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.