|Timbuktu was born from a love of handicrafts and traveling. Founded by Susan Bellan, the store has been a fixture of downtown Toronto, since it opened in 1979. Originally called FRIDA Craft Store, the business was located on Front St. until 2007 when it moved to its current address at 117 Yonge St. Susan worked in Botswana through CUSO for two years, as a buyer for Botswanacraft, the national handicraft company and as an economist for the department of Town and Regional Planning. Then she met Diego Hidalgo, the founder of FRIDA ( Fund for Research and Investment for the Development of Africa ). Diego was working for the World Bank’s Africa Division and was passing through Botswana, just before he was about to launch his new foundation FRIDA and needed someone who had lived and worked in Africa for FRIDA’s consulting division. FRIDA’s mandate was to help Africa’s 20 poorest and smallest countries, by encouraging labour intensive industries, which would provide work and income for people.
" I accepted the job, but felt that I needed to know a lot more about handicrafts, so I asked Diego if he could wait while I took a personally financed six month sabbatical and traveled from Afghanistan to Indonesia, " says Susan. Starting out in Botswana, Susan went by train to Zambia, Tanzania, and Kenya and then flew to Karachi, Pakistan. Then, using a combination of bus, train, and planes, she went to Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore.
The next two years were spent based in London England working for FRIDA, doing consulting work in Madagascar and Mauritania for the World Bank, in Canada for the Commonwealth Secretariat, in Rwanda for Caritas Belgium, and in Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Mali, and Senegal helping FRIDA with the African buying for the new store it was opening in London’s Covent Garden.
After two years of a roving life, Susan decided to move back to Canada. " I wanted to be rooted again and to do something very hands on. When I worked at Botswanacraft, the people we depended on were our overseas buyers, since it was their purchases that kept Botswanacraft going and provided continuous work and income to our crafts producers. I felt that the most effective way I could help artisans was to open a store of my own and buy their things. " Susan suggested to Diego that they do a joint venture in Toronto and FRIDA Craft Store Toronto was born six months later. FRIDA already had two shops in London, one in Paris, and one in Madrid.
Three years later, Susan bought out FRIDA’s share in the business, when the foundation wound up its affairs in Europe. Over the years, the company has imported hand made things from West Africa, Mexico, Guatemala, Brazil, Peru, El Salvador, Morocco, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Indonesia, Poland, and the United States.
In 2002 the company changed its name to Timbuktu and has concentrated on bringing in goods from India, although it still carries products from Africa, Ecuador, Guatemala, Afghanistan, the Czech Republic, Canada, and the US. These days natural fibre clothing made from cotton, linen, and silk is an important part of the business as is solid hardwood furniture from India. And of course, Timbuktu still has its amazing range of home furnishings, also made of natural fibres, using traditional handicraft techniques such as weaving, block printing, and embroidery.
Timbuktu has always been very involved in community and volunteer work. Susan is one of the co founders of Toronto Dollar, a local currency which generates funds for projects helping the homeless, abused women, and youth at risk. In 2002, Susan started Breaking Bread for Women in Afghanistan, which raises funds for teachers for Afghan girls and women through Pot Luck dinners. The idea is that you invite nine friends to your house for a pot luck dinner. Everyone brings a dish and a cheque for $75, so that $ 750 is raised in an evening, enough to finance one teacher’s salary for a year or more. As of 2009, Breaking Bread has raised more than a million dollars and pot luck dinners have been held in every province. 100 % of the funds are sent to Women for Women in Afghanistan Calgary, which works with women’s organizations in Afghanistan and finds education projects for Breaking Bread and monitors them. See Links for more information.
Timbuktu has had many wonderful staff members over the years and Susan would like to thank everyone who has worked with her. Susan Owens has been the store’s anchor person for day to day operations since 2000. Sue O is legendary for her amazing customer service, wonderful furniture and clothing displays, and inexhaustible stores of energy. Her daughter, Cassandra Stuckless, is equally talented and greatly appreciated as well.
So, come and see the wonders of Timbuktu ----- in Toronto, on Yonge St. It’s a store that’s like a museum, except it’s a living museum of hand crafted products made by today’s generation of artisans carrying on age old traditions.