On this glorious fall day, after a morning of various personal and work errands, I decided to eat my lunch on the deck, looking out at the trees in my wooded backyard. Said lunch was a sliced Bosc pear and an almond butter/blackberry jam sandwich on toasted sprouted wheat bread from my favorite La Calavera Bakery, blessedly located between my house and Mingei’s current home on New Street. A great treat. To collect my crumbs and wipe the inevitable smears away, I grabbed one of the towels hanging from cabinet handles in my kitchen. Thus began a reverie on the small, delightful items we interact with everyday, the seemingly insignificant, functional things that can bring us pleasure and delight. None of these kitchen towels came through our business Mingei World Arts, as so many of the things in my home do, but each is handmade and carries memories of when I bought it. One is a small, coarsely woven brown flax towel from Finland, vintage but still unused, starched and creased when I found it at a charity sale in Minneapolis. One is a naturally-dyed citron and drab cotton towel acquired on a trip to Pleasant Hill, an old Shaker village in my home state of Kentucky. On the far right is a golden hand-spun linen towel with stripes from India, where Mingei has shopped many times. This piece, however, was picked up on impulse in Blue Ridge, GA as I browsed the little shops there with friends. Such is “mingei”, the word coined by the Japanese philosopher Soetsu, to describe a simple, useful item that can bring joy. As I drove home from my errands before my deck lunch, I listened to radio news about the Ebola outbreak, about economic uncertainty in Europe, about political vitriol here at home. Then, I plucked a dishtowel from its handle, and went outside to watch the leaves flutter in the sunlight.– Ann
We have learned that our friend and driver, Sopin Boonkiat, has passed away after a long illness in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Our thoughts are with his wife Tim and their children as well as his sister and mother, all of whom were our neighbors when we stayed in Chiang Mai. Thank you to our friends at the Galare Guest House for letting us know.
In 2010, Ann wrote about Khun Sopin on Mingeity, and we felt it was right to post the link again now. Here is Blessings far from home.
Thank you for all the happy times, all the laughter, and all the hours of story-telling as we drove in the Super Saloon. Rest in peace, dear friend.
I was enjoying the best muesli of my life on my last leisurely morning in Leh. It was heaped in a bowl with fresh mango, bananas, and apples, tossed with a rich, homemade curd, or yogurt. This magical muesli was full of nuts, crunchy flakes, and roughly cut chunks of fresh coconut still edged in little bits of husk. It was one of those chunks that brought tears to my eyes and a resounding crack, which I realized was my tooth and no nut. Damn. A trip to a Delhi dentist flashed before my eyes, and I was soon perusing the US Embassy list of dental professionals and sending emails to several friends who had lived in Delhi to get recommendations. My plans of cruising Chandi Chowk by bicycle rickshaw and hitting some favorite clothes shops seemed foiled.
As the day wore on, it seemed that perhaps my tooth was not cracked as I had feared, but was markedly looser. Even when my double dose of Advil wore off, I was not in pain. Chewing on the opposite side of my mouth and avoiding stout muesli seemed a good option until I arrived home in 10 days. My plans were restored.
Two days later, with a tattered clipping from a flight magazine in my sweaty fist, I was searching for some travel writer’s suggestions for Old Delhi’s best Indian sweets. The holy grail of this search was tiranga sohan halwa from the 200 year old establishment called Ghantewala. It was irresistibly described as a buttery confection chock full of almonds, pistachios, cashews, almonds, and cardamom. Surely, I could chew those nuts on the left side of my mouth… This was not to be missed.
We made our way up and down the chaotic Chandi Chowk, jostling other shoppers, being jostled by push carts, cows, dogs, pilgrims, motorbikes, rickshaws, and workers carrying impossible loads on their heads. We popped into several sweet shops and tried their specialties, but Ghantewala was not to be found. When we asked one plump lover of burfi at one stall where Ghantewala was, she shook her head, not understanding until we showed her the clipping. “Ahh!,” she exclaimed. “GHHAntewala!”, hitting the first consonant as if clearing her throat. She waved up the street in the direction we had just come. “GHHAntewala!”. We headed back through the mass of activity we had just passed through. Alas, no tiranga sohan halwa to be found.
Time for a change of plan, and there was the hive of activity that is the Gurdwara Sis Ganj Sahib, the Sikh temple in Old Delhi . Turbanned guides swept us along with pilgrims cueing to wash their hands and feet before filing upstairs to sit on carpets and pray in an airy, rose-scented marble worship hall above. Refreshed, we made our way to the mezzanine overlooking the ever-changing bustle below. There, seen just across the way on a small side street, was Ghantewala! We could see the sign, though it looked as if this 200-year-old-establishment was closed; a metal door was pulled down over the entrance.
Once back on the ground, we pushed our way over to the sweet shop storefront. In front of the shop, a chai wallah and some other vendors seemed permanently installed, as if the 200 year-old-shop had been closed for at least the last 50 years. The sign was worn, but right there it heralded that this was the home of the elusive tiranga sohan halwa. Perhaps it was only closed this morning? Had it gone out of business after such a long run? I made my way to a saried chai customer, and gestured toward the closed shop. “Ghantewala???” I shrugged.
She nodded, stone-faced, and turned toward the storefront. Her eyes locked with those of a young man. She nodded. He nodded. She waved us toward him and returned to her tea. We made our way through the crowd to where the young man had been standing. He was quickly headed toward a worn, painted green door next to the closed metal gate of the storefront. He pushed the door open and led us up a narrow staircase with deeply worn stone steps, into the darkness. Did Ghantewalah have a second floor office? Did they have stock there? Where the hell were we going?
At the top of the steps, we were in total darkness. Our young guide flipped a large circuit switch on the wall, and then a second, and the space flooded with fluorescent light. There were two large posters on the wall: “Root Canal Project”, with garish pink illustrations of gums and yellowed teeth, and a blinding set of “Dentures”. There, now no longer in darkness, a smiling man in wire-rimmed glasses and a crisp linen kurta sat at the counter, awaiting patients. Apparently, he was waiting for me.
On my morning walk around Lake Avondale today, I found myself thinking about the summer of 1974. That summer, I took my first trip out of the US. I had saved all my birthday and babysitting money for years to travel to Spain with a group of fellow high school students to spend most of the summer living in a dormitory at the University Complutense in Madrid. We had Spanish classes in the mornings, roamed the gritty city in afternoons, and in the evenings discovered sangria and discos with the oh-so-sophisticated Spanish college students that shared the summer campus. In July of that year, Francisco Franco fell ill, and we spent several anxious days on emergency standy-by to leave; our group leaders worried that his death would spark campus riots and nation-wide upheaval. That August, we sat up late one evening to watch President Nixon speak, and resign. We were stunned and then mocked by our Spanish Professor the next morning. “ You are tired today? Americans, so strong!” he said curling his cardiganed arm and pumping his fist.
It was not the much commemorated anniversary of that resignation that sent me into nostalgia today, but rather Holland Cotter’s great piece in the New York Times today in which he “curates” a show of the art and architecture that changed his way of seeing through the years. In “A Lifetime of Looking, Magically Recovered,” he imagines gathering all those discoveries in an exhibit chronologically arranged according to his life, beginning with Vermeer’s The Concert, a painting he discovered at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston while he was a college student, a painting which sadly was stolen in 1990 and is still missing. He takes us on a tour of the African masks, the Haiga Sofia, the installations and sculptures and other finds that shaped him, ending with a description of the Great Mosque at Djenne, Mali seen in changing light through a day and into the night.
So, as I walked around the lake this morning, I began to think of what I would collect in such an exhibition, but perhaps since I have been a gatherer of thrift store items and market finds rather than an art critic for the New York Times, my thoughts turned to the summer of 1974 when I first travelled and purchased my first travel souvenirs. That summer, aside from gifts, I bought a damascene pendant that I believe is scratched but is still in the bottom of my jewelry box, a now spotted white embroidered shawl which I am certain is in a trunk somewhere, a set of six etched wine glasses (three of which survived my college years), and a talavera plate and cup. The cup now holds pens and such on my desk, and the plate is stacked in a cabinet with other plates and platters more recently collected and more recently used. These were very serious purchases, chosen with utmost care and teenagerly consideration of what it meant to own such things, to be judged by these choices. I remember acutely the feeling that I was defining myself by these early purchases, that I loved them, and that I had begun the adult process of making a home by choosing these objects on my own.
Thankfully, I learned to take myself and my purchases much less seriously, but I do recognize that the summer of 1974 set me on a path of travel and shopping that has enriched my life these last 40 years and more than filled my house.
So, dear readers, dear fellow collectors, what were your first adult purchases? Do you still have and use them or have you cast them off and begun again? — Ann
Through the years, we have told many of you what Mingei means. The roots “min” for people and “gei” for art, the same root as geisha, were put together for the first time in the early 20th century by a philosopher named Soetsu, who was concerned by the industrialization of Japan and the subsequent loss of handicraft. What was “mingei” was not intended for the court nor for the temple, but was for everyone to use, everyday. Interaction with the imperfection of the hand-made, Soetsu felt, was essential to the human spirit, as we, too, are imperfect.
Twenty year ago this July, three imperfect women met to talk about starting a business. One had a wealth of knowledge about design, craft, and Asia but was new to Atlanta. The others shared an interest in travel and hand-crafted items, had been in Atlanta for a while, and were mothering toddlers. That September, the newcomer traveled to Indonesia and lugged back a large duffel bag full of treasure: silver jewelry, batik sarongs, ikat jackets, and ceramic soap dishes. In December 1994, Mingei had its first home sale on Sterling Street in the Candler Park neighborhood of Atlanta.
On sale weekends during those early years, we posted a Balinese temple umbrella in the front yard, staked bright temple banners on bamboo along McLendon Avenue, and handed out postcards to folks waiting in lines for tables at the Flying Biscuit. By the time we opened on Friday evening, we might have 20 people waiting on the front porch to get first dibs on Javanese benches, bamboo wind chimes, hand-carved shields from Irian Jaya, and yes, panels from antique circumcision beds from Lombok.
Our first traveler married and moved to Australia. The two remaining women moved our operation to the Floataway Building on Zonolite Road, with an opening on the courtyard across from The Floataway Cafe. We worked Tuesdays–Fridays 9:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., splitting the days to be available for school field trips and other volunteer duties. Our husbands watched the kids when we opened one weekend a month: Friday nights 5:00-10:00 p.m, Saturdays 10:00 a.m.-10:00 p.m., and Sundays 12 noon-6:00 p.m. Our friends at the Floataway Cafe served drinks to customers waiting for tables in our space and brought us cookies and bits of cheese.
We closed three weeks a year to make buying trips, started exploring more places—adding India and China to our maps. We shipped home containers of furniture, which we stacked to the ceiling on Zonolite.
After five years in this out-of-the-way location, we learned about a great space opening up on Church Street in downtown Decatur. Our kids were older, and we felt our business was ready to grow into a full-on, full-time retail endeavor. We opened the doors there on November 1, 2003, wound our way through some ownership changes and an economic downturn, added and subtracted countries on our shopping lists, and spent almost 10 happy years on Church. We closed that shop in September 2013 to reclaim a bit more personal time and to find some flexibility from the 362-day-a-year schedule that retail demands.
So here we are in our fourth incarnation, trying to find our way in new digs on New Street.
Much has changed since this business we call Mingei began in 1994: our mix of merchandise and where it has come from, our location and hours. I believe, however, that the quirky, beautiful, eclectic mix of people and things that are Mingei has remained, and I hope it can continue in some way. The business has changed as our needs, our families, and the world have changed.
Through all these changes, we have been blessed with wonderful friends and terrific helpers, both here and in the far-flung places we have shopped. Amazing things have passed through our hands—perhaps into yours.
When we made this move—a decision we do not regret—we thought that occasional and online sales would cover our reduced expenses. That worked for a while. Now— not so much.
We have been ramping up our presence on social media. We opened an Etsy shop, which has met with some success. We have opened our doors on New Street more often than we originally planned, have set up regularly at the Avondale Estates Farmers Market, and have reserved a booth for the Decatur Book Festival.
All that said and done, we wonder if we are giving you what you want. So we decided to take to the blogosphere and ask you. We aren’t ready for Mingei to be over, yet.
As we find our way forward on our imperfect path, we want to hear from you. What have you loved about Mingei, or not? What do you miss? What can we do for you now?
Summer is a slower time for us. I am headed off to India and Nepal in a few days, traveling with my family. It is not a Mingei buying trip, but I know I will be looking to pick up a few things—I can’t help myself! Ellen will be in touch with you in July, and I will be back in August.
Wherever summer breezes take you, we hope you will have a glorious and restorative time. We look forward to hearing from you. Tell us what you think about Mingei and “mingei.”
A coconut shell bowl, a peacock feather fan, and a white cotton sari. Those are the only possessions of Mataji, a 38-year-old Jain nun featured in the the first story of William Dalrymple’s Nine Lives: A Search of the Sacred in Modern India, a wonderful book I have been enjoying this week as I prepare to travel to India. Each section explores a variety of religious devotion through the story of an individual practitioner: a temple prostitute, a dancer who becomes a deity incarnate, and Mataji among them.
Jainism is a very ancient religion, described by Dalrymple as being similar to, but more demanding than Buddhism. While the Jains I have met are affluent merchants in Rajasthan, those who dedicate themselves to the ascetic path of ordination renounce family and possessions and take to the roads to wander for the rest of their lives. They are to avoid attachment to anyone or any one place. Their hairs are plucked one by one until their heads are bare, they eat only one meal a day which can be offered, but not begged, and the monks travel completely naked.
Mataji, as a woman, is permitted to wear a white cotton sari, no doubt hand-spun and woven khadi cloth. She also carries a bowl for water, which is strained to avoid swallowing small living things, and a fan to clear the path of tiny unsuspecting creatures that might be crushed by her footfall.
If you are to go through life with one set of clothing and two tools, how much richer can that life be if those objects are made of natural materials, marked by the hands that crafted them. Now, there is my bias and sense of attachment showing, but I was struck by the beauty of this aspect of Mataji’s life in a world where the poorest people may now only own a few plastic bowls and an acrylic blanket, a world in which increasingly, machine-made items are replacing hand-made, and the skills and traditions of handcraft are being lost.
In my early 20’s, when I was a devotee of poet and novelist Robert Graves and carried a machine-printed but dog-earred copy of The White Goddess from apartment to apartment, I read somewhere that Graves’ study in Majorca was filled only with hand-made objects, but for a few machine-printed books and the electric light fixtures.
Thinking about Mataji’s life set me to the very un-handmade task of googling for a reference to confirm this memory, which I found in a 1969 interview for The Paris Review. As he spoke with Peter Buckman and William Fifield, Graves hand-rolled his own cigarettes. “Yes: one secret of being able to think is to have as little as possible around you that is not made by hand.”
As we have been going about our shopping and exploring in Mexico City these past few days, we have been carried along by the sounds of this place. At San Angel artisan market, we were met with the playfully instructive demonstrations of the toy violins by Guillermo Figueroa as he chose the best ones for us to buy. And was that a cat screeching in the wriggling black bag the gentleman was holding as we were carefully selecting the Lorenzo paintings? Our horror turned to annoyance when the cat screech turned to a parrot caw; he had a noise maker in his mouth. Those sounds followed us through the day as did the drone of “botaneros, botaneros, botaneros” by strolling women relentlessly hawking decorative wooden cocktail picks. The unheard sound of salsa music entertained as we watched the dance class through the large plate glass window of a second story building while we wiltedly waited for our taxi at the end of the shopping day.
The remaining days in Mexico City have been punctuated by fireworks’ whirrs and pops left over from the bicentennial celebration of the Independencia, and soothed with the sounds of classical guitar at a corner cafe as well as the smooth tenor notes of a strolling singer in an antique gallery. And our nights’ sleep have been jolted by brake squeals, drunken conversation, and bad rock bands from the bar across the street. But we were lulled back to sleep with quiet memories of Jorge Marin’s empty angel wings filled by a mother and child on a boulevard near Chapultepec Park