This season, Vancouver craft markets are booming

With such a chilly financial climate, why are increasing numbers of shoppers stepping into the cozy worlds of local artisans?

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      Kathy Vreugde and her friend Ashley Danyluk walk slowly, trapped in the middle of the crowd. They want to buy gifts, but the Make It! craft market is so packed with people squeezing themselves into booths that it’s hard to even see what’s for sale. It is cold and wet outside, but inside the Croatian Cultural Centre on this recent weekend, the music is funky and young people sit with drinks on the hallway stairs, making it feel like a private party.

      “A little bit quieter is nicer because we talk more with the venders,” says Vreugde, happily carrying half a dozen shopping bags an hour later. “You are more likely to buy something if you have a little personal connection.”

      According to Make It! organizer Jenna Herbut, this weekend’s show had a record attendance—8,550 people—but it’s not the only craft market enjoying a boom. Circle Craft Christmas Market coordinator Sue Monett says this year’s event saw a whopping 20-percent increase in attendance and sales over last year.

      “It is the first year that we’ve had a four-day show,” says Herbut, speaking at the show. “We had about 850 people the first night, so we are happy.”

      The boom bodes well for upcoming markets such as Shiny Fuzzy Muddy—which features hip pottery, purses, paintings, and more at Heritage Hall on December 10 and 11—as well as Toque at the Western Front (next Friday and Saturday [December 9 and 10]) and Got Craft?, a market on Sunday (December 4) at the Legion on the Drive that has grown six times bigger since 2007. Vancouver Christmas Market president Malte Kluetz forecasts 200,000 visitors for the outdoor, German-inspired event at the Queen Elizabeth Plaza this December, up from 125,000 in 2010.

      Julie Gibb's blown and enameled glass tumblers make their debut at this year's Shiny Fuzzy Muddy show.

      To Herbut, craft markets not only seem immune to the financial crisis, they are actually a growth industry because the public is looking to support local entrepreneurs instead of large corporations. “The whole Occupy movement is very strong, but there are ways you can do it other than pitching a tent,” she says. “It is just a matter of taking what matters into your own hands.”

      Darren Dahl isn’t surprised at the success of the markets. The Sauder School of Business professor and consumer-behaviour specialist says that in the current economic climate, people want to help out the little guy, and that means picking up higher-quality, handmade items—even though they come with a higher price tag—instead of opting for cheaper, more impersonal gifts.

      “Consumers are identifying specific items or experiences that are worth paying for,” he explains. “Essentially, people are being more discriminating—and authentic crafts can have more meaning, so they fit that trend.”

      Dahl adds that craft fairs—which offer the chance to meet the artisans, as well as live music, food, and demonstrations—give families a welcome distraction from their financial woes, and usually for little more than a few dollars’ entry fee.

      Kluetz couldn’t agree more. He strives to give shoppers the kind of highly festive experience that European markets offer, and sees it as an antidote to holiday commercialism. “People here understand the concept and that this is more than an opportunity to shop,” he says, speaking at the market site. “You enter through the gate and you are in a different world.”

      Rosemary Marland Lennox, Portobello West Market’s manager, agrees that the flailing world economy is playing a role, but she also thinks shoppers are interested in buying handmade designs from the people who made them.

      “It’s a wonderful thing to meet the person behind your purchase,” she says. “It provides you with a story to tell your friends and more of a connection to the work. Buying something at Walmart can’t give you that.”

      Given the high number of applications from crafters for tables at the fairs—235 applications for 50 tables for Got Craft? alone—it’s clear the trend is also a fantastic business opportunity for artisans.

      Jennifer Conway, creator of the brand Raven’s Rest Studio, is thrilled by this weekend’s sales at Make It!: “I sold twice more than I expected,” she says. “I will be staying up late every night this week making more stock for the next market!”