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Katie Mabry van Dieren describes herself as Kansas City, Missouri's "maker megaphone."
Eight years ago, van Dieren (a maker of jewelry and stationery) took over the Strawberry Swing, a crafts fair started by a friend who had moved away. She blew it up from an annual event with about 25 crafters into a quarterly extravaganza occupying large venues like Kansas City's art museum and train station. The most recent Swing, a two-day holiday fair in December, attracted more than 20,000 attendees and hosted 168 small businesses that together sold $2 million worth of products.
For many artisanal entrepreneurs, live events are critical. Participants in local juried shows like the Strawberry Swing benefit from inclusion in a large, curated festivals with lots of promotion. Others make money from smaller, casual fairs in community centers or church basements, or as popups at nightspots and entertainment venues. The small minority with their own storefronts survive thanks to lots of foot traffic and, typically, a robust tourist trade. Coronavirus ended those things for the foreseeable future. So until they return, artisans have moved online to make up some of the shortfall--with crucial support from people like van Dieren.
"I was frightened for them and for me," van Dieren says. "Maybe 15 percent of my makers are OK without the income from these shows."
When pandemic struck the United States, van Dieren had already signed up 137 makers for the Spring Swing. Quickly she diverted her energy and advertising budget to create an online marketplace called Shop Local KC. Vendors registered for the live event automatically received virtual booths linking to their websites or Etsy pages. Others wanted in, and the site now spotlights about 200 artisans.
Still, Shop Local KC lacked that important personal interaction. To remedy that, van Dieren began producing live videos on Facebook and YouTube from crafters' studios under the rubric Meet the Maker. Shop Local KC does not yet support e-commerce, so van Dieren can't track sales. But she says many vendors have reported significant traffic to their sites. "One maker had 43 sales in the first week," she says.
Van Dieren rescheduled the live Spring Swing for May 30. If that doesn't come off, she'll ask participants, who pay $250 for a booth, whether they want to put those fees toward the Summer Swing in August or prefer some kind of virtual craft show. "If they want an online event," she says, "I will figure out how to do it."
A haven for horror
In Los Angeles, a vibrant goth subculture has birthed its own class of makers. To boost that community's sales, in April Mary Soracco and Kay Howell hosted the Spooky Sit & Shop on Facebook. It was the first of what they expect to be monthly virtual craft fairs for local artisans during the pandemic.
Rather than traditional craft fairs, L.A. goth specialists' calendars are crammed with events like the Endless Night Vampire Ball, a cosplay extravaganza; Midsummer Scream, a Halloween convention; and Spook Show, a gathering of horror enthusiasts sponsored by a costume superstore. Nightclubs are another popular venue.
Before the pandemic, Soracco--whose solo business the Contrary Dame makes jewelry for goth kids--had started an Instagram account called the SoCal Subculture Hustle, designed to help horror and goth makers find events and one other. As springtime events canceled, Howell, whose business--the Art of K Howell--renders monsters in paint and plush, approached Soracco about hosting a maker show on Facebook.
"I was starting to see my friends panic," Soracco says. "For some, these things are a big chunk of their bills. I wanted to help."
Soracco and Howell recruited 26 vendors for the first Sit & Shop, charging each $5, to cover advertising. About 300 shoppers attended. For now, the pair plan to keep their Sit & Shops small. At the same time they're reaching out to a wider range of makers with more general shows. The theme for this month's event was May Day. Next month's is June Gloom, a reference not to gothic landscapes but rather to L.A.'s overcast skies.
"The pandemic isn't just affecting the horror community," Soracco says. "It is affecting all artists."
Keeping the oven on
Etsy, the online craft marketplace, does not release statistics on how many sellers it has onboarded since the crisis began or whether existing sellers have added more products (other than facemasks, of which 50,000 Etsy shops have sold at least one). But anecdotally, crafters are recouping some revenue lost elsewhere by getting more active on the site. Matthew Cummings is one of them.
Cummings is the founder of Pretentious Glass Company, a maker of distinctively shaped glassware targeted at craft beer drinkers. The business, based in Knoxville, Tennessee, comprises a showroom, a brewery, and a studio where Cummings and four other glassblowers sculpt molten material using a 2,300-degree furnace. "We have to leave the furnace on 24/7 because it takes a week to get the temperature safely down, then four days of maintenance, and another week to bring it back up," Cummings says.
Ramping down production for reduced demand, consequently, is not done easily. With his showroom shut and corporate sales evaporated--accounting for 50 percent of revenue between them--Cummings is expanding his presence on Etsy, which is responsible for the other 50 percent. He's now moving hundreds of Pretentious Glass's one-of-a-kind pieces to the site, as well as opening a sister shop on Etsy featuring housewares like vases, bowls, and paperweights.
Although the company's Etsy numbers are up, monthly revenue is still off 30 percent to 40 percent. But Etsy sales are rising and don't yet fully reflect the new, more diverse inventory. "We are trying to make it more like our brick-and-mortar experience," Cummings says. "If you want to look for a silver lining from this shit storm, our Etsy store is going to be much better."