The Haiti Woodwork Story
A true story about my venture into importing Haitian woodwork
Written in 2010 and rewritten 05/13/2016 unedited
In late 1970, I returned to Haiti, nothing had changed, it was still the same impoverished country that I had been introduced to in 1964 by my old friend Lou Gladstein. My friend Lou had asked me to come to Haiti to help him disassemble and sell the Haitian railroad which he had bought from the Haitian government.
However once I was there in the country, I met a lot of people and consequently I became involved in quite a few different ventures and business deals. Some of them were quite interesting, like the story I am about to tell you about Haitian woodcarving.
To start with, if you ever travel in the Caribbean or the West Indies, as a tourist, everywhere you go, you will see dark mahogany looking wood carvings usually with an African look about them. Some of them will even have some island name carved in them. Well you can be sure they weren’t made there, they all probably came from Haiti, regardless of what name they have carved on them.
Carving small wooden objects is a home grown industry in Haiti, and there are many stores there that specialize in wholesaling carved wooden items. Some of the items they sell are very nice and really professional looking, with a nice wood grain, mahogany coloring and nice neat carving, but some of the wood carvings are pretty crude. It’s because some carvings are done on small production lines under supervision, and others are done by kids sitting on the floor of their house.
Whenever I was walking around down town Port Au Prince, I always went into the larger woodcarving stores to browse and chit chat with the owners. Sometimes I would buy gifts for friends in the States, but trying to find a suitable hand carved wood item in Haiti wasn’t easy, as most of the wood carvings they sold, no one would ever want in their home, unless of course you lived in Africa.
However there was one item they all sold that looked professionally done, it was a contemporary looking salad bowl set. They usually came as a fourteen inch, or fifteen inch diameter mixing bowl with six smaller individual salad bowls and a larger wooden spoon and fork for mixing the salad. Sometimes the wholesalers had a few larger size mixing bowls, but they were usually hard to come by, I was told it was because finding large diameter trees in Haiti was hard to do.
One day, while in Miami, I mentioned to my partner Don about how many cute little wood carved items were available in Haiti, and how they could be bought for very little money. I had brought a few items back with me to show him. I did it because I wanted to hear his opinion, and if he thought we could make any business selling the stuff in Miami.
Well, Don, who was my partner in our automotive business in Miami, usually was pretty negative about any of my different business ventures, but this time I saw a glimmer of hope, He had once worked for the Winn Dixie chain of food stores in Florida and he still had some friends working there.
So Don thought he could possibly talk to them about carrying a line of Haitian wood carved items in the Winn Dixie stores. So he took the samples to them and believe it or not they said yes. They said we could put some wood carvings in a few of their stores, and if they sold, they would pay us for what was sold.
Now back in Haiti, I had a cab driver named Toni Richmond, I had met Toni in 1964 and we had become good friends. I used Toni to do various projects for me in Haiti when I wasn’t there, and Toni always liked doing different things for me because it made him look like a businessman amongst his peers in Haiti. So when I told Toni I would be interested in buying a load of Haitian wood carvings he was very excited. I knew he was excited because he knew that whatever price I negotiated with the store owners, he would be able to squeeze them for an additional commission for himself.
So when I next returned to Haiti, Toni was waiting for me, and we went shopping in the woodcarving stores. Toni even introduced me to several stores that I had not seen before, and I now learned that different stores specialized in different styles of wood carving, some had mostly African looking carvings, like statues of natives beating tom toms, and I found that they came in all sizes. I found other stores had carvings related to voodoo only with wood carved masks, and there were other stores that had other things like candy dishes and ashtrays that were carved to look like tropical leaves.
I found that some stores only specialized in wood dishes and bowls, and many of the stores had some of the big salad bowl sets, the kind that I liked. Unfortunately none of the stores had many of the large salad bowl sets that I wanted, those salad bowls seemed to be in short supply in Haiti.
After talking to several stores, it soon became obvious to us that there must be only one guy in all of Port Au Prince Haiti, that was carving the salad bowl sets, and my driver Toni said he thought he knew who the guy was. Toni said that he knew quite a bit about wood carving in Haiti. He said that the wood supply in Port Au Prince had long been depleted and the natives were now carving out of any wood they could get their hands on, and if the color of the wood didn't look so good they just stained it dark brown to make it look like Mahogany, and in some cases they even used dye and brown shoe polish. Then Toni warned me that a lot of the wood carvings had Caribbean boring beetles in them, they were like a termite only much worse. To hide boring beetle holes, the natives filled the holes with the brown shoe polish. That way they wouldn’t be seen by a tourist buying the carving and hopefully the beetles would eventually die.
The next day Toni suggested that we take a trip to see the guy that he thought was making all the salad bowl sets. So we drove to the outskirts of town, and Toni eventually stopped by a small hut, where there were all kinds of logs piled crazily all over the place. As we walked between the logs towards the small native house, I saw an older Haitian man, he was bent over, hand carving a wood bowl on a rusty antique lathe. The machine he was using was so old and antiquated, I could only imagine it came out of a junk yard somewhere. It had a turn of the century aged old motor on it and there was an electric cord coming out of his hut. The cable looked like it had been patched over a hundred times. The elderly fellow looked up at us and smiled, I think he only had two teeth left in his mouth. But here he was carving a salad bowl on the old lathe and he was doing it free hand, there were no measuring devices or any modern tools around. From what I could see, this guy was absolutely hand making the salad bowl sets one piece at a time. He shut the machine off and Toni spoke with him. I could see that this primitive operation could possibly make only one salad bowl set a day, so I had Toni ask him, how many bowl sets he made every day, and he said the wood carver told him he made one a day if there was electricity. I quickly mentally calculated that he was probably earning less than two dollars a day, and that didn’t include the cost of electricity and the cost of the wood. He was just making enough money to survive and he was the only one making the salad bowl sets in Haiti.
After watching him, I determined that if I bought all the salad bowls from every store in Port Au Prince, it would take them months or possibly years for the stores to replace them. I could be the king of all the Haitian salad bowl sets. So the next day we returned to the wood carving stores in down town Port Au Prince, and I bought every salad bowl set they had, for eight dollars a set, and then I bought a big selection of ashtrays and candy dishes, as well as a load of assorted typical Haitian African style carved statues ranging all the way from six inches tall to two feet tall.
Toni said he would personally make sure the shopkeepers got everything packed up and it was all sent to the Air Port to ship to Miami. I had spent $385.00 that day, which in 1970, probably made me the biggest buyer of wood carvings in all of Port Au Prince, and then I returned to Miami to await the shipment.
About a week later I received a call from Air Haiti that my shipment was in and I went to the airport to get it.
At the Air Haiti warehouse I found a huge bundle that was wrapped in sisal burlap, it was tied together with every sort of mismatched piece of string and sisal rope imaginable. It looked like a shipment that had come from darkest Africa. The bundle was so big that the Air Haiti people helped me unpacked it right behind their office and I filled my car up to its roof with the stuff, it required me to make two trips. Everyone in the cargo area of Air Haiti came over to look at the load of strange wood carvings. They were all shaking their heads negatively, I started to wonder myself, if I had done the right thing bringing all this crap into Miami.
At our warehouse, we had already set up metal shelving in anticipation, so we made tall individual stacks of all the similar items.
A couple of days went by, and I noticed a pile of sawdust under a stack of carved wooden ashtrays, and as suspected, it was the Caribbean boring beetles that Toni had told me about, they had bored their way through the entire pile of ashtrays in just two evenings. Not only were the beetles in the ashtrays, but they were in the carved statues as well. I became very concerned as I had brought two large statues home with me and I saw that they had boring beetles in them also.
I called the local Truly Nolan exterminator and they told me to bring it all in and they would gas it overnight, I did what they said and it cost me another $150.00.
A week later the boring beetles were at it again. Truly Nolan said the gas didn’t kill them so I was ready to throw everything into the dump before the beetles ate up my house and my warehouse. It was then that a Haitian friend said I should freeze everything by putting it in the refrigerator so I did and it worked. Then we filled the beetle holes with shoe polish just like they did in Haiti.
My partner Don had put quite a few pieces of woodcarvings in the Winn Dixie stores, so every Friday Don and I would get in his car and make the rounds of several Miami stores to see what was sold. I have to admit, the stuff was selling. In one store alone they sold $12.00 in carvings, making us a $6.00 profit, and in another store they had sold another $8.00 worth. After three weeks of wasting our entire Friday going from store to store we just gave up. Don said we were not even earning $1.00 an hour, so we left all the inventory in the stores for free and we never went back.
As I was sitting in my office contemplating on different ways of how to dispose of all the Haitian
Wood carvings, when a customer came in and saw the salad bowls. He said they were beautiful and his wife would like one so I gave it to him.
About a week later he called me up and said that he was the head pilot for the Kroger Stores which was one of the big food and drug chain stores in America. He said he had used the salad bowl I gave him to serve peanuts to the Kroger buyers who he was flying around the country. They asked him where he got it, and he told them that it came from his friend in Miami who was importing them from Haiti. They told him to call me and get permission to have their purchasing people contact me. He did, and I told him sure, have the purchasing department call me.
About a week went by and I received a call from a young lady who said she was in purchasing at Kroger Stores, and she had a sample of one of our wooden bowls in front of her. Yes I said the bowl was part of a larger salad bowl set that we had imported from Haiti, and I described the set to her. She said, how much does the salad bowl set cost? I had calculated each salad bowl set cost us about $8.00 ea. landed in Miami so I told her I could sell them to Kroger for $10.00 per set. Good she said, I would like to place an order for 8000 sets to be delivered to Kroger by September, which was in time for their Christmas special. It was July, so she wanted delivery in two months.
I told her that in Haiti the old man with only two teeth couldn’t produce 8000 bowl sets if he worked the rest of his life on it, also there isn’t enough wood on the entire island of Haiti to make 8000 salad bowl sets. I told her even if I hired the entire population of Haiti they couldn’t produce 8000 salad bowl sets. I knew she didn’t understand what I was talking about, but I declined to take the order.
Lucky day for me, that very morning a fellow came in and said he worked at all the flea markets, so I sold him all the Haitian wood carvings for one hundred dollars, and he took all the stuff boring beetles and all. So that’s the story, that’s how I got in and out of the Haitian woodwork business forever.