Watertown’s Agape Shoppe Gives Back Locally,Globally

General Manager Meg Graczyk at the Agape Shoppe, located in downtown Watertown. 

BY: Nicole Caldwell
Planted firmly between Black Friday and Cyber Monday this year is Small Business Saturday, a day when holiday gift-givers are encouraged to shop at small and local businesses.

    Statistics show that per square foot, local businesses generate 70 percent more local economic activity than big-box retail outfits while providing living wages to artisans, manufacturers and sellers—and of course, one-of-a-kind items to buyers.

    At the Agape Shoppe on Court Street in Watertown, a staff of volunteers and board members have determined new ways to support local communities here and abroad. A shop on the first floor offers unique, handmade gifts from artisans around the world, sales of which minimize global conflicts. Income generated by these products support education efforts in underserved communities, female entrepreneurs and help resolve violence and famine.

    Meanwhile, Agape Shoppe’s thrift store on the second level offers low-cost, gently used housewares and clothing while helping to outfit job seekers in need of resources, provide on-the-job training to local outreach organizations, and raise funds to further serve Watertown and the surrounding area.

The Agape Shoppe is not your average store

    The Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) is a relief, service, and peace agency founded in 1920 that today represents 15 Mennonite, Brethren in Christ, and Amish bodies throughout North America.

    Since MCC’s inception, the group has reached out to offer service not only to its own communities, but to people in need all over the world; from refugees to those suffering from famine or disease, underrepresented peoples, and by providing outreach to support global fair-trade initiatives.

    Part of that effort is the MCC Thrift Shop Network, a project begun more than four decades ago that comprises around 100 shops selling gently used clothing and housewares at reasonable prices — as well as providing a market for third world artisans by selling fairly traded items. The income generated at these shops directly supports the programs of the MCC, including local and international outreach efforts, from helping mothers buy back their daughters’ dowries to outfitting job seekers with outfits for interviews and first days. The Thrift Shop Network is largely staffed by volunteers.

    A board of seven Mennonite churches serving the north country region runs the Agape Shoppe in Watertown. The board and shop volunteers work within a Christian framework and mission to provide service, support and community improvements throughout Watertown and its surrounding region, as well as to artisans the world over.

A business model that insists on fair trade

    Out of its first floor, the Agape Shoppe sells handmade wares from around the world. Thousands of items adorn a small space, including a stunning jewelry section made by artisans all over the world, items made by Indian and Bangladeshi women out of scraps of their old saris (sales of which go toward buying back their daughters’ dowries), ceramics from Vietnam, a Christian book collection, giant array of scarves, tableware, wooden puzzles and soapstone carvings.

    “We purchase from companies that have fair-trade relationships with their artisans,” said Meg Graczyk, Agape Shoppe manager, referring to companies such as 10,000 Villages, SERVV, and Equal Exchange, all of which insist upon paying workers living wages, promoting sustainable farming and improving trade condition.

    “SERVV helps with refugees a great deal,” Graczyk said, “and 10,000 Villages has established a whole network to work with artisans. What they do is send people over who will help artisans develop a product using their ancient skills to create things that would be sellable in the United States and Canada. Once they’ve developed a product, 10,000 Villages will send them half the agreed upon price. They have formulas to figure out what a fair, living wage would be for this person. Once they’ve determined how much they should receive, they give them half of the money up front. Once the items have been completed and given to 10,000 Villages, the company sends artisans the remainder of the money. In this way, all workers are all paid up front.

    “They also provide low-cost loans and help with factory rebuilds or equipment replacement if there is an act of God like an earthquake.”

    Equal Exchange supplies the Agape Shoppe with edible products, such as fair-trade coffee and organic chocolates.

    Graczyk has been involved with fair-trade organizations for several years, first with a volunteer job at the 10,000 Villages store in Williamsville. “My husband’s job relocated up here and I just happened to come here and shop one day.” She’s been inextricably involved since.

A thrift shop that sells locally donated items while supporting the local economy

    “In the thrift shop, we exist on donations of household items and clothing,” said Cassie Edmondson, Agape Shoppe’s thrift manager. “We sell items to help the people in the community and we have volunteers from groups like the JRC [Jefferson Rehabilitation Center] and ACR Health to help us clean.”

    Edmonson’s grandparents started the Agape Shoppe in Watertown in March of 1979 in the Globe MiniMall. “I’ve been volunteering here since they started,” she said.

    The thrift shop also gives back to the community. “We participate in the ‘job shop,’ a program through the county that gives people vouchers so they can get work clothes for the jobs and job interviews,” Edmonson said. The thrift shop also offers bag sales throughout the year to make way for new inventory: $3 for grocery bags, $6 for large bags.

There are lots of ways to show your support

    The Agape Shoppe has multiple ways for the community to get involved.

    The thrift shop is always looking for donations of like-new and barely used housewares and clothes.

    Each August, check in with the Agape Shop for their school kits wish list. These bags are packaged and sent to children of refugees in places like Jordan, Afghanistan, and Kenya.

    The Agape Shoppe has also partnered with Staples in Watertown. If you bring your used ink cartridges to Staples and give the store Agape Shoppe’s phone number (315 788-7470), the shop will earn reward points toward free office supplies. The same is true anytime you shop at Staples. Just mention the Agape Shoppe, and points will be added to its account.

    Of course, the most obvious way to show your support for the work the Agape Shoppe is with your wallet. This year, when people are lining up outside of chain box stores at 4:30 a.m. in frenzy over a mass-produced flat screen TV, consider stores like the Agape Shoppe instead.

    When in doubt, remind yourself of the meaning of the word, “agape.” The ancient, Greco-Christian term refers to the highest form of love: charity.