When I started my business, Red Onion Woodworks, a year and a half ago, I swore up and down that I would never EVER do craft fairs. My new business was solidly based on online sales, and I was pretty happy about that. In my late teens and early twenties, I worked at the local farmers’ market every weekend (and many Wednesdays) of the spring, summer, and fall for seven years. I set up and broke down more booths than one sane person should ever have to endure, and I was really not looking to get back into that cycle.
Last spring, the opportunity to apply to be a vendor at the Corvallis Fall Festival presented itself in a way that made me reconsider my pledge against craft fairs. Shortly after an oversized article about me and my business ran in the local newspaper, the director of the Fall Festival contacted me about speaking on a panel of local artists, and I kinda sorta took that as an invitation to be part of the show. The Corvallis Fall Festival was known to be relatively hard to get into, but I ambivalently applied, and I was accepted.
I figured a craft show would be a good motivator to have a lot of stock ready at the end of September before the holiday rush really got started. Last year, I procrastinated in preparing for the holidays in part because I didn’t have the confidence to assume that things were really going to take off at the beginning of November.
When I arrived at the site on Friday afternoon, I looked around and realized that nearly every vendor was setting up essentially the same white tent with three white walls. Pretty much everything that I brought for my booth was begged, borrowed, or stolen from friends and family including a little blue pop-up tent that I borrowed from my neighbors (Thanks, Laurie!). Instead of the fancy panels and shelving units that everyone else had, I dollied in mossy cinder blocks, vintage apple boxes, and an assortment of walnut slabs (Thanks, Bill!). My booth did NOT look like every other booth for sure, but it’s debatable whether or not it was noticeably less professional. Though cinder blocks are awfully heavy and awkward, I felt like the whole thing was an experiment that I wasn’t willing to put up a lot of money (in addition to the festival fees) to support by buying a bunch of booth infrastructure.
Just about the only thing I did buy specifically for this show was a big pile of hand-batiked cloth from margotbianca. (A while back, I wrote about her on this blog here.) I knew in a booth full of wood and burlap, I would want to have a little color, so I ordered an array of colors and patterns, and I think the contrast looked great.
All the boards that had holes in them got business card price tags. I think they’re kinda cute.
Saturday turned out to be a beautiful sunny day, but the forecast for Sunday was bad, 100% chance of rain. Without three walls and a sturdy roof over my head, I was worried about everything getting wet. After close inspection, I decided that the tent I borrowed was really more of a shade tent, and I wasn’t sure how waterproof it would be, which was a big problem. On Saturday night, Henry’s dad offered to bring down a different tent, which still didn’t have any walls but was significantly bigger and definitely waterproof. I’m sure I looked like a total amateur switching tents on Sunday morning, but that was better than getting soaked.
Doesn’t that sign look good? My original plan was to hand letter a sign in white paint on an old piece of barnwood for that “rustic” look. The thing I neglected to factor in is that my calligraphy is terrible, and my first attempt came out all crooked and uneven. After posting a photo of my sign-making effort on my business Facebook page, Alicia from Dali Decals, a former customer, offered to send me a decal. This generosity was completely out of the blue and probably one of the nicest things a near stranger has ever done for me. After a couple late-night emails back and forth, Alicia rushed out my package, and it arrived two days later. Applying it was easy, and I think it really classed up my booth.
One of the things that surprised me most about doing a craft fair compared to doing the farmers’ market is the amount of time spent standing around with nothing to do. Sure I spent a fair bit of time talking about my product and sprucing things up around the booth, but there were also hours where I just stood there smiling at people. It wasn’t so dead that I could sit down and read a book without looking completely inattentive, but it kind of drove me nuts not to be doing something productive. I just kept thinking about all the cutting boards I could be making or better product photos I could be taking or popsicles I could be eating with my kids. I’m the kind of person who likes to be WORKING when I’m working. I’m glad that this is my only show of the year because I would never make it on the craft fair circuit.
Talking to folks face to face and seeing them interact with my boards was definitely a highlight of the weekend. With such one of a kind items, it was really interesting to me to see what people are drawn to and what sells best. Of course, I have my personal favorites, but what I’m slowly realizing is that my own preferences don’t necessarily jive with other people’s sensibilities. That’s the beauty of diversity. One group of three women had to shuffle through a large pile of boards at least six times (very politely and very gently) before they each could choose their favorites. I realize this is part of the process, so I’m definitely not complaining. It was actually pretty fun to watch.
I also had the pleasure of meeting several people that I only “knew” through Etsy/Facebook/blogging/etc. This was a first for me. Before this past weekend, I had never met anyone in person that I had met first on the internet. As it turns out, my “friends”/fans are really awesome!
Over the course of two days, I did hand out LOTS of business cards and about/care instructions cards. I’d like to think that some of the folks who took those without buying at the festival may come back to my Etsy shop when the holidays start to draw near.
My tent on Saturday allowed me to hang a few boards around the edges, which I think did a nice job of getting the boards up to eye level and demonstrating the hanging holes function.
The biggest bummer about the whole thing was that it rained lightly a few times on Sunday, and there was nothing I could do to prevent a little mist from blowing in the side of the booth and landing on the boards. Obviously, a little moisture would not ruin them, but what it did do was raise the grain a bit where the droplets fell. That meant that the silky smooth finish on many of the boards was pockmarked with little bumps. That both decreased the caress appeal (you’d be surprised at how many people are into fondling wood), and it meant that I would need to hand sand and refinish any boards that I didn’t sell at the show before I could put them up for sale in my Etsy shop.
Doing a show in my own community felt really good because I got to showcase this business that I’ve been running for a year and half to hundreds of people that I know or kind of know who had no idea that I had a life outside of being a mom and goat milker. I got a lot of questions along the lines of “So, who makes this stuff?” and instead of being offended that folks were assuming a 28-year-old female couldn’t be a woodworker, I tried to be proud of my accomplishments by looking people in the eye and replying “I did.”
Overall, it was a giant pain in the rear end, but I did well in terms of sales. Of course I have nothing to compare to, and I don’t know if I can or want to do it again, but it was definitely a learning experience, and now that it’s behind me, I’m glad I did it.
After three very long days preparing and working at the Fall Festival, I was completely exhausted. This week, I declared that I’m only going to do the bare minimum of Etsy-related work, and I’ll spend the rest of my time housecleaning and preserving lots more food stuffs. The plan is to work on refinishing and photographing unsold boards from the show to get them ready for my Etsy shop next week, so you should see lots of new items showing up online soonish.
Huge thanks to everyone who helped me out! I would not have made it through the weekend without assistance from the following folks:
Oven and Earth Farm (my parents) for watching my kids for several entire days and lending me the apple boxes, cinder blocks, flowers, and gourds, and for helping me load and unload lots of booth infrastructure.
Storch Woodworking (Bill, my father in law) for finishing the black walnut slab shelves on short notice, helping me prep a bunch of boards for the show, and bringing down the replacement tent early Sunday morning.
Alicia at Dali Decals for going out of her way to send me a sign decal on super short notice.
Margot at margotbianca for all the amazing cloth.
Trevor (my brother in law) and Alicia (a friend) for watching the booth while I used the facilities.
Laurie and Tracy Smouse for letting me borrow tent #1.
Starker Forest, Inc. for letting me borrow a couple trees and an extra hand truck.
Henry for doing double duty with the kids, bringing me extra cinder blocks, helping me schlep everything home, and putting up with me being grumpy and tired.
and last but not least, thanks to everyone who came down and supported me!