My husband calls us carnies. I chuckle at his sarcasm but bristle at the idea that he thinks we’re like a side show at a carnival. I don’t argue. After all, he’s my sherpa — another term we throw around, regardless of the fact that we know little to nothing about the actual life of a sherpa, or a carny. I think we enjoy these labels because it gives us some comic relief that we’re actually doing this sort of gypsy thing in our late 50s. What’s more, we’re expecting to make a living at it!
So, what’s a day in the life doing a craft show really like? It begins with a reality check on expectations. As we start to get a picture of the weekend’s forecast on Wednesday, come Saturday it’s either much worse than predicted, or (knock on wood) nothing much to worry about. Knocking on wood has become a regular occurrence and it solves nothing more than to give me an opportunity to imagine a sunny day filled with thousands of happy people who have money to spend. Imagining is okay and I like to think it’s helpful, just as long as you’re able to accept reality because things often don't turnout the way you might expect them to, and I'm not just talking about the weather.
June 2nd was the much anticipated Coolidge Corner Arts Festival. My first year participating, it’s a wonderful, well-balanced, well-attended show, filled with high-caliber art and craft. With only 85 exhibitors and decades of history there’s really no bad location. The jewelry category was comfortably less than 20% which made me happy knowing the selection committee took the time to balance the craft categories. June 2nd was hot and sticky, so whatever rain was forecasted we welcomed it, though I do think it diminished the number of attendees.
And let’s face it, it’s a numbers game. A show that has a great reputation, like the Coolidge Corner show, will bring thousands of attendees and for every thousand it brings a percentage of sales. The numbers will be a little different for every artist and will vary depending on location, price point, and years of experience creating and selling your craft. When you get a feel for it, you apply to shows accordingly.
Typically, setup and breakdown is a sherpa schlep — the tent, tables, display elements, banners, odds and ends and various tools for just-in-case, and the jewelry of course. I don’t mean to suggest my sherpa husband is doing all the schlepping, either! These days, with dozens of shows behind us, we quickly and silently get to work on the setup tasks, racing the clock to finish before the deadline of showtime. By 10:00 AM my facial muscles are in smile-ready mode just as people start to roll in.
The morning tends to be a bit slow as the early birds take a look around and decide whether and what they might like to purchase. It’s a great time to get to know the neighbors and to compare our craft show experiences — the good, the bad, and the ugly of other shows, the challenges and joys of being a crafter, sharing pictures of our kids and pets, etc.
Through this work I have discovered my peeps — a wonderful community of hard-working artists who have a passion for the work they do and an appreciation for adventure. The camaraderie, the support, the down-to-earth warmth — people who have learned how to face the shifting winds of change and uncertainty with creativity and courage. Being able to create a livelihood promoting one’s self and one’s artwork is not for the faint of heart!
By 11:30 we’re downright famished. The Coolidge Corner show (an urban location) included some fantastic food trucks so there was no shortage of great and interesting options. Other shows, like the more suburban Topsfield Strawberry Festival, limit their offerings to strawberry shortcakes and hot dogs, or lobster rolls at the Cotuit show on Cape Cod. Wherever we happen to be, we know we won’t starve and it’s usually a fun variety of hometown good eats.
By noon there’s a steady stream of attendees. A certain percentage, maybe a third, are people who are just strolling through, absorbing the friendly atmosphere of the local arts community. There’s usually a pretty good percentage of people who appreciate the finer things that you will never find at the mall, or anywhere else for that matter. They like to support the arts and want to own unique pieces that they will wear or use — they probably own a collection of handmade ceramic cups for their morning coffee, and a few unusual pieces of handcrafted jewelry, a beautiful hand-painted silk scarf or handbag. They’re easy to spot because they are usually sporting something handmade. If I don’t begin the conversation by describing what my jewelry is made of, or what inspired it, I love to comment on what people are wearing. It offers a connection with something we have in common — our love for lovely handmade things.
For me, doing shows, connecting with people about inspiration, style and handmade jewelry, is the icing on the cake. I really feel the love and get invaluable feedback on my work and it all nourishes me creatively. Most people are really interested and kind. There are always a few who think the work is priced too high, but they are offset by the majority of people who seem to really get handmade work — people who appreciate the importance of art and craft and who seek out the work that resonates on a personal level.
After a busy afternoon facing the crowds, I turn around and my husband is starting to break down. It’s now after 6:00 PM and we are both tired and eager to go. Just then, as I was about midway through packing up the jewelry, a tall, 30-something man came by, then left for a minute or two, then came back and was looking at what was left on my table. I could tell by his body language that he needed something, but quick. By this point in the day, it’s easy to become annoyed by last-minute shoppers who just seem to be poking around, looking for discounts, but I could tell there was a mad dash for something special, and for someone special, and I asked him, “how can I help?” He needed to pick up something for his wife, earrings? a necklace? What’s best? He pointed to earrings and I quickly and instinctively pointed him to my circle of bubbles wires and assured him that she would enjoy them. I have known quite a few women who have adopted them as their everyday earrings. He was relieved and said, “let’s do it.” A man on a mission. It felt so good to help him.
We finished packing the van and headed in the direction of home. A craft show rule of thumb: making 10 times the booth fee makes for a decent day of sales. The Coolidge Corner Arts Festival didn’t disappoint. It was that and more. I hope I can do this show again next year. Overflowing with gratitude for my sherpa — I can never thank my wonderful husband enough for his patience and help with these shows — with the cash from the mission man’s sale we treated ourselves to a sushi boat and a few cocktails. It was a well-deserved slice of heaven and a relaxing moment together after a long day in the life.
Life is good.