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Sacramento Oracle

Bringing The World To Sacramento

Feb 07, 2024 03:41PM ● By Kristina Rogers, photos by Kristina Rogers

Artisan creatures from Mexico.


SACRAMENTO, CA (MPG) - Stepping into Zanzibar, you are welcomed by meditating Buddhas, fierce dragons, and an array of tribal curiosities. The first thing to consider is which part of the world you visit first? Morocco?  Kenya? Mexico? Tibet? At last count, the store offers items from around 125 countries.

The name fits. “Zanzibar is an island off the coast of Tanzania in East Africa,” explains Josh Varner. “The infamous Silk Road was the method of transportation, but Zanzibar was the destination. Whatever needed: spices, lumber, dried fish. For centuries, the world stopped there.”

Josh Varner and Scott Farrell have been business partners for 25 years. They lost the lease to their Midtown shop in January 2020 and toured 87 buildings to find their “Goldilocks location” at 1315 Broadway. The space is 4,000 square feet and floor-to-ceiling international delights.

Josh Varner Scott Farrell Zanzibar

From left: owners Josh Varner and Scott Farrell.


When I asked about the most unusual item they’ve sold, Scott replied, “The most interesting was a lion’s hairball, which was three centuries old. The Masai of East Africa use it as a talisman for good fortune.” He grinned, “These are extremely rare, but lions are just big cats when it comes down to it.” (And to think we are throwing our cats’ hairballs away!)

Josh pointed to a decorative wooden longhouse door from Papa New Guinea. “In this tribe, the men stay in a giant hut on stilts with this door as the only entrance. The tribes' precious treasures and loot are stored there. When invaders stick their heads in the large hole, they got whacked and dragged inside.”

Typically, most shoppers are just searching for a unique gift, and that’s an easy sell. Prices vary from pocket change to investment. Scott and Josh are connected to over 2,000 artisans across the globe whom they visit regularly.

Scott explained: “If you point to anything in the store, we can tell you who made it and show photos and video of their process.” They work with individual artisans, small family workshops, cooperatives, and women’s groups.  Quality and fair trade is a top priority. “Others come to these artists wanting things cheaper; we want things better,” explained Varner.  "If they spend twice as much time making the product, we’ll pay more.”  Some of their artists are world-famous, with pieces in the Louvre and Smithsonian.

The owners are also sticklers about no child labor, but support youngsters learning a trade, which is different.  Varner said, “One of my most prized possessions is a piece of Mexican folk art by a 4-year-old. Her parents are master artists. It was the first thing she made, and now she's in her early twenties and a famous artist in her own right.”

Life-long friendships are formed by helping, too. They support programs that teach tribes how to dig wells and get micro-loans for new businesses. During the pandemic, they continued to trade with over 250 families in Mexico and over 300 jewelers from India when other income sources dried up.

I've been a fan of Zanzibar for some time. Where else can you try out various Tibetan singing bowls? Or enjoy an array of creatures in eye-catching hues by the Indigenous Zapotec Indians of Oaxaca, Mexico? The store carries incense and stone bracelets to every size of fanciful Day of the Dead skeletons. A large off-site storage unit allows the owners to frequently freshen up the shop with something new.

wooden longhouse door Papua New Guinea

Wooden longhouse door from Papa New Guinea.


Right now, their biggest challenge is competition from online shopping. Josh explained, “We noticed sales dropped in the Summer of 2022. We’ve lost about 40% to 80% in the last 18 months. This is sad because people don’t know where their merchandise comes from. Sure, it's cheaper, but that means it comes at a cost to someone.”

Shoppers need not worry about humanely sourced global treasures when they visit Zanzibar.

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