Kristen Evans knew importing handicrafts from Bolivia would be difficult, but she never foresaw this.
She was taking a group of Bolivians, many of whom had never left their tiny, rural village, on a trip to Santa Cruz, a major Bolivian city, and she was concerned that they would be frightened by the metropolitan hustle and bustle.
But the real problems came when they got to the hotel.
On the way to their fourth floor rooms, the Bolivians began clutching their thighs in pain. Evans asked them what the problem was and they replied that they had never walked up a flight of stairs before.
MOST TRADITIONAL BUSINESSES don’t face these kinds of problems. But this is certainly not a traditional business.
"I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Bolivia," Evans said. "When I finished up my service, I was amazed by the handicrafts that people were doing in the villages. It was like nothing I’d ever seen."
In early 2005, Evans convinced her mother, Kathryn Krubsack, that selling imported Bolivian crafts was the way to go and they embarked on Salvatierra Imports, the business they run out of Krubsack’s Arlington home.
Salvatierra, named after the town in which Evans volunteered, works directly with rural Bolivian artists and imports their hammocks, blankets, decorative mirrors and much more to sell at local crafts shows and on the Internet.
Evans frequently travels to Bolivia and personally deals with the artists whose work she brings back while Krubsack mostly stays in Arlington and deals with the financial and logistical aspects of the business.
"I got involved because I was here [in the U.S.]," Krubsack said. "[My husband and I] had visited Kristen twice in Bolivia and we totally fell in love with the country. Kristen started talking about Salvatierra and… she had this idea. I had a little business experience and I love Bolivia… so I said ‘Sure. I’ll help out.’ Well, we ended up being actual, legal partners."
The mother-daughter duo started the business in early 2005 and by August of that year Evans had brought back her first shipment of goods. Since then it has been a daily challenge for Evans and Krubsack to keep a steady stream of goods flowing into their home.
They are deeply involved with the artists they work with on more than just a professional level.
"I’m on the phone all the time," Evans said, "And it’s everything: ‘So and so’s husband got beaten up. So and so’s motorcycle got stolen; so how are we going to get bread?’"
But while dealing with the artists can be complicated, the real challenge is transporting their wares.
"The hardest part is getting the items from the villages to the main city," Evans said. "At times I’ve had to carry hammocks on my bicycle [for] 20 miles and then cross a river on a canoe and then take a bus to the main city."
ONCE THE GOODS ARE IN THE CITY, getting them into the U.S. is yet another challenge.
Importing goods from any country always contains some degree of complexity. George Washington University business professor George Solomon said that there can be "a variety of pitfalls" for a small business that imports goods.
"[There are] letters of agreement, how one pays, who pays shipping, whether there’re currency issues… There may be restrictions and tariffs and simple financial requirements to bring goods into another country [and] you also might have to deal with immigration issues."
Fortunately for Salvatierra, Bolivia currently has a free trade agreement with the U.S., which means that Bolivian goods can be imported almost duty-free.
But this agreement is contingent on Bolivia’s eradication of its coca plants, which are used to make cocaine. When Bolivian president Evo Morales took office in early 2006 he immediately loosened restrictions on the cultivation of coca.
Morales, a former coca farmer himself, also publicly allied himself with Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez.
Evans and Krubsack said that this has made it even more difficult to get their goods into the country unmolested.
When they opened up a shipment recently, they were horrified to find that, during inspection, a customs official had drilled several holes all the way through a painstakingly crafted decorative mirror.
"Customs here has been drilling holes in these things and looking for drugs," Evans said. "They completely ruined it."
"Who would do something like that?" Krubsack added.
Solomon said that, for an import business, intense government inspection is far from extraordinary. "It’s not atypical that a small business is getting scrutinized," he said. "As far as the government is concerned their attitude is that they’re going to do what it takes [to combat drug trafficking]."
But Evans said that this kind of customs scrutiny is a recent phenomenon. "It was very smooth up until Morales came in," she said. She also added that, "It has been much better than I expected. That’s the bright side of it."
THE FREE TRADE AGREEMENT is set to expire at the end of June. If it is not renewed by Congress, and news reports have indicated that it will not be, Evans said that any goods coming into the country from Bolivia will have a 25 to 30 percent tariff tacked on.
"That will make it very difficult," she said. "The costs for importing handicrafts are very high."
Until then, Salvatierra is expanding their business. They are trying to get into wholesaling and have already found several stores, such as Gossypia in Alexandria and The Phoenix in Georgetown as well as others in Delaware, New Mexico and Louisiana, that are interested in carrying their products.
Salvatierra has also partnered up with Laura Graves, local maker of all-natural chocolate snacks called Cacao Nibbles, and are selling her products as well. Graves uses quinoa, a high-protein whole grain native to Bolivia, in her snacks and this intrigued Evans and Krubsack.
"They tried my product somewhere… and they gave me a call," Graves said. "[They’re] very tied into [the Bolivian] community. It’s a nice fit for both of us."
While their business becomes more and more difficult to run, Evans and Krubsack remain unceasingly optimistic. Evans is very familiar with Bolivia and both of them have enough prior business experience to know how to weather most any storms.
Solomon said that, ultimately, this is how a small import business must operate to remain profitable.
"The cost of doing business overseas is knowledge," he said. "The more you know the less likely it is that you’re going to have surprises and your life will be a lot easier."