Taking Care Of Business

The Maine Boatbuilders Show was an unusual event. They held the show on the first full spring weekend in the old Portland Company complex on Fore St. in Portland, Maine. The show was funky. The overhead cranes in the big bays still loomed over your head. The cranes were reminders that this space had been a locomotive manufacturer in the 19th century. Used as workspace by Portland Yacht Sevices, it was lucky to get a brooming out between when they moved their boats out and before we put our displays in. No matter, it added to the ambiance of a casual “have a good time” show.

My booth was always on the second floor under a leaky ceiling. Did I mention that the first full spring weekend is fickle? Some years we’d have full-blown blizzards; next year, lush spring weather- though usually not the lush spring weather. Black plastic was frequently spread over our heads to keep the water off our displays. Despite these issues, the Maine Boatbuilders show was the must-do, must-go to spring event for many of us in the maritime trades. The longstanding comment was that despite the crowds ( thousands every day), it was the best opportunity for the builders and craftspeople to get together before things got crazy in the spring.

I was always in the same spot. It was one I proclaimed to be mine show after show. There were historical reasons. In the first years I did the show; I brought along a portable workbench and tools to demonstrate carving. The only place to put the bench was along a planked knee wall. In the first year, while working on an eagle, I noticed that there were newspaper clippings and poems varnished to the planking. My booth was in the old pattern makers shop. My bench appeared to occupy the same space as a craftsman of the 1850s. The pattern maker whose station I held had been a strong Abolitionist by the essays and poems he had varnished to the plank knee wall. I could almost feel that carver looking over my tools, checking my sharpening, and doing a critique on my technique.

Friday was the first day of the show, and as is the case with many of these shows, it was the day most likely to yield serious business. A good Friday would make the show, repay booth fees and other expenses. Saturday yielded serious visitors early in the day, and Sunday was for families. Sunday also died well before closing. Sunday, you had to watch out for the three PM bargain hunters- “Hey, I’ll give you five bucks for that, and you won’t have to pack it out.” But, care was required because people who were serious attendees who had not been able to get to the show earlier blended into the late show crowd. I was scrupulous not to pack up first because I found those individuals to be great customers. Sunday was the day that frequently sold out on my assortment of spoons, spatulas, cutting boards, and other galley items. One could expect that predominantly women were buying those, but it was equally male and female. Youth looking for presents were also frequent shoppers.

Early in the day, before the show opened, booth holders would walk the show to see who had made it this year, make early deals, and arrange for evening plans. After ten or so years of doing the show, acquaintances became friends and business associates. We had dinners in groups on Thursday ( setup), Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Lunches, on the other hand, had to be rather hurried because we had to tend our booths.

Sunday, at closing, there were those in a hurry and those who took their leisure. Most of my friends did an efficient job of packing all the goods and then sat down for a drink, soda, crackers, cheese, and conversation. There was no sense hurrying; people were hauling out huge displays, and the relatively tiny loading zones would be jammed for the first hour or two after closing. Exhibitors with boats inside the building would typically wait till Monday morning to finish packing out.

As we sat there Sunday, the only thing that wasn’t under discussion was how much money we’d made at the show. It might be weeks or months until all the work generated showed up in our shops or wound up in our bank accounts in the form of deposits.
So, we talked about clients…oh, yes! Rudder Kickers – who came around asking a thousand questions but never buying. Strollers – who endlessly walked the show but somehow never looked at anything. Standing Room Ony- who stood in rapt conversation for half an hour blocking access to your booth. DIY’ers – who came up to you and said: “You know I could do this myself.” You politely smiled and restrained yourself from saying, “but you never will.”
After it was all over, we parted company for the drive home. Our community of three or four days dispersed until next year.

Neither I nor any of my associates still do the show. Four days is a considerable commitment and a bit too much show for aging bodies. Regrettably, some have gone over the bar, and we’ll never see them on this shore again. Other shows, like the WoodenBoat Show, have similar features and casual communities that coalesce and disperse annually.
Next time you attend one of these shows, look a bit at the interactions. A lot is going on besides sales.

People Watching: the boat show

My friend sat there sipping his bourbon, looked over at me, and said, “Oh, what stories we could tell!” But, of course, he was referring to some of the things that happened at or that we saw during our years of doing boat shows. Although to be honest, we don’t share the good stuff with potential customers, that would be tantamount to warning them to behave at the show. No fun for us!
Just look at couples. We see the entire range: the young couple shopping for their first little sloop, the older couple looking for something suitable for cruising with the kids, and the older ones looking to downsize and longingly looking at the little sloops that remind them of when they were young and frisky.
I don’t have enough words to describe the frisky ones. From the older couple away from the kids, staying at the hotel with that ” Oh, honey, wait till we get to the room” look in their eyes to the non-matched couples meeting up at the show – she’s into lobster yachts, he’s into traditionally rigged sloops or 22-foot catboats, but they are clearly into each other. Then, at last, there are the older gentlemen who hoped to revive their romantic fortunes with much younger trophy wives. But that deserves an entire post by itself.
Staffing a booth at a show is hard work; you answer questions all day ranging from the inane to the insane to the wise. You tell people where the bathroom is so often that you make up a sign with an arrow indicating the direction. And you pray that one of your friends will show up with lunch soon or relieve you – so you can go to the bathroom. It’s all in a day’s work.
My friend and I have retired from doing the shows, but we do like to go and browse. But mostly, we watch people. After years of observing, we know what to look for. It’s not dull.

Drama Versus The Prosaic

As a carver, I work with many flammiferous materials; the worst are the solvents and finishes. But I’ve found that while you can take precautions around the shop to be safe from things like a spontaneous combustion of sawdust and rags, safety from inflammable people is something else.

You see this at shows. People are away from home, perhaps on vacation, but away from neighbors who might inhibit their tacky, infantile behavior. One couple stood directly in front of my booth and had a screaming divorce-inspiring meltdown. It wasn’t just your idle recitation of curses and accusations of infidelity. Both were cruelly creative.
This happened at the Mystic Seaport during a WoodenBoat Show. My booth was less than a stone’s throw from the restored whaling ship, the Charles W Morgan, and I could almost see the ghosts of the old whalers listening in admiration as the pair flensed directly to the bone with each cutting comment.
I cautiously asked them to move away from my booth, and they gleefully turned and started on me. Luckily their kids showed up and distracted them. All four strolled away in a haze of recriminations and accusations over who would pay for lunch.

An hour later, a young couple appeared. If the preceding pair had hit the pinnacle for the worst behavior seen at a boat show for a couple, the young lovers were at the extreme; hands clutched together, loving glances, and respectful questions about what the other liked. Following closely on their heels was a pair of boisterous pre-school age kids who swamped me with questions but politely kept their hands to themselves. Unfortunately, the first couple’s public battle occupies your memory and gets repeated over dinner with your friends.

It’s an attractive proposition to assume that either couple symbolizes more significant societal traits. In isolation, each couple seems to represent an extreme. But the real people watcher, and believe me, you have plenty of time for people watching during these three-day shows, realizes there is an almost infinite variety.

It’s just that the flammiferous couple attracts and holds the most attention. Drama trumps the prosaic every time.

Good Fortune

Ebullent, bouyant or joyous. These are some words that come to mind as you close your booth on Friday evening – the first day of a three-day show. Those words come to you if that first day has been successful. You can tell by the wad of cash in your pocket. 

The idea is to grow that wad over the following days of the show and, on Monday, make a bank deposit. Of course, you know from your records how much of that deposit is needed to cover the cost of sales on goods, show fees, insurance, and travel expenses. Your job, beyond sales, is to navigate the traps that wait for you at the show that will truncate, destroy or severely reduce the wad before you get to the bank.

Look at it as a sort of board game. 

First, you reach into the Fortune Deck for a card: Give ten dollars to your oldest son for food. His nickname is the Bottomless Pit. Last year you won a bet on how many entire pizzas he could eat, and the loser paid the dinner tab. Now all your friends nervously ask if he’ll be at dinner when you go out. Go back two steps.

You roll the die and advance five steps to make a large sale.

Next move, you land on the Truth or Consequences square and find out that the person in the booth next to you is pushing into your ten-by-ten space. Show management chastises him. Take a bonus fortune card.

Over the following rounds, you steadily gain on the goal of landing on the Bonanza Show Spot, which gives you a free advance equal to your next die roll and 150 points. 

But later on, you again land on Truth or Consequences. This time you get caught in a lie about a competitor’s product. You lose seventy-five points.

On the last day of the show, a Fortune card tells you to roll a die to see if a customer finds your product claims to be credulous or incredulous. You roll a five, and the customer orders a four thousand dollar special order, leaving a fifty percent deposit. You reach over, ring the winner’s bell, and advance your little ship token to the Bonanza Show Spot. You have won. Monday morning, you make it to the bank with a hefty deposit.

Sometimes shows feel pretty much like this. All your proper prior preparation is at risk because of bad weather, tents blowing over, or knots of people obstructing your booth as they argue about who’ll pay for lunch.

Just be careful, don’t do like your neighbor does when he starts breaking down an hour before the show ends on Sunday. That might be when you pull a final Fortune card and take that big order. 

I’ve had it happen to me.

Not So Little Mermaid

So…yes, this isn’t carved, but as this fiberglass concoction hangs, so also hangs a tale of carving. 

I had booths at many boat shows during my stint as a maritime carver. My display of eagles, quarter boards, billet heads, and boat portraits received lots of attention. But, inevitably, not all of it was of a sort I really wanted. Alcohol complicated sales and display. Sloshed beer was a cleanup problem. Show attendees who were inebriated rarely bought. But, frequently caused problems.
At some point, a man would walk up and ask me how much It’d cost to carve a figurehead of his wife. “Like this (putting his hands behind his head). But bustier.”

After the first couple of polite replies, I grew tired of these requests for explicit work. So I developed a method of handling them.
a.) say sure, and the name a flagrantly outrageous price;
b.) then I’d ask for a signed consent form from his wife. Agreeing to this
c.) for the genuinely incorrigible, I’d refer them to a place in Newport where the exact model pictured here was available for about $150 in fiberglass.

I actually printed up a consent form for those who purported to be serious about this but never got one back signed…I wonder why?

This beauty hung in the Oldies Marketplace (Newburyport, MA) for several months among all the fabulous bijoux before it was snapped up. The last time I was there, it had been replaced by one equally well endowed. Thereby proving, I guess, that there was a market for them and probably that I contributed to it.

Please, no mermaid requests without a signed consent form!

Dining with the Devil- a flashback Friday presentation from 2018

When I restarted my business in the 1990s, I was eager to work and eager to do work that would build my portfolio. I was doing mostly boat portraits, transom banners, quarter boards, and that beautiful booth fee payer spoons, spatulas and cutting boards.
At one of my regular annual shows, I was approached by a boat owner who’d haunted my booth at this and other shows without doing much other than “rudder kicking” – looking, but not buying. That Friday however, Mr. Kicker seemed ready to do business. He needed a billet head and trailboards to dress up his newly restored sloop. We talked cost and design and agreed that I’d do both. That was when I failed to observe my first “Shipscarver’s Principle of Doing Business”; I failed to ask for and receive a down payment on the work. Sometimes failing to do things in the proper order dooms you to a downward spiral, and that’s pretty much what happened here.
I so wanted to do some impressive work for my portfolio that I was well into the design for the billet head that it wasn’t until then that I asked. His budget was overextended, but he’d get it for me soon. Soon.

The billet head was not a typical design with a concentric spiral wreathed with acanthus leaves, star or some other design elements near the center. It was very simple but of a design type more familiar to the Chesapeake Bay area. The spiral curves around an eccentric center and is off the vertical axis. The trailboards were also to be Chesapeake Bay style in design with cannons, cannon balls, and other decorations from that area. An interesting job.
Soon the little billet head was done and mounted. The design issues with the trailboards mounted, and the requests for money went unanswered. I began to hoard my design drawings; fearing that if I sent them to the client, they’d soon wind up in the hands of another carver. The client responded that without seeing the design updates, he couldn’t send a down payment.
That was when sanity prevailed. The billet head was gone; the design time on the boards was gone. But, it is evident that if I gave the design to Mr. Kicker, or worse carved the boards, I’d be out much more time and money. I stopped responding to emails and calls other than to state bluntly that without payment, work would not proceed.

Eventually, I became tied up in other projects. Mr. Kicker became a background irritation that I gradually ignored. Then one day at a large in the water boat show I stopped dead and stared at a sloop tied up to the wharf. My friend asked what’s wrong. “That’s my billet head on that damn boat.” “Are you sure?” “This father knows his own children” was my reply. Because, almost every carver has a style, cuts, tool marks, design quirks, something that marks his work as their own. And there before me was my billet head. But, some six or seven years on still no boards.
We stood there while I told him the whole sordid story, and I included the fact that some years ago, I had sealed the mess shut as a lesson in how not to do business. My friend looked at me and said, ” He just put in a big order for hoops and blocks.”

“Well, make sure that you get all your money upfront. ‘He who sups with the Devil should do so with a long spoon’.”

First Time

We all remember our “first time.”
Get your mind out of the gutter, please. That’s not the first time to which I refer. However much, it has outsize importance to some people. But, no.

I remember one night at a boat show. We were out having dinner- our little clique of builders, boaters, riggers, and me- the carver. The topic of memorable first times came up. We had a pretty impressive group of far travelers, so many recollections of sunrise or moonset at exotic locations got related. Then there were the boating-related stories: European canal trips and the fine wines and eateries visited. Finally, one or two of the group chimed in with hilarious anecdotes from boat shows past.

Through this, I made the rare comment, laughed or grinned with amazement and amusement but did not share any of my own experiences. I couldn’t think of anything. I had traveled in the Navy, but being very young – and under the influence of fellow reprobates, I was more familiar with the interior of barrooms in port cities than with their cultural glories.

At last, I recalled something that I was sure the others had never experienced. So I told this tale:

” I belong to an exclusive club open to only a small segment of the population in any country. If you are not a member of this club, but have participated in this, you are probably a member of one of the outlaw sects still practicing human sacrifice.” Now I had everyone’s attention. “As a young man, I served as a scrub technician in surgery. My typical duties included preparing surgical instruments, passing them to surgeons, holding retractors, etc. But not all surgery is routine, and sometimes I’d play a more active role. Near the end of one procedure, deep into the thoracic cavity, the surgeon looked up at me and said, ‘Lou, have you ever touched a beating human heart?’
He then took my right hand and gently instructed me to touch the heart. For just seconds, I held the heart under my hand. It will always be one of my cherished memories.”

It was hard to gauge the group’s reaction because it was so varied. Some looked squeamish, others tried to process what I had said but had nothing to add, and a few looked at me as though they were reevaluating what they had previously known about me.

At last, one of my friends smiled and said, “it’s time for another drink!” The next safer topic was interesting boats we had seen at the show.

Dinner Time At The Show

Boat show attendees rarely get a glimpse into the after-hours life of people who staff the booths selling their products. Not being twenty-year-olds, there does not seem to be too many wild parties at these. You are setting up one day, running a booth for eight to ten hours for several days, and then breaking down for the drive home.
One aspect of doing shows is the evening routines of dinners and social get-togethers. At these stories get told, repeated year after year, and sometimes enlarged upon. My son Nick had a tiny bit of celebrity for always keeping a crisp new dollar bill and offering to buy expensive boats for cash on the barrelhead right then and there. Only quick action prevented him from attempting to buy the USS Constitution from its commanding officer.

Strange things happen at shows, and they become grist for the story mill at dinner.
One of the stranger incidents was the couple who chose to break up very loudly and publicly in front of my booth. You hate to interfere in such a moment. But you hope that they remove the action to a less public area—especially a place away from the booth space I am renting for about two hundred dollars a day. Visitors stay away from a spectacle, so my booth remains empty as long as this goes on and I lack the traffic needed for sales. Then the young man began to bawl loudly about how she was his life, and he could not live without her. Now they were attracting a crowd. But no one was buying my goods – they were busy watching a Shakesperean tragedy unfold on the waterfront.
That evening I told the tale to friends at dinner. It seems that it was an almost day-long train wreck and my booth had not been the only one visited. One friend pointed out that on the far side of the noisy restaurant sat the lovely couple deeply gazing into each other’s eyes and so closely embraced that it was a bit suggestive. Somewhere near the end of our long table, someone shouted out, ” Hey! Get a room!”
The table erupted in laughter, and the embarrassed couple paid up and presumably found a room.

The Killer Product

Customers; are an immutable part of doing a boat show as a vendor. They are your livelihood, your joy, and your bane. They include:

  1.  The customer who comes by year after year but never buys;
  2.  Those who continually delve for more answers and force you to become more knowledgable;
  3. The customers who challenge your knowledge and then stay to teach you something new and exciting- awakening you to new opportunity;
  4. And the ones who are looking for precisely what you have, pay cash and bring their friends back to see your booth.

Those last ones make your day, but not necessarily the show or your career. You need to pay attention to what the other customers say, or you’ll never learn what your booth is missing. Comments from customers that start with: “what I’d really like-” are your cue to listen and take notes.

Some vendors seem to have killer products and happily sell them year after year. Others are on a quest for product development, and our customers offer free product development information. Being a nautical woodcarver is a very niche trade, and I don’t think there is a typical customer.

I’ve had to juggle all the time for cash flow and profits. But It has kept my mind flexible and taught me to keep an eye out for the new and exciting – the hunt for a killer product.


When I reentered the marine marketplace in 1992, after about 15 years of absence, I thought my business would be eagles, quarterboards, and transom banners. To some extent, I was correct. I’ve done many transoms, quarter boards, some eagles, and a smattering of other carving projects. But fully one-third of all my sales came from small carved table items. At any boat show, there are many overwhelmed wanderers. They are following a partner, parent, or spouse who is nautically obsessed. They hope to find something that might spark their interest. Responding to this, I began offering spoons, spatulas, cutting boards, small carved boxes, and a wide range of small carved items. It was surprising how Sales improved.

As a result of the newfound sales, I sometimes had a fair bit of cash in my pocket at the shows. But having a family with you at a three or four-day event offers opportunities to get separated from the money; fast.

My oldest son earned the nickname “Bottomless Pit.” Yeah, I know, you had one too.
At one particular show in Maine, an entire group of us went to dinner together. My friend, Ralph, generously offered to pay for the Carreras clan – myself, my wife, the two girls, and the two boys. Wanting to maintain the friendship, I protested. He insisted. He assumed I think that the kids couldn’t do too much damage at the Rockport House of Pizza. He had not calculated the sheer ability of said Bottomless Pit to pack it away. My friends have never had children. They had only heard stories of how adolescents can consume vast amounts and then fill up with more. The Bottomless Pit saw the disbelief in their eyes as he devoured pizza and decided to play to a rapt audience. He reached for an entire fresh pizza, rolled it up, and proceeded to swallow it much as a sword swallower consumed a sword. OK, you ask, what was my wife doing – Trying to get her renegade son under control. What was I doing – watching the disbelief on my friend’s faces as the Bottomless Pit consumed the pizza in one go. He belched softly and asked for more. About that time, the check arrived, and I saw my friend blanch. I took the check and paid for the family; about $200.00, most of which had been consumed by the Pit. I saw lots of my pocket cash disappear in one meal.

Years passed, but at boat shows, the Legend of the Bottomless Pit lived on. Not wanting to let go of a good story, we staged the photo above just a few years ago to email my friend. An assurance that, yes, the legend continued.

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