Travelling the world and going shopping were two of Susan Bellan's favorite activities. But when she graduated from McGill University in 1974 with an economics major, she had no idea she'd eventually make those things part of her
But she did -- and today Bellan can be found in her craft shop on Front Street. Timbuktu (www.timbuktucraft.com
) is creatively cluttered with delicate beaded boxes, knitted sweaters, colorful exotic fabrics and chunky furniture carved out of beautiful dark wood.
Susan Bellan, owner of craft shop Timbuktu, spent five years travelling across Africa (see below, left) buying local crafts.
Part of Bellan's job is to go on buying trips to India to choose the most exciting new crafts and furniture she thinks will appeal to Toronto shoppers. But for much of the year, Bellan will watch the shop, help customers, move furniture or do accounts.
Bellan thrives on the variety and enjoys being busy. "It's great to have a job that suits my temperament. It's both mentally and physically challenging, but there is a lot of risk-taking involved and I could do without the stress sometimes."
But it's been a real adventure to get to this point in her life. Bellan first started travelling when she was just 13. Her father was on a sabbatical in England, so he moved the whole family there and took them on trips around Europe whenever possible.
After completing her BA at McGill in 1974, the Canadian University Service Overseas helped Bellan find a job in Botswana as an economist for the country's Town and Regional Planning Department.
Her job involved some travel, so to help out a few of her friends who were artisans, she brought along samples of their pottery or clothing to show to the buyers for gift shops at the local game parks. As a result, she helped her friends sell a lot of their work.
Soon, Botswana Craft heard about the young Canadian and the national handicraft marketing company, which was on the verge of bankruptcy, and hired her to help them market their products. But with so little experience, Bellan had to learn on the job.
During her first buying trip in the southwest Kalahari Desert, near what is now Namibia, she encountered some amazing crafts. There the bushmen made and sold wild animal skin blankets, fur hats, decorative mats and ostrich eggshell jewelry.
"I was such a novice," Bellan laughs. "I brought 500 Rand with me (worth about 750 dollars at the time). A local village council member gathered about 100 people who had things to sell, but he told me I had to buy everything so no one's feelings would be hurt."
In 1977, Bellan was hired as a consultant for a new charity in London called Frida, which sold crafts to raise money for the 10 poorest and smallest countries in Africa. Bellan travelled across Asia for six months to do her
"By 1979 I realized that if I didn't go back to Canada soon, I never would," says Bellan. So she returned to Toronto and set up her shop, at first sharing ownership with the charity Frida and then, when the charity closed down, buying them out.
There have been a lot of hassles over the years ranging from bank problems in the 90s to a threatened lawsuit over the shop's name six months ago (that's why she changed it from Frida to Timbuktu).
"At times the financial responsibility of my job can be overwhelming, but the freedom and ability to be creative are a tremendous compensation."
(Susan Poizner (firstname.lastname@example.org)
is a Toronto-based freelance writer.)
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