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Holiday craft fairs shifting with the times

In a normal year, community calendars would be full of holiday bazaars and craft fairs, hosted by churches and civic organizations, staffed by local vendors and artisans, and attended by people who come back year after year to support their neighbors and bring home handmade gifts for the holidays.

With gatherings restricted in an attempt to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, many of those craft fairs have been canceled. A few groups, however, were able to revamp their holiday events to keep the spirit alive.

Pam Ball, who organizes the annual Red Sleigh Bazaar run by Ledyard Congregational Church, said planning for the event starts in March, and everyone involved in the planning was blindsided by the pandemic. When the church canceled its annual Strawberry Supper in the spring, she said many people assumed the bazaar would be canceled, too.

Ball is also the manager of the Ledyard Farmers Market, which moved this year to the pavilion on the lower town green. As the market went on through the summer, a parishioner pitched the idea of hosting the holiday bazaar under the pavilion, which is next to the church, instead of inside the church hall.

"We changed the date, we changed the time, we changed the offerings, and it all kind of came together," she said.

Ball said many of the parishioners who sell at the bazaar make the same things every year, so that part of the planning process was easy, but she had to reevaluate what components of the event would still work in the new venue with the current restrictions. Normally, winners in the basket raffle and silent auction would go to the church office a few days later to pick up their prizes, but the office is currently closed to the public, and all of the setup and breakdown had to happen in one day, whereas normally they have a few days. 

This year's bazaar was held the first weekend in November, a few weeks earlier than normal and in the middle of a week of unseasonably warm weather. Ball said she received a lot of positive feedback from community members who were happy to have something to enjoy, and even though the bazaar didn't raise as much money for the women's fellowship and local charities as in previous years, it still did well.

"When we planned, we planned for everything to go wrong, of course. We planned for snow, we planned for rain," she said, adding that vendors had camping and Christmas lights at the ready in case it was too dark under the pavilion. "Fortunately, we didn't need to do any of that."

Otis Library in Norwich went virtual for this year's O'Tis a Festival, converting an event that normally fills the library and spills onto the sidewalks into a day of videos and live chats with library staff and local crafters.

Cathy Special, assistant director for the library, said that, like many people, she thought the initial closure in March would just be for two weeks and wouldn't impact the festival, but as two weeks became two months, she and other staffers started talking about how the festival would look in a pandemic.

"We did a little focus group with [vendors] to see what they thought, and they were in the same position as we were of 'maybe it'll be better by then,'" she said. "But the scientists kept saying it's not going to be better, and actually it might be worse, so we had to err on the side of caution, and thank goodness we did."

She said normally O'Tis a Festival has 40 craft vendors, with more on the waiting list. This year, some vendors decided to skip the event due to the format or other obligations, and others joined the festival for the first time, using it as the "kick in the pants" they needed to get their own online shops up and running.

Each vendor and performing group created a short video showcasing their work or act. Vendors also had the option to participate in a live chat with viewers to answer questions about their businesses. Director Robert Farwell also created videos about the library to air during the festival since he wasn't able to lead his usual "Walktober" tour of the building and its history this year.

Speaking after the festival, Special said she had a lot of fun and was "relieved and pleased," noting that she was nervous up until it started hoping that it was going to work. Even though she's hoping for a return to an in-person festival next year, she plans on bringing the vendor marketplace back next year because it was so well received. The marketplace, where participating businesses could post pictures and links to their websites, went live the week before the festival and will be available through Sunday.

Tough year for vendors

Dee Kelly, who runs Hedgehog Quilting, started selling her hand-quilted items at O'Tis a Festival about five years ago. She said she definitely prefers in-person events where she can interact with customers and they can see her products up close, but the festival was a "terrific experience" given the circumstances.

"I had made up my mind to make a sizable stock of items for the holidays this year, so I had set aside one week per month to work on the small items like place mats and table runners that typically sell at craft shows. Then when the pandemic hit, it seemed like there wouldn't be a chance to get my products out there," she said. "This was a perfect fit. I recorded a 5 minute video and sent it to Cathy, logged in during the festival so I was on the live chat, and it was totally seamless. Cathy and her crew did a great job making it run so smoothly."

Kelly said it has definitely been a weird year without the craft fairs, but she's seen an uptick in sales on her Etsy page, and she's been selling and donating masks as well.

Jennifer Tyler and her daughter Bella run Forest Fairy Designs, selling handmade jewelry including fairy dust necklaces and chakras. Jennifer Tyler said that when they founded the business, Bella wanted to make sure that all of their items were affordable so anyone, including young children and teens like her, could find something they liked at a price they could manage.

Bella Tyler said she practically lived at Otis Library during the summer as a kid, and O'Tis a Festival is her favorite. Even though she's going to college in a different state next year, she said she'll be back for the festival if it's safe enough for an in-person event.

Both she and her mother are disabled, and she said they lost a lot of potential income as craft fairs were canceled this year due to the pandemic.

"We really did lose a lot this year from not being able to do craft fairs. There's one sale I make hundreds of dollars at ever year — as a business, we make over $2,000 at, but of my personal cut  — and that's what I use to get a bunch of presents for all my friends and family," she said. She said buying those gifts for people is her favorite thing to spend money on, but without that fair income, money for those gifts is tight.

"Overall, it's kind of like a lifeline has been taken away from us," Jennifer Tyler said, noting both the financial and social impacts of not being able to sell at craft fairs this year.

She said she and Bella had developed a few new jewelry designs this year, including a bee-themed honeycomb line, and it was disappointing that they weren't going to have any places to feature them. While they didn't participate in the live chat portion of the festival, they created a video slideshow of their jewelry using pictures they had taken of a display they set up in their living room.

Given the amount of work that went into it — the photo shoot alone took a few hours — Jennifer Tyler said they probably wouldn't do another virtual show, but they'd do anything for the library.

"Regardless of how we do with sales, just putting it on made it a success," she said. "We love O'Tis, and that's what we were really happy to see, that they were doing something because so much has been cancelled and lost this year.

Ball, herself the owner of Kettlepot Soap, said she's also missing out on market income. About 80% of her sales are done in person, and in a normal year, she would be selling at the Ledyard Winter Market, canceled for the year, and at least one other event a week during the holiday season. Even for the few in-person events that are still on, it's hard for people to buy bath products they aren't allowed to handle or smell due to pandemic-related restrictions.

"There's a lot of artisans who make most of their money at Christmastime," she said. "This summer, the big push was for farms, so maybe in the fall with all the holidays coming, the big push should be for local artisans."


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