Karen Lillie wanted shoppers to have the chance to purchase more fair trade, earth friendly, natural fiber and organic products, so she opened not one – but two – shops on Washington Avenue in Cedarburg.
Four years ago, she opened Lillies inside the Cedar Creek Settlement. The business was located on the third floor of the former mill, but she says it was difficult for some customers to climb the multiple flights of stairs. So, two years later, she opened in her current location, W62 N553 Washington Ave., which allows her shop to have more space and exposure.
Lillies specializes in Fair Trade clothing, jewelry, art and gifts – many of which are made from recycled products. About 60 percent of the items sold at Lillies are Fair Trade, which basically means that workers receive a livable wage for their products and do their tasks in a humane environment.
Many of the items are from Nepal, Ghana, Kenya, Guatemala, South Africa, Ecuador and Thailand, but they also have products made in the United States.
Shopping at Lillies is as much of an educational experience as it is a consumer one. Easy-to-read signs appear next to many of the items, explaining who made the products and where, sometimes with photos and web addresses for anyone who wants more information.
"We live in a country where children are educated. They are not working 12-14 hours a day. We are so far removed from this," she says. "Lillies tries to bring to the forefront these realities. We tell their stories in the shop."
Lillie says she prefers to do business with organizations that are doing more than just buying items from other countries. For example, BeadforLife, located in Boulder, Col., works closely with women in Uganda, enrolling them in a two-year training program that teaches them business skills that will help them be more sustainable once they graduate from the program.
PooPoo Paper, another of Lillies' favorites, is a group out of Sri Lanka that makes paper items from elephant dung. Apparently, elephants were destroying farm land, and so farmers shot the animal to protect their crops. So, a group made an agreement with the farmers: if they didn't kill the elephants, they would collect their poop (which once cleaned is a woody, pulpy material because of their vegetarian diet), make it into sellable paper products and give enough money to the farmers so they would not have to rely on farming to make money.
"And no, it doesn't smell," says Lillie, laughing. "In fact, they're some of our best-selling items in the store."
About a year ago, she opened her second business, Weeds, W62 N588 Washington Ave., which is across the street from her first venture. Lillie says she opened Weeds after basically running out of room at the other shop. Weeds focuses less on Fair Trade items and features more items made in the United States with a focus on Wisconsin-made products.
During the summer, Weeds features a lot of green gardening tools and products along with heirloom seeds and produce, like farm-fresh eggs. All year 'round, they sell a lot of loose teas and bulk herbs and spices. Lillie has a full time employee who is an expert in herbal healing properties.
"The teas have really blossomed into craziness. People just love them," she says. "And we let people sample our spices before they buy them."
Weeds also features all-organic beauty products, many of which are locally made, like soaps from Renaissance Herbs in Belgium, Wis., and lotions and soy candles made by the Kewaunee-based Good Earth company. There's also a decent selection of local art, including hairpieces made entirely from found feathers by Jamie Sue Beaupre.
"I always wanted to have more organic and Fair Trade products around here (in Cedarburg)," says Lillie. "But no one was doing a lot of it."
Lillie is the mother of three children, ages 25, 27 and 29. Her daughter, Katie, travels to Nepal multiple times a year with an organization called Avsar United that sponsors kids so they can go to school.
For $160, a Nepalese child can attend school for a year. Katie personally finds the families that are in the most need and then returns to make sure the children are attending school. People who sponsor the students receive photos and updates through Katie.
When Katie returned from Nepal in October, she was engaged to a Nepalese man. "Well, we would have been surprised, had we not already found out on Facebook," says Lillie.
Prior to opening the shops, Lillie was a controller for a manufacturing company. She says she grew tired of the pressure and the long hours, so she decided to move into retail instead.
"It's ironic because the hours are just as long here, if not longer," she says.
Lillie says the Cedarburg community has been very supportive of her business, and sometimes even surprised that businesses like Weeds and Lillies are in the neighborhood. Some say the businesses seem more like shops that would be on Brady Street in Milwaukee or State Street in Madison.
The high level of tourism in Cedarburg, both in the summer and during the holidays, is enormously helpful to Lillies' businesses.
"This is a 'Norman Rockwell' town. It really takes you back in time. It brings a lot of tourists through," she says. "And the people who live here have been great. They are understanding the importance of what you're buying and who you're supporting."
Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.
Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.