A once-popular retailer comes back to downtown Lawrence with a pop-up store for the holidays

In this file photo from December 2012, Lawrence resident Kelsey Richardson looks over some of the fair trade items for sale at Ten Thousand Villages, 835 Massachusetts St.

For me, the early signs of the Christmas season are when the CEO of Mastercard stops by the house to check on my health. For the rest of you, it may be when merchants start opening pop-up stores — a relatively new trend of specialty shops that are open only for the Christmas season. Downtown Lawrence has a new pop-up store, though its name is familiar.

The unique, international gift boutique Ten Thousand Villages has opened a temporary store in downtown Lawrence. The retailer has reached a deal with Extra Virgin to locate in part of that store’s space at 937 Massachusetts St. Work is underway, and the Ten Thousand Villages store is expected to open any day.

In case you have forgotten, Extra Virgin is a store that specializes in high-end olive oils and balsamic vinegars. It will continue to have all of its regular offerings, but it has carved out some space in the back of its store for Ten Thousand Villages.

Some of you certainly remember Ten Thousand Villages. It had a store in downtown Lawrence at 835 Massachusetts St. for about four years. It closed at the beginning of this year after it struggled to pay the relatively high operating costs of a Massachusetts Street business. But it is using the pop-up model to keep a foothold in downtown during the busy holiday shopping season.

The store is a unique one because it is a nonprofit organization and it is a certified Fair Trade Retailer. That means it carries only goods that have been produced in a way that allows them to be labeled fair-trade friendly. Those requirements include that the people who produce the products are paid a living wage, work in safe conditions, and that no free or child labor is used in the production process.

As for what the shop actually sells, it is an assortment of items from Third World countries throughout Africa and South America, primarily. This shop plans to focus on items that include jewelry, scarves, baskets, bath and body products, wall art, textiles, sculptures and holiday decor.

The people who run the Ten Thousand Villages store in Overland Park are managing this pop-up location, but many of the Lawrence volunteers who used to staff the previous Lawrence store are expected to be on hand, Nathaniel Briggs, manager of Extra Virgin told me.

In terms of Extra Virgin’s role in all of this, Briggs said it made good sense for his business to partner with Ten Thousand Villages. The two stores shared a lot of customers, perhaps because both shops focused on imported goods.

“We always have people coming in asking what happened to Ten Thousand Villages,” Briggs said.

Extra Virgin also has added a line of fair trade items from Project Lydia, a locally based fair trade company that imports products from Uganda. Having a larger selection of fair trade items during the holidays just seemed to make sense, Briggs said. That is one of several product expansions the store has undertaken. The store also sells candied jalapeños, stuffed olives, holiday jams and some pastas.

It will be interesting to see if pop-up stores become more of a trend in downtown. It also would be interesting to see how that would be received by other merchants. Some may like it because it provides more shopping options in downtown during the busy season, while others may not like the idea of merchants only having a presence during the busiest time of the year, while year-round merchants do the hard work of keeping downtown on the minds of shoppers all year long.

Either way, the deal with Ten Thousand Villages is the latest sign of success for Extra Virgin. It was almost seven years ago that Extra Virgin opened its doors in downtown, and I’m sure some folks wondered whether a store that focused only on olive oils and balsamic vinegars could make a go of it.

But Briggs said business has been good. There are probably several factors. There is the foodie movement, which has created an appreciation for higher-end ingredients. There is the health movement, which comes into play because olive oil has some advantages over other oils. And there is the fact Lawrence has a bit of an international population. Briggs said many people — but especially those from overseas — have come to recognize the standard olive oil sold in grocery stores isn’t anything like the fresh olive oil they experienced in their countries.

“We had several KU students who were from Lebanon come into the store,” Briggs recalled. “They tasted our olive oil, and said ‘this is what it tastes like when we make it ourselves.'”

The store does import its olive oil in a way to ensure both its purity and its freshness. On the freshness front, the store gets olives six months of the year from the northern hemisphere and six months of the year from the southern hemisphere in order to get the freshest olives.