Business & Technology

Dreaming big: handcrafted gift shop from Transylvania

As Zsolt Máthé’s father always said, in this world you lead or you will be led by others. After four years of being coached, Máthé established his own business. His webshop, Gifty, selling Transylvanian handmade products, started one and a half years ago with the help of a Bethlen countess.

Ceramics, wooden toys, syrups, jams, soaps, dolls, painted chairs and jack-knives – entering the Gifty will bring you the atmosphere of an average Eastern European souvenir shop. But, still, there is something different: in this store, you are not afraid of sending dozens of ceramics to the ground with a bad move, unlike in most gift shops. It is also uncommon that here the scent of treated leather, fresh paint and lavender pillows mingle.

Zsolt Máthé grew up in Segesvár/Sighisoara with a father owning a construction company and with a mother running a mushroom plantation. He was raised to be always proactive and to have an entrepreneur attitude. Finishing high school Máthé studied painted furniture restoration at the Lucian Blaga University in Sibiu for five years. After graduation he moved back to Segesvár where he worked as an accountant for a foundation which partially dealt with restoration, too.

After six months everybody realized that accounting didn’t fit to Máthé so in the next few years he supervised afforestation projects in Kovászna/Covasna and Hargita/Harghita counties. Besides his foundation job he didn’t give up his profession and continued to restore hope chests, pulpit crowns and temple doors. Finally, in 2016 he decided to start his own business using his experience in restoration.

They agreed with his wife that they invest the half of the income of their wedding to the new business. It was obvious that Máthé wanted to stay inSegesvár. “I worked in Germany and it wasn’t easy to earn 1600-1700 euros a month in Germany then earn 800 leis at home. I could have stayed in Germany but three months were the longest I could bear. This is my “why”: to show others that I can make it at my country, too.”

Máthé wanted to make the best of the increasing tourism, so he tried to rent a suitable place in the downtown of Sighisoara, but he couldn’t find anything for weeks. Once, a descendant of Bethlen’s family asked him to restore two chest seats. The countess left his payment at the reception of the Szarvas-ház Guesthouse in the city’s forum. The receptionist gave him the money and asked if he could already find a place for his business.

„I couldn’t find anything” – Máthé said. – „The receptionist lady said ‘come with me’ and showed me a room with beautiful floor, fireplace in the corner, carved entrance and arches. I don’t know for sure if the was because she saw that the countess trusted me, but probably yes.”

Zsolt rented out the place for a very good price and one and a half months later in March 2017 the Gifty opened its gates. At the beginning he mostly sold his wooden furniture, but today he is gathering together eighteen Transylvanian craftsmen’s handmade products.

“There are about thirty souvenir shops in Segesvár, and only five of them are selling products which are made in Transylvania.” The ceramics, the waldorf-dolls from Kolozsvár/Cluj and the jack-knives from Szenterzsébet are very popular. But according to Máthé, the most popular is his own wooden furniture because his workshop in the middle of the souvenir shop. Buyers can see him working on every piece, how he uses the paints and he also explains the meanings of the symbols he uses.

“In some ways I have reached my limits. I can’t paint as fast as the customers need. So the only thing I can do is to find a people who can help me.” During the spring when the first tourists arrive he has a hundred visitors an average day, but during the summer more than three hundred customers have a look to his shop. As Máthé can see, unfortunately, young people are not interested in handmade products, his visitors usually are tourist groups above 30.

The winter season is still a challenge as well as the lack of workforce. Now Máthé is working alone, with seasonal volunteers during the summers, but this year he would like to form a permanent team.

Most of his suppliers come from his old acquaintance and all of them are Transylvanian artists, but not necessarily Hungarians, stitched dolls, jams, syrups and some paintings are made by Romanian artists. As Máthé says it’s completely natural that in Sighisoara, the Hungarians and the Romans has learned to live side by side. “Originally I wanted to learn interior design in Kolozsvár, but the university didn’t admit my application. But I don’t mind, I believe I should go to Nagyszeben to become reconciled to Romanians.”

His aim with Gifty is to introduce Transylvanian craft products to Europe. “Even on the Amazon, why not? If I can beat Chinese souvenirs in Segesvár, I could do it on Amazon, too. Quality will always overcome quantity, at least here. People less often look the price of a product if that is really good.”

Author: Dénes Albert