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Votes

Banana Tree

<b>Owners: </b>

Bob and Monique Bergin

<b>Short bio: </b>

Monique has an M.A. in Asian History. She grew up in France and visits frequently. She has worked in PR and has taught French and History. Bob is a former Foreign Service officer and Southeast Asia specialist. He writes on the history of aviation in Southeast Asia and China and is the author of two novels set in Southeast Asia, including "Stone Gods, Wooden Elephants," a tale of high adventure in the world of Asian antiques.

<b>Why did you choose this particular business</b>

We intended Banana Tree to be a business that would let us keep our links with Asia, formed over Bob's career in the Foreign Service. We wanted to import antiques and decorative objects from Thailand and Indonesia, countries we knew well and loved. While living in both countries and traveling in the region, we became enchanted with the rich cultures of Southeast Asia, especially Thailand, our home for 7 years. We learned Thai and took courses in Buddhism, Asian art and architecture. The Asian antiques business was thriving then and our regular visits to Bangkok's many antique shops put us in contact with Thailand's leading dealers and collectors. This refined our taste and taught us much about the antiques business. Monique eventually apprenticed with one of Thailand's major dealers. Twenty years of Banana Tree has been everything we hoped, and more. It has let us stay connected with Asia and expanded our horizons to Vietnam, China and Burma, and more recently into the cultural richness of India.

<b>Why did you choose to work for yourself rather than as an employee for someone else? </b>

Our primary objective was that Banana Tree had to be fun. Working there had to be something we would both enjoy. The idea of making money was about number 10 on our list. Within a very short time, objective number 10 moved up near the top. Running a business is expensive; you canít do anything if you arenít making money. Our various objectives eventually sorted themselves out but the fact is that with Banana Tree we can do it ìour wayî. Itís not likely that any employer would have given us the same opportunity.

<b>What have you learned from being in business? </b>

Asia is mysterious, but not as mysterious as retail. When we started, we looked for patterns: best day of the week, worst day; best sales month, worst sales month; most saleable item, least saleable item. We never found a pattern. We still don't understand why some things don't sell at all until three people come in for it on the same day after it has stood on the floor for a year.

<b>Share an anecdote of a challenging or humorous experience or biggest surprise learned from working your business</b>

Travel would have to be at the top of the list of challenging experiences. Each buying trip represents about a dozen trips to different airports. On the ground, weíve traveled by pedicab, truck, and taxis too numerous to count, over some of the most congested road on earth. We start months in advance to plan a buying trip

<b>What have been the advantages and/or disadvantages of operating a business in Alexandria? </b>

Alexandria may be the perfect place for a business like Banana Tree. The Alexandria shopper is sophisticated and looking for things that are fresh, interesting and unique. When they find a piece at Banana Tree that seems esoteric, they're willing to take a chance with it and usually find that it fits well into their homes and their lives. Alexandria must be almost unique now, in being one of the few places that provides an atmosphere in which a small niche business like Banana Tree can thrive.

<b>Descriptions of services and/or products</b>

On buying trips we go with a shopping list but keep an open mind and an open eye. Our selections range from hand-painted cards from Udaipur, to antique teak armoires, to carved Indonesian architectural panels. We personally choose every item . Our mix of merchandise has evolved over 20 years. Currently popular with our customers is our selection of antique painted furniture from India and British colonial furniture from Burma. We've carried Buddhas from the beginning and have the best selection in the area. We both love Asian folk art. But not everything is esoteric: you'll also find Thai silk pillows and rattan handbags. To celebrate our 20 year anniversary we're holding a sale July 29-Aug 13. Discounts will be 50-20%. This is only our 3rd sale in 20 years so it's pretty special.