World traveler Elayne Aion stayed still long enough to take over this charming shop, The Dovetail Artisans, at 105 E. Glenside Ave, in Glenside.

by Len Lear

Elayne Aion, owner of The Dovetail Artisans, 105 Glenside Ave. in Glenside, was recently voted the “Best Gift Shop in Montgomery County” by The Happenings, an on-line magazine about everything Montgomery County. The nominations opened in January, and voting closed at the end of March. The Dovetail Artisans was nominated under the “Retail” category, specifically “Gift shops.”

Aion, 59, undoubtedly picked up some votes from all the goodwill she has nurtured in the area from her fundraising events on behalf of local community organizations. For example, one non-profit that has benefited from her efforts is Nancy’s House in Wyncote, which offers comprehensive respite for family care-givers.

Caregivers, whose own health and well-being may be imperiled by caring for a loved one, come to Nancy’s House for two nights of undisturbed sleep, classes to better manage stress and to become part of an on-going community of support with other family caregivers.

“I have always been a believer in giving back to those in need,” said Elayne, whose gift shop features American handcrafted items — personal gifts like jewelry and scarves, household items like clocks and inlaid boxes, office items like letter openers and magnetic boards, Judaica, puzzle boxes, mobiles, etc.

Other community organizations which have benefited from fundraising events held at The Dovetail Artisans are Free the Hikers, Breastfeeding Resource Center, Friends of High School Park, Abington High School Band, Living Beyond Breast Cancer and Rubye’s Kids, which provides Christmas parties, school books and other necessities to impoverished kids in North Philly.

Aion, who opened her store in May of 2007, said that “I’d hoped for speedier growth, but each year my business has grown. I was off to a strong start the first year, but then the crash came, so now, considering the current economic climate, even growth in small increments is encouraging. I have many loyal customers who understand the value of buying from small, independently owned businesses, but I still feel a lot of competition from on-line sales as well as products imported from overseas.

“When the weather is too cold, too hot, too rainy, too whatever, the path of least resistance is sometimes just staying home and shopping online. And that path of least resistance is detrimental to small businesses which are the backbone of a strong community and neighborhood.”

Aion is a pioneer in her own way. In 1974 the Cheltenham High School graduate became the first female bartender that Zeno’s, the Penn State University college bar, had ever hired. Not exactly like being the first person to walk on the moon, but it was symptomatic of Elayne ‘s iconoclastic spirit.

A social work major, Aion (the word is the pronunciation of the letter “I” in the Hebrew alphabet) could not wait to graduate so she could travel the world. After joining the Peace Corps, Elayne was sent to the Philippines, where she taught proper nutrition to a mountain tribe of headhunters in the province of Kalinga-Apayo for two years. “I learned Ilicano, which was the common language of the mountain provinces,” she said. “In one case, they told me this meat I was eating was from a deer. As it turned out, it was really from a dog. Later, I ate no meat for 15 years.”

After her time in the Peace Corps, Elayne continued traveling throughout Asia — India, Nepal, Burma, Thailand and Singapore — until her money ran out again. “I wasn’t shocked by the poverty I saw in Calcutta,” she recalled, “because I had seen similar poverty in Manila.”

Not only has Elayne traveled extensively in the world at large, but you might say her inner travels have been both extensive and intensive, as well. After 16 years of marriage and raising two sons — Justin, 31, and Myles, 25 — Elayne realized she was gay. She split up with her husband, who now lives in California and with whom she still has a cordial relationship. “He is a fine man,” said Elayne , “but we just couldn’t continue the way we were.”

For the past 16 years Elayne has had a committed relationship with her life partner, Joan Liehe, 70, at their home near Glenside.

After her extensive travels in Asia, Elayne worked for eight years as a “headhunter,” recruiting engineers and computer scientists for the corporate world. “I was recruiting for the ‘Evil Empire,'” said Aion. “I don’t like to think about it.”

Elayne then worked for 11 years for her father, who owned the Berben Insignia Company, selling police equipment like badges and handcuffs to police and fire departments and security firms. Elayne’s sister, Elyse Aion, now owns and operates the business (berbeninsignia.com), which is located in Rockledge.

Elayne then worked in hospice care for 10 years running a volunteer program for the Visiting Nurse Association. Two days after leaving that job, she learned that the owner of The Dovetail Artisans was looking for a buyer. “I went in the next day, and we made a deal in no time,” said Elayne.

Aion, who has been a member of the Anna Crusis Choir, the nation’s oldest feminist choir, for most of the last 10 years, said about her gift shop, “I am working longer, harder and more intensely than ever, but I’m very happy about it. There is definitely a learning curve, but I’ve always gone to craft shows and always loved American crafts anyway, so it’s a perfect fit. The title on my business cards still reads, ‘The Boss of Me,’ so no matter how long and hard I work, I consider myself very lucky and  couldn’t be happier.”

For more information about The Dovetail Artisans, call 215-887-2220 or visit thedovetailartisans.com.