ENCINITAS — Fair trade is a commonplace term now, but when Bliss 101 owner Helen Zeldes started her first business 27 years ago it was something she just felt called to do, but didn’t necessarily have a name for.
At 22, Zeldes described herself as “an activist kid on my way to law school.” A trip to visit her mother in Hawaii ended up shaping the trajectory of her life and her career in ways she never could have foreseen.
She began selling jewelry and ethnic imported goods at a flea market there. “I thought I would run a small booth for a few months before I went to law school,” she said. Business was good, and she decided to go to the source (then Guatemala) to find unique handcrafts to sell. “I absolutely fell in love with Guatemala,” she said. While there, she found that the locals wanted things she could bring them like blue jeans, pens and pencils. She was able to help preserve the indigenous culture, including supporting women’s beading collectives, by trading for goods she could sell. “I fell in love with the indigenous handcrafts,” she said.
Eventually she opened up her own brick and mortar shop in Hawaii, and continued to grow. A love of all things ocean and surf led to an eclectic stock of global fair trade items and local artwork. Although business was booming, Zeldes felt pulled to continue on her original track. “I needed to get back to law school,” she said. Her interests in proactive community planning and activism, and in organizations like Surfrider and Amnesty International, coupled with her legal ambitions led her to realize it was time to take the next step. “I wanted to get my degree to be the most effective advocate I could be on the issues I was passionate about,” she said.
Zeldes graduated from a law school in Hawaii, and was hired to work for a firm in San Diego that had a cutting-edge human rights practice.
After working 70-hour weeks, and following the birth of her daughter, it was time for a change. “I was working so much I was completely missing any link to my community, to my family; I wasn’t connected,” she said.
She left that firm to start her own and ultimately her own gallery, and thus five years ago Bliss 101 came to be. “It is like the farm to table movement, but for the home,” Zeldes said.
She brings in items from local artists and vendors, and community is at the heart of everything that Zeldes and Bliss 101 stand for. “I believe in keeping money in the community,” she said. “Bliss is a venue where people come together, it’s a gathering place. I hold unique, fun events. It’s not your typical art gallery. I want people to connect both with something beautiful and each other.”
Encinitas is particularly important to Zeldes. “I am always looking for things that celebrate coastal living, this beautiful community we live in,” she said. “When you walk into Bliss 101, you feel an immediate connection to nature, to surfing, to the ocean. And when you walk into your home, you should be able to have that same moment of Zen or ‘bliss’ that you get when you are on vacation somewhere beautiful. That’s what Bliss 101 tries to convey — that beauty and zen for the home.”
Zeldes prides herself on doing the right thing not just for this community, but for all communities. “Supporting fair trade, reclaimed and locally made pieces, has always been a fundamental business principle of mine,” she said.
With such a varied collection of art, furniture and gifts, from local and global communities alike, there is one commonality. “Everything is unique, and everything has a story,” Zeldes said.
Meredith McGuire, Bliss 101’s visual merchandiser, says part of what makes her boss so amazing is that she has so much love for people. “It goes beyond Bliss 101 and her staff,” McGuire said. “She cares so much about Encinitas and the people that it makes me feel more connected to the community I live in. She gets the community, she gets the artists, she gets her employees.”
Zeldes and the team at Bliss 101 are excited about the new eclectic items that are coming in as holiday shopping heads into full swing. “We literally received 50 boxes of new merchandise for the holidays last week and are already selling out of items!” she said. “We truly have something for everyone: from newborns, to your significant other, to your best friend, to your grandparents and you don’t have to break the bank to shop here.”
From the smallest $5 stocking stuffer to beautiful reclaimed furniture, Bliss 101 is the place locals go to find gifts for someone that they definitely won’t already have. Bliss 101 has several special shopping events set for Black Friday weekend. “We have specials all weekend — coupons hidden throughout the store on Black Friday, 10 percent off all local art for Shop Local Saturday, and gift certificate drawings throughout the weekend,” Zeldes said.
Bliss 101’s 12 Days of Christmas sale will kick off at their Menehune Holiday Party, Dec. 13 featuring unique and fun daily events such as an Ugly Sweater discount day (wear an ugly holiday sweater and get a discount!) and a Men’s Shopping Night Dec. 22, which promises, “Beer, grub and no holiday music!”
Bliss 101 is located at 553 S. Coast Highway 101. For a complete list of upcoming events, call (760) 487-1900 or visit Bliss 101 on Facebook or bliss101.com.