Fern Solomon has worked the gift-products front lines for the past 30 years. She’s seen firsthand how items once manufactured in the United States are now overwhelmingly made in China. And she’s seen the consequences for workers here. “Before the availability of Chinese-made product, we were a company employing over 50 people. We had 8,000 square feet and now work out of a 2,000 square foot studio.” The company currently employs approximately 12 people. At one point, as offshored manufacturing grew, Solomon’s own vendors (wholesale clients who buy for retail purposes) packed up her company’s products, brought them to China, and “knocked us off in their factories. A double-edged sword, taking away our business and flooding the market with cheap copies of our work.”
Some business owners would’ve thrown in the towel long ago. Not Fern Solomon. Hers is an all American story of family, inventiveness, success, bumps in the road, and renewed success. Solomon has been passionate about business since she was a kid. And she’s equally enthusiastic about the products made by her talented musician brother, Jacob Sokoloff. “I have always had the entrepreneurial spirit and have had various businesses since the age of 12. Always looking for my ‘ticket’,” Solomon wrote in her email. “In 1984 Jacob was selling his flutes and chimes at the Orange County Swap Meet. Someone asked him if he sold wholesale. He didn’t really understand, but he asked me and I got very excited! We built the company into international company, selling chimes to every state in the nation and distributing our chimes to the world. Miyake and Associates has been importing our chimes to Japan for over 15 years.”
Solomon calls her brother “our magical, musical man” who plays “unusual instruments from around the world.” Prior to 1984, when Sokoloff was making flutes and harps, his father (a lover of classical music) asked him to “please make a chime for your Mom that sounds good.” Jacob’s mother had a souvenir collection of chimes–made of shells, ceramic, etc–that made a “terrible clanging racket” and drove their Dad nuts. “Jacob took some steel tubing that was laying in the garage and figured out how to tune it. The Waterfall Chime was born.”
Twelve years ago when Solomon hit that China-induced bump in the business road, she took a step back, assessed the situation and remerged with a renewed sense of purpose. “I opened up Fern’s Garden. It is an honor to support other American Artisans. It has been a wonderful journey. Along the way, I started to carry Fair Trade product. Currently our mix is 90% Made in USA and 9% fair Trade (of which I am also passionate), with 1% in a few things like books that I just can’t find here. My job as a buyer is not an easy one. You’ll find us at most major Gift Shows searching out Made in USA products.”
“I know firsthand, on a daily basis, how many folks just LOVE to shop and buy U.S. made product. I had one woman come into the store recently. She had been to 13 stores trying to find something for her daughter to take to her ‘host’ family in France that was made in the U.S. She walked in, asked me if I had anything made in the U.S. and when I put my hands up and told her almost everything was U.S. made, she started to cry.”
Solomon is a member of C.R.A.F.T. (Craft Retailers and Artists For Tomorrow), a national organization that sheds light on “all the incredible talent here in the USA.” She also supports and is a jury member of http://www.wholesalecrafts.com/, a site that is 100% US and Canadian artists.
“There is also the wonderful Buyers Market of American Craft in Philadelphia. Founder Wendy Rosen has been working tirelessly to support American Artisans for years! She and a congressman are planning to protest on April 3rd at the Smithsonian to focus light on this issue, with their gift shop and Americana being made in China.”
Amen to that. If I lived in D.C., I’d make a sign and show up for the protest. A few years ago Don, Michelle, Stephanie and I traveled to Washington, D.C. We made the usual rounds: White House, Capital building, Library of Congress, Lincoln Memorial, the Smithsonian. Along the way, filled with pride for our great nation, we bought souvenirs. Fast forward to my current project. A few weeks into it, I checked the tag sewn into the souvenir baseball cap I bought at The White House Gift Shop. Manufactured by “Port Authority” (egregious misuse of a governmental name), the navy blue cap has an American flag and THE WHITE HOUSE (in big white letters) embroidered on it. The tag sewn inside says: “Made in Bangladesh.” Next up: Port Authority-manufactured navy blue sweatshirt. It, too, is embroidered with THE WHITE HOUSE, in grey. Just below those words, our country’s Great Seal. Tag says: “Made in Myanmar (Burma).”
Good grief. Our patriotic souvenirs were Made in Bangladesh and Myanmar? To research this post, I Googled the words “atrocities in.” Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Burma popped up. Can you get any further from the intended meaning behind America’s revered symbols? Sigh. To confirm where the souvenir caps are made nowadays, I looked online, chose a few nearly identical products to the ones I’d bought years ago, and called The White House Gift Shop. The clerk put down the phone and went off to check for me. “They’re made in Vietnam, ma’am.” Of course. How silly of me. Why would I think they’d be made here?
When our daughter Carolyn spent a semester in Italy, she returned home with t-shirts for the family. She’d bought them from a street vendor. All of the tags say “Made in Italy.” Italy protects its products. Why can’t we?
By the way, I found a beautiful chime on fernsgarden.com. I know Dad would’ve loved it. I’ll hang it in our magnolia tree in the backyard. On breezy days, I’ll think of Dad. Thanks, Jacob Sokoloff and Fern Solomon, for your hard work and commitment to Made in the USA.