Columbus, Ohio USA
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Pioneering store Better Earth celebrates 20 years catering
to environmentally conscious consumers
By Cynthia Bent Findlay
July 2011 Issue
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Better Earth in Columbus' North Market. Photo © Larry Hamill
In 1991, Dareen Wearstler set out to make a better planet, one eco-friendly product at a time. Thinking “green” had just started to resonate around the country, and Wearstler, a long-time believer in the environmental movement, saw an awakening spirit in Central Ohio on Earth Day 1990 at a gathering in Whetstone Park.
“People are maybe finally getting ready to go green,” she thought to herself.
A year later, Better Earth was born, one of the first retail shops in Central Ohio to carry products like compost tumblers, water-saving devices, earth-friendly personal care and lawn care products and the likes.
“The idea just came into my head because of the Earth Day celebration,” she says. “I had never in my life planned to do this, but the time was right, my mindset was correct, my work experience allowed me to have the ability to be a store owner, be a merchant and take care of all the aspects of owning a business.” Twenty years later, Wearstler is still going strong in the North Market and still believes in her mission to make a better Earth.
Better Earth’s first location at 4705 N. High St. in the Beechwold area was called Better Earth: The Ecology Store. Wearstler opened her North Market stall only months later, however, and ran the two shops for several years, eventually dropping the name “Ecology Store” when she finally left the High Street location. She says the business concept may have been a little before its time, because ecologically minded products were still a very hard sell in the early ‘90s.
“Initially the store was pretty ecology. It didn’t have a lot of extras,” says Wearstler. “Really everything you would need: organic gardening supplies, composters, water-saving devices, solar products. The market was a little different. I didn’t have the space, and I wasn’t going in there as an ecology store. I was going in there as a natural products store. that’s the difference.”
It was a struggle to maintain the two locations, however, and the North Market store did better than the one on High Street.
“The personal care and the cleaning products and the aromatherapy and the jewelry and the little rocks, you know, all that kept me going,” she says. “The other stuff was real hard-hitting with people. It wasn’t real popular back then.” Wearstler decided to consolidate everything into the market and close the High Street shop in 1994. But since then, there’s been no looking back.
“I’ve been a lover of the North Market since I moved to Columbus in 1979. So the opportunity to be a part of it was just such a wonderful thing for me that I really felt a kindred spirit to the market and people who shop here. To bring this kind of product line was really a good match,” Wearstler says.
Wearstler had been a corporate bee for 17 years before she started Better Earth, working for the same large company in a number of different capacities. While she says those years gave her the experience to be confident in running her own business, it wasn’t the most family-friendly career, or the most satisfying.
After her 1990 Earth Day illumination, she took a year to write a business plan and seek financing, but in the end decided to go it on her own, quit her job, cash in her 401K and stocks, and bootstrap her way to a new career.
“It was a bold move, to say the least, but I think it was the right move for me,” she says now. For one thing, Wearstler was able to spend more time with her son.
“We used to have a space behind the High Street store where there was a kitchenette, a couch and TV; his friends would come hang out,” she says. “He worked for other vendors in the market, and he grew up happy.” She believes a life in eco-friendly retail made an impression on him, as now, at 27, her son is a massage therapist.
Wearstler also credits husband John for supporting the store, emotionally and sometimes financially, for so long. In fact, she says it was John who came up with the name of the store. “I wouldn’t have been able to maintain the store without him and his support. A lot of times we’d invest and I’d pull no money, but he had a job, so we could do that,” Wearstler explains.
She was able to expand her shop a bit in the market’s 1995 move from the old Quonset Hut to its new digs, and her pride in being a part of the Market shows as she describes watching it grow and thrive. With the move from the Quonset Hut, Wearstler began to include locally produced, unique and artisanal items. “If it fit, I brought it in, if it was good quality and it was natural,” she says.
Dareen Wearstler, Better Earth's owner. Photo © Larry Hamill
Today her shop carries Botanical Bath & Body Essentials soy candles, soaps from Honeyrun Farm and others, jewelry made by artists such as Bonnie Moseley and even Wearstler herself. The work of local potter Lynda Schaefer Fromm has been featured since 1993, after Wearstler spotted her earthy, functional work at an area festival.
It’s a boon to an artisan to have a consistent location to show work, Fromm says, so that clients always have a place to go to add to their collections. Many clients come to Better Earth looking for a set of small bowls, for instance, to go along with a larger original piece they bought at an arts festival. Fromm, who has been making pottery for 42 years, says that it’s been a great relationship that has led to a close personal friendship.
“She’s absolutely a pioneer,” says Fromm. “Having the pottery there was a natural. Pottery is the very first cooking ware, and that’s what I made. So it all, to me, sort of fit together.”
Two decades in, Wearstler is still committed to the mission of thinking globally and acting locally, and, it seems, Central Ohio is catching up with her.
“All the stuff that in 1991 I had to really sell to make people know why they were beneficial, now they just come in looking for them. Not that we’re over the hump, I see that change,” she says. She is heartened to think of the growing number of people willing to vote with their dollars for environmentally sound products.
It’s also easier now, she adds, to find vendors willing to work with small businesses like hers and to bring in locally made products.
“Back in 1991 you were hard pressed to find eco-friendly, made-in-the-U.S. kinds of things. I think that is one of the nicest things I’ve seen,” Wearstler says.
Good service and products are only the beginning of what Wearstler has tried to offer; her real focus has been to create a feeling of community among those interested in the eco-friendly and the local artisan community.
“I live the ethic, I guess is how I consider it. I keep the store so that we present this type of product and thinking to the general public in an open space where people are relaxed and see it and then hopefully it will become such a natural thing to consider, you know, being more earth conscious.”
The support she’s gotten back from the community, she says, has infused her career with great joy and value.
It hasn’t always been easy, she admits, but it’s always been worthwhile.
“I was able to take care of my son, have a business, work with the community, and present a good picture of this stuff. I can’t believe I’m still here after 20 years. I just took it one day at a time and that’s how I made it.”
© 2011 Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio. All rights reserved.
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