Market Place brings Gringo dollars to Latino artists
Six times a year, Susan or Elliott Sanders travels to Mexico, Guatemala, Panama, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia or Colombia to purchase handcrafts and clothing to sell in their 33-year-old shop, The Market Place (2034 E. North Ave.)
Although married for 30 years, the couple never travels together. Someone has to stay behind to mind the shop, open seven days a week, and take care of Luna, their 5-year-old Weimaraner.
By doing the traveling themselves, they are usually able to eliminate middlemen, such as wholesalers, and are able to buy their merchandise right off the blankets of the original artists and craftspeople.
"We literally take your money and hand it to Jose," says Susan, who started the business in 1969.
After dropping out of grad school to help her aunt restore a 17th century house off the coast of Venezuela, Susan wasn't sure what she wanted to do with her life. On her slow bus ride back to the United States through Central America, she contemplated her options and interests, and was leaning towards the Peace Corps. Then, in a Mexican hotel room, she taped note cards scribbled with notes from old college papers to the ceiling and it all came together. Susan had studied anthropology and languages, and loved travel and crafts, so she decided to start what she calls a "one-woman Peace Corps" or a "one stop aid mission."
"I wanted to get the Gringo dollar to the Central American people," she says.
She quietly opened The Market Place on the corner of Farwell and North Avenue, now the BBC. One afternoon, a young man named Elliott Sanders stepped into the shop and tried to sell her an ad for the Bugle American, Milwaukee's liberal free paper at the time. Instead, he became her business and life partner.
The couple never had children, but they are in the process of raising their third dog together. Since 1972, they've brought a Weimaraner to work with them every day.
In 1983, the Sanders bought a building just a few doors east of their shop and relocated to the large, sunny space. Koegler's, a flower shop and greenhouse, previously occupied the place, which explains the room with the glass wall and ceiling.
Susan is fluent in both Spanish and French, and Elliott speaks what he refers to as "street Spanish." Knowing the language allows them to communicate directly with the artists and purchase merchandise in smaller Central or South American villages where English isn't spoken.
A typical day for the Sanders during a shopping trip includes finding or visiting original artists and buying as many pieces as they can carry back to their hotel room. There, they hand pack the art and weavings and ship them back to the shop in large, straw boxes.
Susan says finding the artists often requires detective work. For instance, if she sees a beautiful weaving in one of the larger cities, she doesn't buy it on the spot, rather has to figure out where the original artist lives so she can travel to his or her home and buy the pieces direct.
"I think of it as applied anthropology," says Susan, "meaning we like to buy stuff that wasn't made for tourism ... We don't buy souvenirs."
After three decades, the couple now purchases from a third generation of craftspeople and has made many friends from several different countries.
The Sanders say many of The Market Place's customers come from the suburbs of Chicago, Madison, Kohler, Racine, Sheboygan and Cedarburg, as well as from Milwaukee.
Luckily for their customers, they don't have a routine mark-up rate for merchandise. Instead, when the goods arrive in Milwaukee, the Sanders calculate airfare, accommodations and shipping costs before pricing the new items. They strive to keep prices fair.
"This is Milwaukee," says Elliott. "You can't sell anything except food or drink for too high."
Folk art is particularly popular right now and The Market Place sells hundreds of wood-carved, brightly painted animals, each one a little bit different. They also stock myriad masks, peasant clothing, wool sweaters, rugs, bags, blankets, candelabras and musical instruments. Most of the items are traditional, practical and handmade from natural materials like wood, gourds, cotton or wool. However, even those from the most remote villages change with the times. On her last trip, just two weeks ago, Susan purchased Guatemalan CD holders.
"These are cool because they aren't slick," says Elliott. "They're primitive and funky."
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