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.”