Tuesday, March 7, 2023

In The Beginning; My Dunitz & Company Story Part#1

I started Dunitz & Company a long time ago. Initially I dreamed of opening a retail store and working with artisans all around the world. After some due diligence, I decided building a wholesale business made more sense for me. That was in 1988 when I was still working at MGM/UA, then located in Culver City, CA. I had a promising career in the entertainment business, but I just wasn’t that happy. I always joke I’d be a lot richer (money-wise) today if I’d stuck to that course. In 1985, I left a position I had at Warner Home Video for a year of travel. I was restless then too. Most of my time was spent in Asia and I’m certain that that is where the initial notion of exploring and offering world crafts came from.

It’s a bit of a blur when I think about the early days of Dunitz & Company. I was young and stupid and did a lot of shooting from the hip. While still working at my corporate gig, I decided to take a vacation to Guatemala. I didn’t know if it was time to actively seek a new “job” or take a leap and start my own business.  Assuming I would throw my hat in the ring and start a business, Guatemala was a country a lot closer to me than any of those I’d visited and really enjoyed in Asia. It meant spending a lot less hours on a plane. The time I could steal away for traveling was limited by my allotted vacation. And I knew I’d find lots of beautifully made crafts in the “Land of Eternal Spring.” I assumed Guatemala would be an easier place to start a business. What I didn’t realize, and later ignored was that Guatemala was in the midst of Civil War and since the early 60’s more than 200,000 people were either killed or forcibly taken never to be heard from again. The peace accords weren’t actually signed until 1996. It was rough times in Guatemala and there weren’t a lot of travelers there. Those of us that were there, traveled by public chicken bus. It would be years before travelers could easily move about Guatemala by tourist vans. In 1988 it was me and my Lonely Planet guidebook being courageous.

Market Day in Antigua
That first trip to Guatemala I was mostly a tourist. I checked out the markets and galleries in Guatemala City. I strolled the cobbled streets of Antigua and was in total awe of the colonial architecture.  And yes, I took one of those chicken buses to Chichicastenango to explore their big Thursday market and to Panajachel so I could visit the towns around Lake Atitlan. Although I was playing tourist, my primary motivation for visiting Guatemala was to explore arts and crafts and see if it was a country that offered potential for business.

(I’ve changed many names, to protect the people I write about.)

It felt a bit scary on that first trip to Guatemala. I didn’t have a clue of where I should go, what I should see and how I should get around.  Initially I booked myself a room in a small worn down hotel in a tough part of town, Zone 1 of Guatemala City. Picture a charming old building with lots of dark stained wood paneling with peeling wallpaper.  I remember it was a block from CafĂ© Leon where I could snag some good coffee and later mail 1lb bags home to friends and family. It was also an easy walk to Bar Europa.

Nancy & Ray, my driver
Bar Europa in Zone 1 was the place ex-pats and tough guys hung out. I had heard if I wanted to make useful connections, I should venture out to this place. I did. It was smoky and there was lots of drinking. I don’t smoke and I’m not much of a drinker. I was definitely out of my element. I did however meet some interesting people. One person I met was Ray Morales, a Texan who had been living in Guatemala for many years and was married to a Guatemalan woman who worked at the US Consulate office. There is no question that he was once a mercenary who had turned a page. At the time I met him and when he could, he hired himself out as a guide and driver. Since traveling around Guatemala was near impossible, I knew our acquaintance could be advantageous if and when I returned to Guatemala.  He charged a daily rate, and on top of that, I would have to pay gas, his hotel and food.

On one of my first evenings in Guatemala, I met a man, Carlos Duarte, who was the age my father would have been. My mother actually obtained his contact information for me when she knew I was traipsing off to Guatemala.  He was a financially successful businessman, living in Guatemala City.  His cousin was the husband of one of the women in my mom’s card group. Now widowed, that friend of my mom’s thought meeting Carlos might be advantageous for me. Carlos picked me up and brought me to his home where I met his wife and we had dinner. Evidently his kids were at school in the US. Their home was in a posh neighborhood and it was behind barbed wire.  He operated sewing shops where he manufactured clothing for distributors and retailers abroad. I learned that his business partner had been murdered for most likely political reasons, the details I never ascertained. I think Carlos was impressed with my moxie and he offered me a job repping his business in the USA. The truth is, if I wasn’t going to continue on the corporate route back in the States, I knew I would start my own business working with artisans. After dinner Carlos dropped me off at my hotel. I knew if I ever got into trouble in Guatemala I could look him up again. Thankfully, I never had to do that.

It was suggested by the people I met in Guate (Guatemala City) that Panajachel would be the best place to make artisan connections. It was one of the few places artisans could travel and meet tourists, to sell their goods. On most days there were many Mayan men and women lined up on the street with their baskets of weavings and carvings. It was obvious to me that there was a plethora of opportunity in this country where so many seemed to have little opportunity.

Learning about Weaving
El Chisme, which no longer exists, was the place for breakfast and hob knobbing amongst foreigners who lived in Panajachel or those living in neighboring lake towns. It was owned by an American couple that had shuttered the place while they temporarily  moved back to the States, due to the instability of Guatemala. Apparently many foreigners who had been living in Guatemala left for their safety in the early 80’s and were now gradually returning. The ex-pat community was quite varied. There were those that chose to live in Guatemala because it was beautiful and inexpensive. I met retired teachers and a doctor that had lost his license to practice (in the States.)  And there were the x- Rajneesh followers. Lots of them. There was no shortage of people I met at El Chisme with colorful stories. And because many of them were interested in my story, I was able to meet many of the people that helped change my life. And with changing my life, it allowed me to change the lives of many others.

But that is for Part#2. After all, I had to return to Los Angeles and my job at MGM/UA and marinate on all I’d learned on that first exploratory trip to Guatemala. Would I look for a new job? Would I pursue a business of my own? (I guess you know the answer to that question.) Would I spend more time in Guatemala before taking my next steps? Stay tuned. I promise to write another segment soon.- ND