What: The small and colorful United Nations Association gift shop has been located in the same exact spot since it opened in 1974, in Silicon Valley in the San Francisco Bay Area. It sells everything from artisanal jewelry and baskets to plenty of other low-tech, mostly handmade goods in between, symbolically representing the world. The 1,000-square-foot boutique is located at 552 Emerson Street, just off the main drag in Palo Alto, amid mom-and-pop stores and brand-name retailers catering to this booming high-tech and academic area, where Stanford University is nearby and Google headquarters is one town over.
The shop’s story: It is run by the UNA Mid-Peninsula Chapter, one of 200 nationwide entities that make up the mother organization, UNA-USA. Based in New York City, UNA-USA has been promoting the work of the UN since its inception. The shop is open every day and run by volunteers, managed primarily by Caroline Pease, an 82-year-old UNA-USA member originally from England. She has been volunteering there for more than 30 years.
Most of the volunteers are older women, although Pease says that a few men have helped out in the past. For a UNA-USA chapter to have a shop is rare, but there are two others in California, Pease said, in Berkeley, Santa Cruz and San Diego.
“One time, we had 12 nationalities working in the shop, so we were truly a United Nations; they were mostly the wives of visiting post-docs from Stanford University, who wanted to improve their English and didn’t have a working visa, so they could not work in the country,” Pease said in a phone interview this month.
Each volunteer works a three-hour shift, at least once a week. On Saturdays, some high-school students who work as part of community service pitch in.
What sells the most: Most items sold in the shop are fair-trade goods made by artisans in the developing world. The best-selling item is jewelry; it comes from several countries, including earrings and necklaces from Colombia, abalone earrings from Mexico and Tuareg sterling-silver pieces from Niger. The boutique also sells baskets from Ghana, Senegal, Uganda and South Africa; baskets made in the rain forest come from the Darien Gap in Panama. The shop also offers clothes, other handcrafted gifts and children’s books.
“This time of the year, we do quite well, between $1,000 and $2,000 per day,” Pease said, compared with the rest of year, when the shop makes much less a day.
A few of the volunteers decide on what to buy for the shop. “Some vendors come to the shop, but the majority of the merchandise is ordered online from fair-trade vendors,” Pease said.
During the holiday season, people also like to stop by to stock up on Unicef cards. Pease said that when Unicef started partnering with Hallmark, in 2006, to sell Unicef cards, the nature of the store changed.
“The Unicef/Hallmark partnership was a big blow to the gift shop because most of the locals who have known us for ages think of us as the Unicef shop. In the old days, when we got the Unicef products, we could order a lot of stuff on consignment and if it didn’t sell we just paid the shipping to send it back. But now since Hallmark took over, we can only get the cards from Hallmark and we have to pay for them,” Pease said.
The money made by the shop mostly pays for its rent and utilities and a donation to Unicef USA. Last year, the shop donated about $7,000 to that organization. “In the old days, we were sending $40,000 to $60,000 from the shop, because we could carry all the Unicef products on consignment and we did not have to buy it from Hallmark,” Pease said.
Expenses: The shop pays $4,250 a month for rent; Pease said, adding that “this might be below the market, this is Silicon Valley.”
The shop is leased by UNA Mid-Peninsula from the owner of Peninsula Creamery, a restaurant next door that opened in 1929 and is famous locally for its milkshakes.
Pease said that she was convinced that the shop is able to survive in wealthy Palo Alto because it is run by volunteers. “We are a unique shop in the area, there’s nothing anywhere around here that is anything like us.” One drawback to its location is the dearth of parking spaces, so it “affects the number of people we get,” she added.
Who shops there: “There are a lot of locals who just love our shop, so they’re always coming in to see if we have new merchandise. We get quite a lot of tourists in the summer, Stanford students and certainly their parents when they are visiting. There is also a new hotel, a business hotel, people come from there because they want to take a gift home.”
What shoppers say about the UN: “Most people who come in are looking for a gift,” Pease said. “We occasionally get customers who walk in and who don’t care about the UN.” Pease said that they are more interested in shopping to support Unicef than complaining about national politics. Most of the customers, however, are “vocal Democrats more than happy to share their views on who can beat Trump!”
Dulcie Leimbach contributed reporting from Palo Alto, Calif.
This article was updated.
N’Dongo Athie is a reporter who covers the United Nations for the Asahi Shimbun and is a correspondent for Radio France International. She has a master’s degree in journalism from the Free University of Brussels and a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of Lorraine, France. Athie is fluent in English, French, Fula and learning Arabic. @NdongoA1