February 28, 2008 Issue
Chestnut Hill Local
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A consummate traveler through inner and outer worlds
“I should like to spend the whole of my life in traveling abroad, if I could just borrow another life to spend afterwards at home ... The soul of a journey is liberty, perfect liberty to think, feel and do just as one pleases. We go on a journey chiefly to be free of all impediments and of all inconveniences; to leave ourselves behind and much more to get rid of others.”——William Hazlitt, “On Going a Journey”
When Elayne Aion, now 54, attended Penn State University’s main campus, she was already a pioneer. In 1974 the Cheltenham High School graduate became the first female bartender that Zeno’s, the 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. (Elayne knows that Rome wasn’t build in a day, even though the general contractor promised it would be.)
Like poet Walt Whitman, Elayne found out she was “strong and content when I travel the open road.” She first went to Europe, where she stayed for eight months until she ran out of money. Since she was determined to keep traveling but was broke, Aion figured her only alternative was to join the Peace Corps.
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 recalls, “because I had seen similar poverty in Manila.
“The biggest cultural shock was actually coming home and seeing how much chauvinism, arrogance and waste there was right here at home. I realized that’s what we are suffering from. Many Americans feel the entire world has to live the way we do. It’s a very narrow way to think. There are many other ways to live that are just as valid for other cultures as ours.”
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, 25, now getting a master’s degree at Duquesne University, and Myles, 20, a junior at Temple University — 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 11 years Elayne has had a committed relationship with her life partner, Joan Liehe, 65, 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 in center city, selling police equipment like badges and handcuffs to police and fire departments and security firms. She 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, a gift shop at 105 E. Glenside Ave. in Glenside, just a few doors down from the 60-year-old Rizzo’s Pizzeria & Restaurant, was looking for a buyer. “I went in the next day, and we made a deal in no time,” said Elayne, who reopened the shop on May 10 of last year.
It helps that Elayne’s business ideas are as organized as a Mozart piano sonata. Her stunning variety of handmade crafts includes: hand-painted tiles with Native American themes, created by a Cherokee artist; hand-dyed silk scarves; Judaica items such as Hanukkah candle holders; colorful handmade cotton and wool socks; “Vitreography” pictures on multiple layers of specially prepared glass with opaque paints that look three-dimensional; sculpted graphite objects; wooden serving boards; hand-painted clocks and bottles and soaps; stained glass items; puzzles and mobiles; bubbling water fountains, and much more. Almost everything is under $50, and countless items are under $25. Almost everything was handcrafted in the U.S. or Canada, and the only exceptions are Fair Trade items. Many local craftspeople are also represented.
And I could literally spend all day being entertained by the best collection of greeting cards I’ve seen in years. Here are some of the sayings on the cards, which are all accompanied by phenomenal photos, many of adorable animals and children:
“Never have children; only have grandchildren.” “Start every day with a smile, and get it over with.” “What good can come from a day that starts with getting up?” “Setting a good example for children takes all the fun out of life.” “I base most of my fashion taste on what doesn’t itch.” “The human race only has one really effective weapon — laughter.” “Acquiring a dog may be the only opportunity a human ever has to choose a relative.” “One loyal friend is worth 10,000 relatives.” “Love, having no geography, knows no boundaries.” (This one has one of the greatest photos ever — of a young chimpanzee lovingly kissing and caressing a very contented-looking puppy.)
Aion, who is also a member of the Anna Crusis Choir, the nation’s oldest feminist choir, and Weavers Way Food Co-op in Mt. Airy, said about her 10-month-old gift shop, “I can’t believe how happy I am. I definitely made the right decision. Working for yourself is so much better than working for someone else. 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.”