On June 17, I had the pleasure of trekking a mile and a half in windy, 93-degree weather to the Cache County Event Center (at the Cache County Fairgrounds) for Logan’s second-annual Summerfest Arts and Crafts Fair.
I missed the first annual Summerfest, so I was very excited to meet the many local craftsmen who I was sure had been hiding in the woodwork (so to speak).
Now, you might think that it would be easy in Utah to find all kinds of people making cools things like handmade furniture, ceramics, who know maybe even shoes and hammocks and a bunch of other clever things you’ve never heard of. After all, Utah is the home to the headquarters of Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints – a church noted for its doctrine of self-reliance. But…
This is not the case.
Those people out there – it’s just not easy to find them. At all.
That’s why I was so excited about Summerfest – and I was not disappointed. The fair was chock full of amazing finds: handmade furniture, incredible ceramics, handmade leather moccasins, twined hammocks, children’s clothing, jewelry, leather goods, Native American-style hand carved flutes, personal care products, stained glass, engraved glass, unexpected items cleverly repurposed to lighting fixtures and other household items. And lots and lots and lots of art.
The full directory of all of the artists and artisans is here. I highly recommend checking it out.
I would love to share in great detail the enjoyable and enlightening conversations I had with the many talented people I met. But for brevity’s sake, I will try to do them justice in a more succinct form. I will share some of the things I learned from them, about the challenging nature of the modern market for handcrafted items. Along with a few observations of my own.
(A quick note: there were a lot of very beautiful fine artists’ booths at the fair. I love art, but because that was not the focus of my visit, nearly everything I’m talking about below has to do with the skilled craftsmen and artisans, not the fine artists.)
Some of the challenges facing modern craftsmen and artisans:
- Permanent, physical storefronts for handmade goods are very rare. This includes shared spaces. And where they do exist, they are expensive, and trend very strongly toward the art and gift market and far less toward the everyday market.
- Selling online is not the magic bullet. It’s not the magic bullet for any business, but for craftsmen and artisans, it often seems like it is – or has to be. Some of the issues pointed out to me by vendors are:
- Some items must be fitted to the customer (like a flute), and this is hard to do online.
- Representation of items online is not perfect, and people can be disappointed when they receive the item.
- Shipping is expensive, and sometimes difficult, especially with fragile, perishable, or unusually shaped and sized items.
- An online storefront requires skill and dedication in creation and maintenance, for it to be successful. You either have to do this yourself, or pay for it. And that is expensive in either time or money, either way you go.
- There are limited marketplaces online (e.g. Etsy and Amazon Handmade) and they have significant issues of their own.
This topic is big, and I plan to cover a lot of these issues in greater detail in subsequent articles. For not, I’ll just summarize my take on the online world as this: it can and does work very well for a lot of businesses, even those that are subject to all of the problems above. BUT, those businesses have to be able to absorb the costs (of customer service, returns, shipping, advertising, site maintenance, and so on). It is very difficult for a person engaged in any kind of cottage industry to do all of that, alone.
- Craft fairs are extremely important, awesome, and wonderful events. But they are not without some significant issues of their own. Some of the issues pointed out to me by the vendors include:
- Craft fairs are almost exclusively seasonal, and infrequent (usually annual). To increase market exposure, vendors have to travel to events. Sometimes this is fun, sometimes it is not.
- Fairs strongly favor the gift market. Christmas markets do, for obvious reasons. But the infrequent nature of fairs just naturally has that effect.
- Fairs are often seasonal because they are held outdoors, and outdoor markets can easily be sabotaged by the weather. If a vendor does four fairs a year, with say twelve market days total, and even one day is ruined by terrible weather, they’ve lost nearly 10% of their market exposure for the year.
- Fairs require consumers to make expensive decisions on the spot. It is often difficult to reach the vendor or buy items outside of the fair setting, so consumers feel the pressure to buy immediately. Obviously, there’s a lot that’s good about that, but for the bigger ticket items especially, it’s a tougher row to hoe.
- For craftsmen producing niche items, it is exceptionally hard to find an audience. As Steven from Grampa’s Flutes said, “Lots of people will buy knick-knacks or pottery, but how many will buy a [$200] flute?”
Okay, so those are some of the issues. But there are some huge positives that can be summarized with one word: CONTACT.
- Buyers get to see items that they can’t see anywhere else.
- They get to see, touch, feel, examine these things in person, in all their glory.
- Buyers get to see, meet, talk to and admire the person who actually poured their heart and mind into the beautiful, useful object that they are holding in their hands.
- When the buyer takes the object to their home, hopefully to be used and admired often – maybe daily – they will know and remember where it came from and who made it, and how much that person cared about what they were making.
- Craftsmen get to see and meet people who admire and support their work, some of whom will be taking it home with them, to admire and use for a long time to come.
I believe that contact lies at the heart of the value of craftsmanship and cottage industry. At a fair, consumers get to have contact with the physical items, and the craftsman. It’s really hard to overvalue that interaction.
There were three related observations that I made:
- The majority of the craftsmen and artisans were over the age of 65.
- Nearly all of the craftsmen and artisans engage in this work as a side-business or hobby.
- The range of items available (when compared to what could be available), is very narrow, and tended toward the high-end and/or decorative/gift market.
Those things make a lot of sense, in light of the obstacles faced by craftsmen and artisans getting their goods to market. However, I think it narrows our perception of what cottage industry is truly capable of, what it can mean to our communities, and to the people who engage in the work. I would like to see an expansion of opportunities for craftsmen and artisans to bring the fruits of their passion and hard work, to the people who want and need it. And for it to expand beyond the realm of the gift market, to the world of the everyday.
But craft fairs can and do play an important part in keeping the spirit of cottage industry and craftsmanship alive. A good craft fair, like Logan’s Summerfest, is there to remind us of the skilled craftsmen and artisans who are our neighbors. Of the skill and artistry that resides all around us. To give us a chance to create that connection through the beautiful and useful objects that are made by passionate hearts, minds, and hands.
I look forward to seeing Logan Summerfest come alive again, next year.