Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

When I wade into our county’s cutthroat retail arena, I lean toward the non-chain stores, particularly those that aren’t gimmicky or trendy.

So I sipped gourmet Latin American coffee recently amid the woven baskets and hanging colorful fishtail banners on sale at Trade Roots at the Westover Shopping Center.

The eco-friendly café and gift outlet for exotic crafts from the developing world operates according to agreed-upon tenets of fair trade. Posted in the store, the principles enunciated by the Netherlands-based World Fair Trade Organization call for commitment to products that create opportunities for economically disadvantaged producers; transparency and accountability; fair trading practices (i.e., not always maximizing profit and protecting local cultures); payment of a fair price; ensuring no child labor and forced labor; commitment to non-discrimination in hiring, gender equality, freedom of association (unionizing); ensuring good working conditions; providing opportunities for product producers to build their capacity; promoting fair trade globally and respecting the environment.

After seven years in survival mode, Trade Roots is squeaking by, I’m told by founder and proprietor Lisa Ostroff, as we sat at her cozy wooden tables surrounded by novelty clocks, granola packs, spice bags and metal elephant decorative cut-outs.

An alumnae of several nonprofits who once envisioned a career in overseas development, she is a longtime Arlington Public Schools mom. It was in 2012 when she visited a fair-trade store in Warrenton and read Katherine Boo’s “Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity,” which dramatizes “upcycling” efforts of dirt-poor entrepreneurs in India. She figured she could give back by creating a suburban shop that supports farmers and artisans globally but also caters to Arlington’s taste for idealism.

Trade Roots is not a money maker. It is a passion project. “Most small stores aren’t making money, whether it’s those that support fair trade or the bookstore up the street,” she said. “Our rents are high, so it’s not a viable business. But for me it’s about the relationships — the producers help me have a store with great products, and the producers get to work at home and continue their craft in their village.”

To support her staff of just 1-2 employees (she is soon to replace a departed manager) Ostroff has to take out loans from time to time. In January 2018, she expanded to rope in a partner in the same space to run Roots & Vines.
It serves an expanded menu of fairly traded coffees, teas and biscotti, muffins and Brazilian vegan dishes.

Packing the Trade Roots walls and shelves are cookbooks, throw pillows, soaps, jewelry, tagua nuts, greeting cards, “inspirational messages from Ecuador,” silk bags, ceramic mugs and, occasionally, original paintings or photos by Arlingtonians. In the rear is an array of hand-crafted clothing, from flowing skirts and coats to scarves, silk bags, tablecloths and wall hangings.

Ostroff’s mini-community of fair-trade fans also puts on events with guest speakers, documentaries and internationally themed dinners supplied by the local farmers market.

Have President Trump’s trade-war tariffs impacted her commerce? Most of his tariffs affect China, Ostroff said, and “I don’t buy from China.” But she does buy from India, and in May President Trump stripped India of its special tariff status.

Trade Roots, she agrees, could soon feel it.

Plenty of signs last Saturday that Arlington is far from achieving a post-racial society. An interactive workshop on “The History of Racism in Housing in Arlington” drew more than 80 to Wakefield High School for a presentation by the instructional nonprofit Challenging Racism, the Arlington League of Women Voters, the NAACP, the Alliance for Housing Solutions, Virginia Humanities and the Kellogg Foundation.

Del. Patrick Hope that morning drew 100 to the Central Library for a showing of Arlington native Loki Mulholland’s latest documentary “Black, White & Us.” The film explores cultural and psychological issues that arise when white parents adopt African-American children — eye-opening how those families encounter hateful stereotyping in majority-white communities.

An intense discussion followed.