This new era has brought tremendous change, much of it unfathomable only five months back. Back then, I joyfully boarded a plane from Philly to Denpasar, completely unaware that our world would implode as a novel virus slammed its way into our lexicon and reality. Being home in my beloved Bali, with my local friends and family buffering me from the outside world, I daily went about my work, heading out into the villages to buy handcrafts from the cadre of artisans I have worked with for more than 20 years. Within a week, the global news penetrated my Balinese bubble, and I slowly realized that I needed to get out of Dodge if I wanted to get home to my family. (Otherwise, I could be stranded in Paradise for who knew how long: not the worst fate!) My fear and reluctance about leaving Bali was directly connected to an impending sense of loss, the awareness that I had not purchased near enough handcrafts to hold my annual upcoming show…and who would I be if I couldn’t have my holiday sale?
Despite my resistance, my US family and local friends persevered and convinced me to flee. I queued in line at the airline office for six hours to get one of the very last seats, on one of the last flights out of Bali. After shortening my stay and flying home safely as the world shuttered itself, I tried my best to let go of the fear of the unknown, and instead enjoy the solitude demanded by the early weeks of COVID, sequestered inside my nest. Yet, my heart splintered as it ached most for my long-loved craftspeople, the ones I did not get around to buying from on my truncated trip, who look forward to and depend on my annual visit each year. By then, it was becoming clear that, for the foreseeable future, there would be no international tourists, travelers or businesses visiting Indonesia, all but eliminating the craft people’s livelihood.
One daunting fact I had to address was that I had indeed amassed a small collection, about half of what I usually buy, of treasures that were going to need to be shipped to me eventually when trade routes resumed. I wondered if I could add to my shipment by reaching out to more of my long-term established artisans by shopping virtually. Nervously, I picked up my phone and sent text messages to dozens of these artists – halfway around the world. “Are you OK? Is your family safe? Do you have goods to sell? Can I still buy from you over the phone?” The reaction was immediate and overwhelming. For much of April, I found myself glued to my phone, sending and receiving WhatsApp messages loaded with pictures of handcrafted delights, filling out my shipment, regardless of not knowing how we would sell them in the unknown future. Because of the 12-hour time difference, as I slept each night the artisans were responding to my messages, and each morning I woke up early to over 100 text messages with photos. I lay in bed, sipping my coffee and literally hand picking on my phone screen which of the carved buddhas, batik sarongs, and glorious kites I wanted, and deciding how many, which colors, what sizes.
By force, I had to embrace technology and learn to shop from afar, something I had never imagined doing. I was able and happy to do it, though, because I have these long-cultivated relationships. A huge motivator for me was knowing that my small infusion of investment would make a big difference to the 20 families I bought from, and this drove home my primary mission: to support Indonesian artists. My heart was so energized by this, seeing on my little screen the faces of my friends back in Indonesia, and buzzing with excitement each time I picked out another item. With each selection I viscerally understood the attraction: was this the rush that other on-line shoppers felt when they added items to their carts? If so, could I translate this same magic to my customers?
A lightning bolt struck! This epiphany was enhanced by the acute awareness that limited public gatherings probably wouldn’t allow us to hold our annual show. This pushed me to make the jump, and jump I did, with my whole being and brand.
I had to figure out how to translate the magic created in our physical space – from our mission, outreach and special events – to a virtual From Bali to Bala? I was building on a 24-year-old brand, with the possibility of a new online marketplace as an extension of my annual holiday sale, on temporary hiatus until I can again greet you in person, with open arms in a physical storefront. My new online model, From Bali to US, emerges from the isolated COVID culture to acknowledge our connections, of Us being one, together, global, and fluid. The benefits of this new world reveal themselves more and more, and the possibilities are endless.
This learning curve has been huge, but with so much time on my hands it felt great to have a project to fill my days and engage my brain. I surrounded myself with others who supported this new vision and brought all the technological skills I lacked to the table. Yes, it is taking a village to launch this online business, but the hardest part was understanding the basic nuts and bolts. Full disclosure: I am an e-commerce total amateur. I wished for, and manifested, Kim Raznov, a wonderful web designer & developer who is local. Most important, she has been coming to our show over the years, and therefore understands that we are more than just selling handcrafts. Her toolbox is essential. The simple act of digitizing a huge collection was daunting, yikes. My dear brother, Adam Cohn, is a professional photographer and has shot tons of tabletop items over the years, so who better to hire to photograph our large collection of goodies? My son, Daniel Cohn, a newly minted UConn grad, a millennial and master of all things data and computer, is my digital wizard and technology interpreter. And my wordsmith husband, Bill, who helps with everything, has the huge heart and strong arms that has supported this idea from the very beginning. With the team in place, all we needed were the goods to sell, and we eagerly awaited their arrival.
Much to my delight, in all the “over the phone WhatsApp texting & buying” that I did back in April, I amassed a collection larger than anything I had ever bought before in all my years of buying handcrafts: oh my, how my shopping cart filled up so fast! The trade routes opened again, and a cargo ship ferried the shipment from southeast Asia to Los Angeles to Philadelphia after a much-delayed journey. Two tons of goods, 48 boxes framed in eight large wooden crates, seven cubic meters in total, filling a 20-foot rental truck, were unloaded by my crew of strong men — Bill, Adam, and Daniel — just last week.
The basement studio is now brimming with glorious treasures we can’t wait to unveil. Our commitment to share with you the spirit, handcrafts, and culture of my beloved second home, while continuing to support the artisans we have worked with almost 25 years, propels us onward. Now the hard work begins cleaning, repairing, pricing, inventorying, photographing, and writing descriptions for more than 1,000 handcrafts will take lots of time and grit, but by show time – early November – and with great enthusiasm, we will reveal our From Bali to Us site. For our regular loyal customers, we hope you will feel the familiar warmth from us. Also, you can help to share the love of the show by making it accessible to your friends and family who perhaps have never been able to come in person. Oh, the challenge and the beauty of reaching a wider audience nationwide with more goods to sell, more artists to support, more bridges being built. It’s a little scary, but mostly exciting, and thank you so much for joining me on this journey.