For Shannon Dowling, opening River Fair Trade means bringing the world together bit by bit. In this case, she brings beautifully crafted clothing, décor, household items, jewelry, stuffed animals, cards and more, all handmade by people from Morgantown to Bali, Indonesia. Not only is the purchase helping the creators in difficult situations, but it brings the world to Morgantown through education. And Shannon can tell you about each and every item – who made it, where and what sustainable materials it is made from.

The shop opened Saturday, September 24, after Dowling took on the lease at the former barbershop on High Street.  She waited two years for just the right spot to open up, as she had been thinking of opening her own fair trade store after having moved here six years ago and working remotely for a wholesale fair trade company based in Bali. As a University of Pitt student in the 1990s, she said she hung out a lot in downtown Morgantown with her friends who attended West Virginia University and loved the small town, main street atmosphere, which she wanted to be a part of ever since.

“I wanted to open this business in Morgantown and be a part of downtown in particular,” she said in her shop a few days after opening, “and everyone has been amazing. The businesses have been welcoming, Main Street Morgantown has helped immensely, and the customers are very positive and encouraging.”

Indeed, in the hour or so I was in the shop, a beautiful afternoon, the sun shining through the windows and open door, reflected on the mirrors and lush colorful atmosphere or the shop, and warmth was felt as about a dozen or so people wandered in for a chat. Several people commented “this is great for Morgantown!” And even an area officer walked in to introduce himself. Dowling said it has been a positive experience like this from the start, and encourages anyone thinking about opening a business downtown to “go for it.”

img_3033 Photo credit: Jenna Catherine Lapointe

To her credit, though, perhaps it isn’t so simple – River Fair Trade offers a unique addition to Morgantown, after all.  The space is designed so that it feels like an upscale boutique, but the prices are reasonable, and each piece offers information on the items, as does Dowling, but she doesn’t want to be overbearing, either.

“Part of my being fair trade is knowing exactly how and where each items were made, and educating people about that, but I recognize many people are already well-versed or just want to get one-of-a-kind hand-made items, too!”

Interesting they are; Dowling told me about Good Paper, the kitschy funny greeting cards racked by the check-out desk (desk handmade from barn wood by her husband, to note). The cards are made by women rescued from sex trafficking in the Philippines and/or Rwanda. The purchase of these beautiful and clever items improves the lives of these women. In this way, Dowling says, she is empowering the women to become a part of the global economy in a local way, all from Morgantown.

There are hand-carved, olive wood bowls and salad servers by Acacia Creations in Thailand, Vietnam, Africa and the Phillipines. There are brightly hued stuffed elephants, giraffes, blankets, pillows and children’s clothing handmade by Zen Zen in Bali. There are luscious up-cycled silk sari kantha scarves and bags from Matr Boome in India and stellar adult clothes by New Blak, an ethical and sustainable clothing line out of Louisville, Kentucky, and so much more. Dowling ensures that all of her products are fair trade by their certification, and/or her personal relationship with the makers.

What about locally? Dowling says she is a strong proponent of local artisans and appreciates all of the other downtown business who support local artists. She is open to considering local fair trade collectives and artisans, and will keep at least one local fair trade artisan’s work on hand, but her scope is generally more global, in order to bring the world to Morgantown.

Right now, jewelry by Morgantown resident Cheryl Carnegie is on display. Carnegie’s jewelry is handmade with recycled materials and exquisitely at that. Dowling notes Carnegie and her husband have been instrumental in opening the shop with creating the wooden shelves to photographing and promotion.

Dowling is also mother to two, both of which enjoy hanging out and even helping customers. Dowling herself comes from a family of entrepreneurs and is passionate about what it adds to the community locally and internationally, and it shows!  She gets in new products continuously and will change it up as she gauges customer interest.

img_3049Photo credit: Jenna Catherine Lapointe

Stop in to see for yourself at River Fair Trade, 316 High Street. Current hours are 10:30am -5pm Monday-Saturday and Sunday, 12-5pm. She opens it during public events, as well, so check Facebook for updates.

Sally Deskins is an artist, writer and curator based in Morgantown.  Her writing has been published in Hyperallergic and Feminist Wire among others. She recently obtained an MA in art history at WVU and curates the blog Les Femmes Folles, a platform for women in art.

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