Craft shows, boat shows, or trade shows all have two things in common; vendors and customers. Customers think they are hunting for deals, and vendors look for profit and cash flow. It’s a lame vendor who doesn’t maximize all possible advantages and minimize chance. Who your neighbors are can be an essential part of how profitable and enjoyable the show can be.

One year I was doing a cluster of shows produced by a company that specialized in some of the prime tourist territories in New Hampshire. Her shows were fronted by a solid kernel of authentic crafts and backed by an assortment of people who modified pre-produced items, painted wood, did cheap florals, or sold imported items. While all art was supposedly juried, the process was sloppy. As a result, there were “pods” of real craftspeople among the resellers of cheap Chinese goods, “grandma” crafts, and those who did not know why they were there.

I was frequently paired with Betty, who sold some of the most exquisite teddy bears you’ve seen, and Paul and Cheri – retired ministers- who turned pens, automatic pencils, and other lathe-turned work. Harry, a potter, was on the opposing row behind us. Betty, Paul, and Cheri were great neighbors. We looked out for each other during bathroom and eating breaks, helped each other out in numerous small things, and importantly, observed the prime directive – thou shalt not have your stuff in your neighbor’s booth.

Harry never seemed to have gotten the messages about playing nice with the other children. Instead, he always asked us to watch his booth while visiting other booths (“walking the show”). He was never available to keep an eye on your stuff when a bathroom break was needed, and his boxes of pottery were always getting into other people’s booths.

Betty always had more material than I did, and knowing that I had young children at home always worked a generous exchange; some of my excess space for stuffed toys for the kids. She was a genuine arctophile – lover of teddy bears- and some of the nicer bears my kids got to play with came from her. Paul and Cheri were always immaculate and self-contained. 

Harry was the problem. His large, heavy containers intruded into his neighbor’s space all the time. Complaints to the show producers seemed to do no good. His lame excuses seemed calculated to insult rather than apologize.

These shows were held in large tents, and while some booths had canvas backing, others did not. You can hear what goes on around and behind you. So we heard Harry bad-mouthing Betty to a customer.

Later that afternoon, Betty finished a voodoo doll that looked a lot like Harry. I contributed a wooden stake to go through the embroidered heart, and while Paul, a Christian indeed, refused to participate, Cheri contributed some pins to stab the doll. We left it in Harry’s empty cash box to discover when he opened his booth the next day.

Over the years, I’ve seen some nasty things done to rotten show producers, artists, and even customers. It’s rare, but it happens when people get pushed to the edge of civility and tolerance. But I never saw anything like the reaction Harry had. His shriek filled the tent. He held the doll high with a look of terror in his eyes and stalked off towards the producer’s tent. The producer stalked towards us within a few minutes, holding the doll. Like most veterans of many shows, we put on the poker faces we usually save for local police and fire department members when telling us to move stuff because it violates some local ordinance.

The producer held out the doll and asked, “who did this?” Betty admitted that she had made the doll. I then glibly suggested that we were test marketing it as a new item for sale. We had completed it in the evening after dinner, and we badly wanted Harry’s opinion of it. But he had already left for the night. “We left it in his booth so he could comment on it but never suspected that he’d react that way.” 

OK, I am really good at sincere bullshit when I put my heart into it. Joyce, the producer, gazed at me momentarily and then broke out in laughter. Then, looking at Betty, she asked, “can you make one up that looks like my father-in-law?”

Joyce gathered a crew to move Harry’s pots to a new location.

 In subsequent shows, we had neighbors who very carefully observed the space constraints of the booths and acted very much like we were ticking time bombs. Of course, the voodoo dolls were a hit that season. But there were many imitations on the market by the next. 

Harry made hand signs to ward off the Evil Eye anytime he saw us, but we just smiled, waved, and wished him luck.

As Sun Tzu said,” The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” 

Bear Avenue

One year I did a large number of craft shows. I sold spoons and other treen while developing trade as a nautical carver. Each of my items was individually hand-produced, so there was no doubt that I was selling an authentic handcrafted item. Not so with some of the people occupying booths at poorly juried shows. Archly, those of us who handcrafted referred to them as Grandma crafters; when we were feeling kind.
Shows could put all sorts of regulations in place about imports, manufactured and remanufactured items. Still, enforcement was spotty, and it was hard to tell which show producers juried from those that pretended.
Most of the Grandma crafters sold remanufactured items, typically imports that they had altered. Some of the “artistic” flairs included painting and gluing on additional parts. Still, their goods sold, and some of the rest of us began to feel that the few real craftspeople in the mix were there to lend credibility to the show. Eventually, I fled to boat shows where my nautical bent on things belonged.
Recently I began using a laser engraver to achieve effects on some of my carvings that I can’t complete by hand – especially very small lettering. I needed this assist after eye surgeries. For each project, the addition provided with the engraver is unique and custom. The laser engraver is just another tool for me, like my bandsaw or carving tools.

Working with a laser engraver or cutter is not quite as direct as the bandsaw. So I belong to closed Facebook groups for users of these machines. The interface is via computer, and the maintenance, care, and feeding of the beasts require special knowledge. Being able to share tips and procedures is critical to successfully mastering the tool.

Many people utilizing the Facebook groups make laser cut designs for sale at crafts shows and on the internet craft selling sites.
Recently some of the jewelry makers have complained of unfair competition. One person complained that the earing she had designed had been pirated for sale by someone she had aided. Many folks manufacture similar items for sale on the craft sites and at shows that look similar or identical.
The original computer file tells the machine what to engrave and what to cut. The craft and skill belong to the originator and perhaps to that person’s first products from the file. Thousands of repetitions later, you have a manufactured good, not an item of craft. It’s a pleasing manufactured item, but not a craft item.
Add on all the imitators, and you have started to flood the market with mass-produced goods not much different than crafts knockoffs coming in from Asian countries.

Returning to my year on the craft show circuit, I met a phenomenal woman who crafted Teddy Bears. She was the sole person in that category that I ran in to show after show. One slow afternoon I sat in her booth, and she told me that once years ago, there had been shows where there were Bear Avenues with as many as a dozen makers of stuffed animals. The market was saturated, and many of the makers duplicated successful items made by their competitors. The result was category collapse- the over competition drove many out of the show circuit.
I suspect the same thing will happen to those “crafting” with laser engravers and cutters. In a few years, the machines will begin to appear on marketplace websites for cheap or free. Like any business cycle, it begins, develops, and declines.

Regarding craft or art, the question always has to be one of the tool or instrument’s role. Is it being utilized skillfully by the creator? If it’s merely turning out dozens or thousands of duplicates week after week, can it be craft?
Some art is produced in a limited series, after which the mold or master is retired. In the case of files distributed on the internet, that’s not going to be the case. That’s manufacturing.

There is also an accountability issue here. Craft and art are full of concept, technique, and theme borrowing; that’s part of the creative cycle. But pirated files and processes, which you then take credit for, are theft.
Watch yourself out there. It’s a dangerous marketplace for the creative. But there do not seem to be too many penalties for those who mooch and thieve.

Bad Show!

 Craft shows in the day, for me the 1990s, could be an “interesting” way to turn up a few dollars. You had to be careful in selecting the dates, venue, and most especially the show producer. Too many shows in one compact area on the same weekend could kill sales as severely as a hurricane or unpredicted snowstorm. Once you paid your money for a ten by ten booth, it was gone unless the producer canceled the show.

Shows ranged ( back then) in cost, from a twenty-five dollar local church fair to mega-extravaganzas at a convention center or resort area for hundreds of dollars. I assume that fees have continued to inflate since then. 

 A good producer selected quality locations, juried applicants, and made sure that there was variety in vendors. As craftspeople and vendors, we were interested in making sure that if the application form stated that the crafter must make everything themselves that it was so. After you were in a cycle of shows, you got to know the other craftspeople. Through them, you heard about who to trust and who to avoid. 

After a while, the awful producers would get you on their mailing list, and flood you with unwanted applications to their substandard shows.

Many shows advertised handmade crafts, but the producer had stuffed the show with Made In China, Pakistan, and Indonesian knock offs. The five real craftspeople placed near the entrance lost sales to the cheap imported “crafts.”

I wish I could say that if you stuck with known producers, you were safe. But, as in the rest of life, safety is always a relative commodity. 

Here’s a case in point. Several of my peers and I had heard about a show happening on a summer weekend in a resort area north of Boston along the shore. The producer was a well-known craftsperson with an, especially good reputation. The fee was substantial, but we thought that this would prove to be a good show: a suitable venue, date, fair jury process, and well-known craftsperson as a producer. It was a bomb.

First, after we set up, we learned that the gate fee was high. In addition to the gate fee, there was an additional parking charge. One or the other was to be expected, but both were sure to dampen attendance, and so it did. As the first day wore on, craftspeople started talking, and it came out that little advertisement had preceded the show. By the end of the first-day, anger had begun to grow.

It was a lovely weekend, however, so there were hopes for Sunday’s attendance. Sunday morning can be slow due to church, and it can die early as people leave to go home. Most of your business comes in the time between eleven AM and three PM. Not at this show, people avoided it due to the double whammy fees.

Craftspeople are great at concealing how bad a show can be: ” Great show, I took in lots of deposits. didn’t sell much off the table, but lot’s of commissions.” Or “Tthe show’s real success will be in the next week when people start calling.” I know because I’ve used variations on all of these and more. But at this show, people were openly revealing that they had sold nothing at all. Things began to deteriorate when one by one, we all visited the producer’s tent to complain and demand our fees be returned. While she went to the bathroom, a floral artist created a wreath of thorny stems with the flowers cut off and left them on her seat. The note enclosed read, “leave while you can.”

Leave, she did. Her booth canopy was abandoned in place. She fled with only her paperwork. I presume she left with the meager proceeds from the gate and parking fees as well. It was the only time I’ve seen a producer exit the show before it closed. With the producer gone, we all rapidly packed and left as well.

It was the worst show I had ever done, and an excellent object lesson that bad things happen at events, even when all the signs for a great show seem to be there.

%d bloggers like this: