As a little girl in a small Minnesota farm town, Janah Campbell learned to sew by making clothes for her Barbie. In looking back, she has absolutely no idea why the first piece of clothing she made for her doll was a Japanese kimono.
“It’s strange. Why did I do that?” said Campbell. “Where would I have even seen a kimono at that point in my life? I certainly didn’t have a pattern.”
Today, she wonders — with a laugh — if she weren’t “channeling Asian art.”
She may not be far off as Campbell has since traveled extensively throughout Asia for the past 17 years and owned the Spirithouse Import Gallery in Nevada City for the past 16.
Back in the recesses of her Broad Street store is a rich array of colors and textures, primarily from Southeast Asia and mostly handmade. Each shelf and corner is likely to reveal something not commonly found in import stores.
“Some people come in and say, ‘I’ve been to Thailand and I didn’t see these items there,’” said Campbell.
“I always tell them, ‘Good!’”
Now planning her 35th trip to Thailand this fall, Campbell is known for going off the beaten path to find the best quality, the most visually rich and the most talented artists and merchants.
She says she only buys things she personally likes. Sometimes that involves driving for three hours to an old woman’s remote textile shop or climbing to the top of a four-story shack with see-through wire mesh floors.
“I try not to buy antiques because I believe old things should stay in their country of origin,” she said. “But much of what I buy is made the same way.”
On her first trip to Southeast Asia in 1998, Campbell’s eyes were opened to a new world.
“Everything around me was new and fascinating. The people, the food, the climate, the bustle of cities, the quiet beauty of the countryside and of course, the art all seemed strangely familiar,” she said. “I wanted to pack it all up and bring it home to share.”
What began with a suitcase filled with goods eventually grew into a full-fledged import business, said Campbell, and along the way she has found great satisfaction in the relationships she’s cultivated with Asian suppliers, their towns and their families. There are some merchants she has known for 17 years, and she is able to keep her prices reasonable because she is a direct importer — no middle man.
“I try to be fair trade as much as I possibly can,” she said. “Many of these handmade items are becoming a lost art. Most of the young people in Asia want to wear a suit and work with computers. I’m compelled to encourage people to make things. In some small way, in my store, I know I’m not just selling something that doesn’t matter. I encourage my suppliers to use their traditional skills to recreate classic design and to stretch out into contemporary areas.”
Inventory varies, based on the treasures Campbell has discovered on her most recent buying trip. Popular items include cotton clothing for women, Thai pillows, meditation cushions, sculpture, vintage fabric, prints, cards, hats, parasols and carved wooden panels.
“Everything has been touched by someone — and is made with pride, history and continuity,” said Campbell.
“But not everything is recognizable. Sometimes one of my employees will call me on my day off to ask me what something is.”
Campbell said she enjoys it when customers want to know more about the things for sale, as everything has a story.
“I meet the most wonderful people in my store, and I love it when they’re curious,” she said.
“I am so lucky to make a living doing something I love. It would be too hard if I didn’t love it.”
There is a certain wonder when you fall in love with something beautiful, Campbell added. It will never die. The artists may be gone, but their art remains.
Employee Wendy Huntington echoed Campbell’s sentiments.
“It’s a special place to work,” she said.
“Every morning when I walk in I appreciate the fact that I’m surrounded by beautiful things.”
To contact staff writer Cory Fisher, email her at Cory@theunion.com or call 530-477-4203.