The seed was planted for Latitudes when Lee attended a language school in Guatemala. While there she took a backstrap weaving class taught by a group of indigenous Mayan women who had formed a weaving cooperative in the highland area of northwestern Guatemala. She was inspired by their worker-run/worker-owned artisan group that trained hundreds of women to produce, market and sell their work in their small storefront and abroad.
In a region where three quarters of the indigenous population live in grinding poverty and the childhood malnutrition rate is one of the highest in the world, these women had found one of the very few means available to them to generate an income. By working together they could earn living wages, stay home with their children, preserve and pass along the ancient art of backstrap weaving and realize increased levels of dignity and respect from their families.
On her way home from Guatemala Lee realized that extending a marketing platform for their products in Warrenton was the perfect way for her to work alongside them. Since she was already working with a missionary friend by selling beautiful Ugandan paper beads, adding another ethically-produced ‘product line’ made sense. To top it off, Lee is an avid art quilter and crafter herself so marketing quality handmade goods for marginalized artisans felt to her like the ‘perfect storm’ of interest, industry, and vocation. It turned out to be the calling and passion she had been praying about for the next chapter of her life.
After some research she learned that this concept was called ‘fair trade’ and was a growing way of doing business in which the needs and dignity of everyone along the supply chain are honored and respected. For about a year she purchased goods from the Guatemalan co-op and other ethically produced products and sold them at local craft shows. Finally, in December 2010 the dream of owning a brick and mortar store became a reality with an experimental pop-up shop for the holiday season that turned into a permanent store. The community support propelled it to grow and then move to its present, larger location in 2018.
Lee’s husband, Terry, had been an integral part of the business: setting up the store, going on trips to visit artisan groups, and working behind the counter when his schedule allowed. When the opportunity for an ‘early out’ from his corporate job of 30 years presented itself they both knew that extending the fair trade market platform even farther was the next step in their adventure.
In 2014 they replicated what they had created in Warrenton and opened a second Latitudes Fair Trade store in downtown Fredericksburg, about an hour away. It also thrived, and in 2017 moved into a larger location a few doors down. It was fun working in the same business, making many friends together in the fair trade community, both in the US and on trips overseas to learn artisan stories firsthand.
In 2021 they made the difficult, yet joyful decision to hand their business over to some dear friends, Chris and Lori Working, who purchased the Fredericksburg store and own it as an independent Latitudes. Chris, as Terry had been, was delighted to make a transition in his career and begin the impactful and heartfelt work of the retail fair trade world. Chris and Lori look forward to traveling and meeting with the artisans and their families, building relationships with customers, and playing a part in the fair trade model of providing opportunities for others.
Latitudes was not finished growing with the Fredericksburg store, though. Lee and Terry’s daughter, Anna, worked behind the scenes doing administrative tasks when Latitudes was first born. And although she always loved the business her parents had built it was hard for her to be very involved as she lived several hours away in Staunton, VA. After a high-stress, long-hours corporate job, Anna decided the time was right to realize her dream of opening a Latitudes in Staunton. In September 2015 the doors were first opened at 16 East Beverley Street. After two successful years, the retail space next door became available and Anna expanded the Staunton store by knocking out a wall and taking over the adjoining building. The new space expanded the capacity for selling fair trade goods, especially clothing.
Over the years Lee, Terry and Anna (as well as some of Lee and Terry’s other children) have traveled around the world together, experiencing first-hand the impact of fair trade and meeting the makers of their products. This work is all-encompassing but so rewarding. Fair trade is an important player on the global landscape and through Latitudes and many similar stores, hopefully one day it will be the only way goods are produced and sold. Latitudes continues to thrive in all three locations thanks to the hard work and dedication of our talented artisan partners and amazing customer and community support.
- Lee and Terry Owsley