The shop is a little difficult to find and the first time I tried to seek out the entrance, it eluded me but is there, really. In sight of the Maiden Tower and down a narrow flight of steps, Enchanted Cottage is managed by local glass-painter Zemfira Mahmudova but advised by charismatic Neal Williams of the Norwegian Humanitarian Enterprise [NHE]. It stocks a range of authentic, high quality and modestly priced Azerbaijani handicrafts.
I have been shopping at Fair Trade stalls since the 1980’s when I would stock up on Columbian coffee and was delighted when I found out that the enterprise had found its way to Baku.
Fair Trade is a worldwide network of trading agencies founded in the 1940’s that seeks greater equity in international trade by basing its relations between producers and purchasers on transparency and respect. This particular shop is no exception and represents the visible part of an iceberg of relationships that spreads right the way across Azerbaijan.
There you will find colourful handmade Leski socks, unique decorative copperware from Lehic, painted glass from Baku, exceptional thread-covered tea-sets from the Absheron peninsula and much more. Everything is priced, so there is no need to haggle, making shopping a fun and trouble-free experience.
Neal welcomed me into the shop in traditional Azeri style, by offering tea and sweets. His affinity with Azeri customs is not surprising given that the softly spoken American has been living in the region since 1996, when he and his wife Debbie moved to Uzbekistan to teach English. Debbie has a Masters degree in teaching English as a foreign language and Neal a degree in Intercultural Studies from Colombia University.
After a few years in Uzbekistan they set up a pedagogical institute to improve the quality of English teaching funded by University of Southern California and the California State University Northridge. A decade [and three children] later, they moved to Azerbaijan where Neal now works for the NHE, where he manages their Fair Trade project.
As we sipped our tea he explained his philosophy. “Life is about finding out what you like doing and then working out how to make ends-meet to live off of it,” he told me. As someone who has always followed their heart, I couldn’t have agreed more.
Unlike most ex-patriot families, his children [aged thirteen, eleven and nine] attend a local school and are very happy there. Having spent their early years in Uzbekistan, they were proficient Russian and Uzbek speakers when they came to Azerbaijan and have fitted-in well. When I asked him about SATS he responded “when we eventually leave here they will be fluent in Russian, Azeri and English. That will certainly count for something”. It certainly will and his children will also have had the unique experience of growing up fully immersed in another culture.
The first year of the Fair Trade project was used to undertake research. Neal had to find out the range of crafts being undertaken within Azerbaijan and of those, which were capable of producing saleable goods. He asked himself, if old crafts could be revived, what would they look like in a modern world? As we all know, tourism is a developing industry in Azerbaijan and issues to do with quality, customer service and market economics are still in the process of being understood.
He told me that the shop was for all intents and purposes a “business incubator centre” in that he travels the country, seeking out suitable craftspeople to provide stock for the shop. Some of the work is specifically commissioned, like the beautiful embodied cushion covers that his research told would sell well. Other work like hand-thrown pots are displayed on a sale or return basis and a few items like hard-to-find intricate, carved wooden boxes are bought in from a third party.The shop has a relationship with over fifty individual producers who are provided with some training in business skills, advised on product development and marketing.
A new initiative developed in partnership with the American Peace Corps is a grant-aid scheme to help revive local arts and crafts that are in danger of extinction. Craft producers from across the country are invited to apply for support to develop their products for the market. In their application, craftspeople need to say what is unique about their work and why they feel they are deserving of support. The scheme is open to applications now and in October three awards will be made. If you know of anyone you feel could benefit from this scheme, please contact Neal at the following address: firstname.lastname@example.org
Although there are many shops selling arts and crafts in Baku, Enchanted Cottage is unique because you are guaranteed that a good proportion of the final price goes back to the producer. Take for example Simuzer, who produces the amazing embroided tea sets. When he first met her, Neal asked for her price. She gave it but said he should sell her work with a 400% mark-up. She went on to explain that she often had to sell cheaply but the final price paid by shop customers was very expensive. Neal said that this was not how Fair Trade operated and negotiated her price upwards, to one that was fair to both seller and buyer. That being said, you won’t feel you are being overcharged.
At the moment, Enchanted Cottage’s most regular customers are local Azeris, who want to purchase genuine Azerbaijani gifts for friends and relations who live overseas. If that isn’t a good recommendation, I don’t know what is!
Opening Hours: 10.30am – 5.00pm