First Craft Show: Mixed Results

This weekend I set up a table at a craft show to sell some of my hand-carved woodenware. Although I have occasionally sold individual pieces to friends, I have never actively marketed my work.  Frankly, I don’t have time to maintain a stock of wooden spoons and spatulas to sell regularly. But when a friend of mine told me about this little, one-night craft show, I decided to try it out.  The table fee was so low that I could make it back in one or two transactions.

My little table display

I had a few spoons and spatulas that I had made over the last year, so on Friday I turned out a few more and got myself ready.  On Saturday afternoon I packed everything into the minivan and set up my table.

Unfortunately, there was a big game that night, so attendance was sparse.  So while I didn’t sell as many pieces as I had hoped, I learned quite a few valuable things in the process of getting ready for this show:

  • Getting ready for the show takes as much time as the show itself.  Of course carving the spoons takes up a good deal of time.  A big one can take me 45 minutes from start to finish. But I also had to print up literature, gather materials for the table, and get the whole thing set up.
  • You can’t be too prepared.  Besides my stock of spoons, I had to remember to bring a table cloth, business cards, price labels, a portfolio of my other woodwork, and most importantly, petty cash for making change.
  • Price for the market. I had a pretty good idea about who made up the clientele of this show (working-class/middle-class), so I knew I had to price reasonably. In other parts of town I could have charged more, and I’m sure my prices drove away some potential customers.  And that’s okay. If I charged less, I would probably not be able to keep up with the increased demand.
  • Be prepared for boredom. Traffic at this show was quite slow, so I had a lot of down-time between potential customers.  I’m glad I brought a book to read.  On one hand, it was nice to be able to personally greet everyone who walked by. On the other hand, only a small percentage of the people walking by were actually interested in the products. I did get to talk to a few folks about how I work, which was a welcome diversion from a pretty dull evening.
  • Show the process. Along with my stock to sell, I also brought my sawbench (with a vise attached to one end) and a small selection of hand tools so I could demonstrate the carving process right there. I’m glad I did. It was fun to talk to the two or three people who stopped to watch, and I think some people got pictures of me. At least it gave me something to do.
  • I really don’t like doing this. That was probably the most important lesson I learned. I enjoy making the spoons, and it’s fun to set up a display and talk about my work. I sure don’t mind making a little extra money.  But most of the time I was bored. I would rather have spent my time doing something else.

So will I do this again?  Not frequently.  I will probably do one or two shows a year, just to sell off my excess stock and make a little extra cash.

I realized this weekend that I prefer making spoons and spatulas for specific people. It’s hard to put a lot of effort into making something just “to sell.” I am more motivated to do excellent work when I know whose hands the piece will end up in.

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2 Responses to First Craft Show: Mixed Results

  1. rc says:

    I’ve had the same reaction to craft fairs, and I too am someone who would rather do or build than to sell. However, I think a huge part of this is simply in the nature of craft fairs as they currently exist. The customers are not people seeking the necessities of daily life, nor do these fairs generally display a realistic cross-section of the “crafts” being created in a given area. The attendees are, to be blunt, of a rather limited demographic stripe. Similarly, the crafts represented are pre-honed to meet this demographic. I’ve been to craft fairs all over the nation, and have noticed that perhaps 80% of the paintings look like every other landscape and wildlife painting at a craft fair. The weavers are all making the same stuff. The ceramics displays will often have one or two oddballs, but in general seem to copy each other.

    I don’t mean to make any slight upon market vendors nor customers, merely observe. It is my hope that with the rise of the CSA and Farmer’s Market movements, and my cautiously optimistic observation that skepticism of imported goods is on the rise, these fairs have potential to evolve into something truly useful for Most of Us, customers and vendors alike.

    A more cynical observation, at least locally, is that these events are often rather sternly run by “old guard” types who do not eagerly welcome the young, the free-thinking, and the different. From strict and strange (even byzantine) rituals, sometimes approaching hazing, for securing a table, to unaffordably high prices for stalls, it is not a simple matter of an innovative artist being able to set up a table and hawk their wares. I contrast this to markets I saw in India where anyone is free to throw down a rug in the “marketplace” — yes the towns have market space as a dedicated space — and with no fees, market administrative board, or hoops to jump through, merely pit oneself against the possible customers and strike what bargains may emerge. I’m not sure America could ever be at east with unlicenced, untaxed, and unregulated sales (particularly of food, which is probably a good thing), but I loved witnessing and participating in this raw trade.

    If we envision a workable marketplace, perhaps there is some small hope of them coming to be. In the meantime, I suppose you are right that we should just keep working.

  2. Steve S. says:

    It’s good to have your perspective, RC. I should have mentioned that, although this is my first time as a craft show vendor, I’ve been through a number of these events myself over the years, and your description is spot-on. The bureaucracy and overhead can be a major headache, but then these things are being run on private property and the owner/operators have to eat, too. One reason I decided to go ahead and do this show was that the table fee was very low and there were almost no strings attached. I just had to donate one item of my choice as a door prize, which was fine by me.

    You’re absolutely right about the kinds of wares being sold at these events. It was mostly cutesy, frou-frou stuff. Aside from my table, about the most practical things being sold were hair bows. Now I don’t object to anybody selling such things if they can find buyers for them, though I sometimes question the wisdom of the customers themselves. Down here in the Deepest South, we’re less suspicious of local, informal vendors hocking their wares along the roadside or in abandoned city lots, and the local flea market is a huge weekly event. It encourages a measure of entrepreneurship that I don’t see elsewhere very often.

    We Americans tend to be suspicious of products that don’t come in the usual corporate packaging–branded, wrapped in plastic, and hung neatly on hooks. And yet, as confidence in large corporations erodes, we may indeed see more people seeking out local cottage industries and independent vendors to fulfill more of their basic needs, as we are already seeing with farmers’ markets and the like. It would be a healthy shift, I think.

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