Embracing serendipity, and other tips for running a retail business

Shopkeepers' Stories - Caravanserai

Ruth Turner, the vision behind Caravanserai, with her fabulous staff at their shop in Hampden, Baltimore

“One woman, one mid-life divorce, one teenage child, one personal makeover, one day at a time, making it all work on one world wide media web, connecting all the dots.”

Your curiosity can fuel a business

Entering into Caravanserai is like stepping into a global village where your senses will be tantalized by the artistry of nomadic carpets from Kyrgyzstan, boat furniture from Bali, dream statues from Mexico, and block printed cushions from India, amongst just a few of the countries that Ruth travels to during the year to create handmade products with artisans to bring back to Baltimore.
Shopkeepers' Stories - Caravanserai

Balinese dolls

Be open to strange serendipity (it could be opportunity)

Ruth explains that there are two ways to run a retail shop: you can buy things that you see, or create things.

She chooses to create things together with craftsmen residing around the world— and she meets them in all sorts of unexpected ways. For example, when Ruth was lost in Bali one day, she approached a random guy on his bicycle for directions.

For most of us, that would be the end of the story.

However, Ruth found herself engaged in an unexpected conversation about noses and, in the process, learned that Simon was a skilled craftsman. He invited her to check out his art in a nearby village, and they now run a small production unit in Bali where he makes some of her most popular statues.


Shopkeepers' Stories - Caravanserai

Hand-crafted statues

Be knowledgeable (and confidently express this knowledge)

It takes a savvy mind to visualize a product, and then find the right people to create this product for you, especially in a foreign country. How does Ruth do it?

She explains: “I do intense research on textiles. If I see anything in the world that I want, I know that I can pretty much make it. But you have to be pretty knowledgeable about things. I spend a lot of time reading.”

After reading about it, how does she start production? “When you go somewhere for the first time, you have to sweet talk your way in… because you don’t know what you’re doing until you get a good feel for it.”

You also need to establish trust in your business and to protect yourself from anyone taking advantage of you. “I make a point of…. the first time I meet somebody in a new area or meet with a new provider, I’ll tell them everybody I’ve worked with, so they get the idea: she knows everyone in town.”


Shopkeepers' Stories - Caravanserai

Skulls for Day of the Dead

Be fair to people who work for you

Ruth expresses a warm affection for the people she works with, and throws in a word of caution about fair trade products. “People always talk about fair trade, but it’s a misnomer. These organizations are based in the USA and the salaries are paid over here. Fair trade should be about working directly with the people who make things, and paying them.”

Find out what people love (and make it even better)

This means that for 6 months out of the year, Ruth is out-of-town meeting her local producers in Morocco, Thailand, Indonesia, Belize, Spain, India, and other far-flung corners of the world.

Her journey is driven by a creative instinct. She recalls a skirt that she loved when she was 16 years old. Like any savvy entrepreneur, she researched the town where it was produced in India, as well as the process – teakwood block printing – and embarked on a trip to find the producers.

She liked the style so much that she even prints the design on other material such as chiffon. You have to know the rules to break the rules.


Shopkeepers' Stories - Caravanserai

Block-printed textiles from India

Embrace new environments 

Sometimes, the travelling experiences can feel disconcerting. Ruth recalls her first 15 minutes in India: “We arrived at 2.00am, it’s just me and my 10 year old son, there are two huge cows humping each other on the street, it’s pitch black, and this cow has diarrhoea all over outside the car.”

Ruth was out of her element, but persisted. “It was a major culture shock. The car was surrounded by animals and people with fire in oil drums, and I’m just like wow… no street lights, a dirt road… mother of god, where are we?!”

“Then we went to a hotel where the windows was ripped out, the water from the sink pipe was spilling on the floor, mosquitoes were everywhere, and I thought I was going to get malaria. It was my first trip to Delhi and I was so terrified, I was scared to death that my son would get a horrible disease. It took three Very Long Days to get over it.”


Shopkeepers' Stories - Caravanserai

Cushions from India

You are never too old to start a business

There was no way forward but forward, and Ruth enjoys a positive experience with her producers in India.

“My greatest challenge was starting my life over at 50 with zero capital and with a teenager determined to go to an Ivy League. Faced with an unexpected lifestyle change, my son and I were united in our perseverance. The economic crisis meant that I could not find a job, so we flew to India, maxed out all my credit cards and started the business. We both focused all our attention on achieving our goals. Humbly I say, we did it. It was harder then it sounds.”


Shopkeepers' Stories - Caravanserai

Paper mache folk art

Language is not a barrier to communication

How does Ruth converse with her international community of producers in different languages? She laughs and shows me her phone that has a stream of text messages from various countries. “The communication is simple, and if not– “I use Google translate!”

However, language is hardly an impediment to her entrepreneurial and people-loving spirit. Ruth speaks Spanish, but for all other linguistic tongues, she finds it effortless to connect with locals who help her translate.

“Sometimes I think I’m like a global bee, cross-pollinating ideas.”

Create a remarkable retail experience for your customers

The shop “Caravanserai” is a wondrous little place to get lost in– a travelling experience on its own, with a wonderful crew of people, and no visa is required. Step right in! It’s located in Baltimore, but you can still get the pleasure of exploring their shop through Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter!

And, of course, explore more tales and insights from small business owners on Shopkeeper Stories! We’re on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter! Happy New Year!

Shopkeeper Stories is a photographic documentary of small business owners and their trades around the world, sharing insights, stories and views. You can see all the posts on Facebook and Instagram @ShopkeeperStories


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