in conditions that many of us would find difficult manage to produce beautiful and innovative art.
What product has proved most popular with your customers? (And where are they based? Are they as international as your suppliers?)
For my wholesale customers, the most popular item is the dreidel, made from recycled magazines by a women's collective in Manila. On the retail end, people adore a multidimensional recycled metal dove from Haiti.