Bringing fair-trade products to area residents is Zee Bee Market owner Julio Zegarra-Ballon’s passion. After a promotion brought him to St. Louis, he learned about Partners for Just Trade, a Fair Trade Federation member local organization that was working exclusively with Peruvian artists. Although Zegarra-Ballon had been working in corporate America for two decades, after discovering Partners for Just Trade, he found himself increasingly “falling out of love” with the ways of the two large-scale corporations he had been working for.
Born in Peru himself, Zegarra-Ballon felt an immediate connection with the group and expressed interest in supporting its mission by volunteering. It was then that he was introduced to the fair-trade movement. “Fair trade” is an institutional arrangement designed to help producers in developing countries achieve better trading conditions. Members of the fair-trade movement advocate the payment of fair wages and provide safe working conditions to the producers, as well as improved social and environmental standards.
“I had been working for two large corporations that did little to ensure the producers received a fair wage for their work,” Zegarra-Ballon says. “I worked hard to make money for a limited few and to create value for shareholders, but producers along the supply chain did not share in that prosperity and often were exploited.”
While continuing his day job, Zegarra-Ballon began to assist Partners for Just Trade on weekends, often helping sell products at events. As he was selling, he found himself telling the products’ stories to prospective customers, explaining not only the beauty behind the products themselves but also the artisans who handcrafted them.
“One day, I came home and told my wife, ‘This is what I want to do,’” Zegarra-Ballon says.
His wife supported his vision, and Zegarra-Ballon set off to get his MBA at the University of Missouri-St. Louis to learn how he could venture out on his own. During this time, Zegarra-Ballon decided to take $1,000 out of savings and used it to purchase unique, handmade and fair-trade gift-type products – half from Partners for Just Trade and half from another fair-trade organization, Global Crafts. He set up a table at a local event in June 2012, and by the end of the day, he had sold nearly half of the products.
“I was elated when I got home,” he says. “I decided to reinvest the money in ordering more products.”
For the next two years, Zegarra-Ballon continued to sell fair-trade products on nights and weekends – all while finishing his MBA and maintaining his day job. Increasingly, though, customers were asking him where his shop was.
“The results spoke for themselves,” Zegarra-Ballon says. “The challenge was there, but I could feel in my heart that it would be a good thing.”
After he put a business plan together and found the perfect space, his Zee Bee Market opened on South Grand in November 2014. Less than a year later, Zegarra-Ballon quit his full-time job and dedicated all his time and effort to telling the stories behind the eclectic variety of goods he carries.
Although the South Grand community embraced Zee Bee Market and Zegarra-Ballon’s efforts, he regularly had customers note that they wished for a location farther west. In early 2017, Zegarra-Ballon saw the possibilities of the storefront located on Manchester Road between The Benevolent King and Kakao, and after much work, he opened the doors to the second Zee Bee Market in April 2018.
The space is filled with charming, colorful pieces from artisans all over the world, and Zegarra-Ballon has a story to tell for each piece.
“Everything you see here is handcrafted by artisans around the world,” he says. “We’re currently sourcing from 33 different countries. I find myself welcoming customers, and as they pick something up and begin to compliment it, I say, ‘Oh, by the way, here’s the story behind it.’ It’s a celebration of the beautiful work of human hands.”
He cites parts of the world like India and Cambodia, where certain villages have become known as meccas of leather-making, block printing for fabrications and recycling materials to be turned into accessories. But these artisans are facing the challenge of a modern society that’s focused on automated production.
“Their livelihoods are potentially at risk,” Zegarra-Ballon says. “Fair trade is targeting specifically communities that are borderline losing this incredible art form and encouraging them to stay in their villages.”
Zee Bee Market’s products are wide-spanning, from pillows made from recycled saris to wallets made from inner tubes to exquisite ceramic pieces to wall hooks made from bicycle chains. There is a large selection of organic and fair-trade-certified coffee, chocolate, tea and other treats. The shop also carries a variety of clothing and dresses, along with bags and satchels – all benefiting the people who meticulously handcrafted them.
Over the course of the past year, Zegarra-Ballon’s been getting the word out about his new space, regularly partnering with local nonprofits to donate 15 percent of sales to those groups’ missions.
“I’m so delighted to be able to give the customer in the U.S. a new opportunity to open their wallet and choose to purchase something that has a positive impact,” Zegarra-Ballon says. “We spend money all the time by the trillions of dollars in this country, but it’s a tiny percent that is actually sourced ethically. We have an opportunity as consumers to be able to support the livelihoods of people around the world by the products we purchase.”
Zee Bee Market, 3211 S. Grand Blvd., St. Louis, 314-932-1000; 7270 Manchester Road, Maplewood, 314-402-0940; zeebeemarket.com