Zee Bee Market: It’s Never Been More Fun to Shop Fair
In 2012, Peruvian-born Julio Zegarra-Ballon launched his fair trade business on a small scale, with just enough inventory to cover an eight-foot table at farmers’ markets and other events in the city. “It was clear from the beginning that there was an appetite for all the products I was selling,” he explains. “People want authentic goods and handcrafted items that are available to them through fair-trade practices.”
Two years later, Zegarra-Ballon opened the first brick-and-mortar location of Zee Bee Market in the South Grand neighborhood. A vibrant community, “it already had an international vibe because of the restaurants in the area, and being that Zee Bee Market offers cultural gifts from around the world, I felt like the neighborhood was a perfect fit,” he says.
Inspired by the overwhelmingly positive response to the opening, and further persuaded by the continuing success of the business, Zegarra-Ballon quit his corporate job within the year and fully committed to growing his social enterprise. The grand opening of Zee Bee Market’s second store was on April 21, 2018.
Location was just as important this time around. After months of research, Zegarra-Ballon chose a storefront in Maplewood, near Schlafly Bottleworks, with its weekly farmers’ market, and the authentic Italian restaurant Acero. “The neighborhood is up and coming,” he says. “It’s not that far west, but it is in the county—for my friends and customers who don’t venture into the city that often—and there’s a great synergy between restaurants, independent retailers, coffeehouses and other establishments.”
Everything at Zee Bee Market has a beautiful story behind it, and each story shares a common denominator: an artisan community that directly benefits from the export and sale of their products. “Unfortunately, in the conventional supply chain, the people behind the machines or out in the fields don’t receive a fair wage, nor do they experience safe working conditions,” says Zegarra-Ballon. The fair-trade movement, on the other hand, enables small and marginalized producers to live and work in dignity.
When Zegarra-Ballon became a member of the Fair Trade Federation, he gained immediate access to FTF suppliers, who work with the small artisan and farming communities. “I’m lucky enough to be able to find suppliers that specialize in the products I’m looking for—from sterling silver jewelry, leather handbags, clothes and ornaments to tea, coffee and chocolate—from my laptop.”
That being said, it is a dream of his to meet the artisans in person and work hand-in-hand to design products that are unique and exclusive to Zee Bee Market. He’s done this twice in the past, albeit digitally. The result was two pieces still found in stores: a wall-mounted coat rack built from reclaimed bike chains, which talented artisans from Northern India shaped into “ST LOUIS,” and a functional yet decorative bowl created from upcycled metal, displaying the state of Missouri encircled by “SAINT LOUIS” and fleur de lis repetitions.
Other gifts you can find at either Zee Bee Market location include hand-painted ceramics from Tunisia, handmade cards from the Philippines, dresses from Ghana, Zooties baby booties made in Kyrgyzstan, felt birdhouses made in Nepal, notebooks fabricated from elephant dung paper by Mr. Ellie Pooh and more. In total, there are ethically produced handicrafts from 32 countries across the globe. One of the shop’s best sellers is the string keychains of different personages, such as Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Hamilton and Rosie the Riveter, which Zegarra-Ballon sources from Thailand.
As for products made right here in St. Louis, Zegarra-Ballon offers Better Life natural cleaning products and jewelry and baby clothes made by local refugee and immigrant women who have partnered with the 501(c)3 nonprofit Forai (Friends Of Refugees And Immigrants).
Whether you’re shopping for someone or something in particular, or you simply drop by Zee Bee Market out of curiosity, it’s unlikely that you’ll leave empty-handed. “Fair trade is one of those feel-good kind of purchases,” Zegarra-Ballon says. “After you fall in love with a product and learn the story behind its creation, you can’t help yourself.”
Images courtesy of Zee Bee Market.