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Musings About Family, Travel And Gardening With Allen Martinson.


Whistle While We Work

MANY DAYS WHEN Mimi and I get home from work we are dirty, tired and excited. We are excited about the day we just had or we are excited about the day coming next. The cause of all this excitement could have come from having received a truckload of great looking plants from California we know customers will love. We may have unloaded pallets of beautiful pottery from Vietnam that have become a signature of our business. A fun day is when tropical house plants from South America show up which fill our nooks and crannies with unusual plants. We have had several opportunities to buy goods from women’s cooperatives in South America. Someone had the bright idea to create jobs for women in developing countries where it’s not uncommon for women to receive the short end of the stick. These cooperatives allow women to be less dependent on being someone’s wife just so they could have a roof over their head and a meal. When women in developing countries make their own money and get some education about handling money it gives them a lot of power. Then the children usually begin receiving an education which causes the cycle of life to be more in their favor. Receiving a shipment from a cooperative is pretty exciting, knowing that each box is full of unique, handmade garden related items that are actually changing lives somewhere. Some days the excitement may come very unexpectedly from a cold, rainy day. On those days we have the flexibility to leave a skeleton crew up front to help the few customers who shop on cold, rainy days, while the rest of the crew heads back to the covered and heated greenhouses to help with the never ending planting process. That’s a job you can easily see your progress from the day’s work. The atmosphere is different at the growing operation. Music is always playing, and we talk and joke around with no interruptions. There will usually be some racing to see who can plant the fastest. We start at one end of the greenhouse and plant in rows until we reach the other end. Race planting is probably left over from when Mimi and I worked at the greenhouses for 15 years with the unspoken race to the finish line every day. Let me tell you we haven’t met the person yet that can plant faster than Mimi, not even close.

EVERY DAY BRINGS something new and exciting to our lives which is great, but the funnest part about it is setting up the displays and watching customers’ reactions to our work. Mimi buys the ingredients for our crew of extremely talented people who enjoy working their magic with what she finds. Small businesses work very hard, but we whistle while we work. I think it’s because we have the freedom to do it however we choose, as opposed to a corporate business, where they are literally sent a map layout of where every item is to go. Privately owned small businesses can buy any products they want and enjoy the freedom to display with creativity and imagination. To me that’s what makes visiting small businesses so much more gratifying than a chain store. At a family owned business you are likely to see quirky things (like, maybe, a cat named Carlos hanging around the store like he owns the place...) You may see signs that are obviously inside jokes of a fun loving group of people who enjoy their jobs such as displays set up to make you laugh or to inspire. We can and do buy anything we want to help create the atmosphere at Garden Works, which can change from season to season. That’s what makes it fun to visit a place that is constantly changing. I think about all the phases we’ve evolved’s been a very interesting ride. For those of you who have shopped with us over the last 25 years, you probably remember Mimi‘s Urban Home featuring an eclectic mix of furniture and art from all over the world. Urban Home was a paradoxical mix of modern furniture and home decor paired with old pieces built from architectural salvage in Egypt and India. The store was created inside of our garden center. I used to joke that we were in the business of selling begonias and leather couches; advertising that is a real challenge.

OUR FREEDOM TO BUY and sell whatever we want and our love of travel has led us on some great trips that were a combination of lots of fun and lots of buying. Mimi and I went to Nepal to trek in the Himalaya. We hiked the Annapurna Circuit, which is a 150 mile loop around one of the tallest mountains on earth. When we finished the trek we had a few days left in Kathmandu to see what we could get for the store. We found a cooperative that made carpets of all sizes and colors that blew us away. We spent a whole day convincing them that if they would send us the carpets, we would send them the money when the carpets arrived. We were in a dimly lit basement with thousands of carpets and some very excited people about to sell hundreds of their carpets. We sipped tea and negotiated for hours while Mimi picked out 100 of the best carpets. We were shocked when we saw a yellow DHL van pull up to our home weeks later with the carpets. We paid them and developed a relationship that lead to more buys from them. We did the same thing in Morocco, when we went back to revisit some of the places I fell in love with in the Sahara. We bought carpets in Marrakesh, again in a very hot, dimly lit basement with lots of tea and lots of haggling back-and-forth. I have stories to tell from both of those trips on another musing article.

OUR LATEST VENTURE is one we are proud of. Last Saturday, in the middle of a very busy day, a yellow DHL van pulled up. Inside the van were baskets from the African country of Ghana. Apparently, there is a pretty big community of Ghanaians in Mississippi. We’ve been meeting some of them when they come to shop with us. One customer has been coming in frequently enough that we developed a relationship. One day she told me about a women’s cooperative that made baskets in Ghana . Knowing this would be right up Mimi‘s alley, I whisked her into the store to meet Mimi. They talked for quite a while, and I knew we were about to be in the basket business. We have bought African baskets before and we love the look but they never really fit our size pots. This women’s cooperative allowed Mimi to custom design the baskets by creating the specs for each one. Mimi drew up four or five sizes. She picked the color schemes and chose the thickness of the basket. The lady emailed the order to the women and 12 weeks later, 100 baskets showed up. They would have been here a little faster, but there was a terrible flood from an unexpected early season monsoon that prevented the baskets from being delivered to port from the village. The women sent us a video of the flood where water buffalo caught in the currents were swept downstream. I’ve gone on enough about what excites us every day. I will revisit those trips in more detail in my next musings. While it was fun traveling around solo for all those years it doesn’t compare with the trips that Mimi and I took together. It’s a lot more fun to share the sights and sounds and hilarious events that come along on visits to the developing world with your favorite person.

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