Fair organizers work to keep it real

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
“Absolutely no buy/sell imports, manufactured, mass produced, flea market or antique items allowed in the show.”

The above warning is printed in all-capital letters and bold type on the exhibitor application for the Hillsboro Arts & Crafts Fair.

It’s repeated again on the back side of the application.

Even so, believe it or not, a few exhibitors try each year to sell items they have purchased elsewhere instead of creating all of their crafts themselves.

Few things bother Arts & Crafts Fair organizers more.

“If we want to have a fair that has a certain reputation for quality goods, we have to jury carefully,” said Christy Wulf, fair director who has been part of the jury process for the past three years.

“Sometimes we have fewer vendors from one year to the next than we would otherwise,” she added. “But that way we keep our standards high because we don’t want this to turn into a church bazaar.”

The reason is clear.

“Why would somebody drive from Kansas City to come to our arts and crafts fair unless they know they’re going to get some new, creative ideas, and maybe some things you can’t find other places and you’re not going to find down the street at your local Hobby Lobby?”

In addition, legitimate vendors can’t compete with the prices of mass-produced items and the buy/sell items undermine the higher quality of the crafts they spend hours producing.

Application process

In recent years, the fair committee has tried to enhance its enforcement of the “no buy/sell” rule by asking potential exhibitors for tangible proof of a product’s origin before an application is accepted.

For instance, applicants are asked to send in photos, preferably of their materials or, better yet, of them actually working at their craft.

“We keep at least one picture of every vendor-and we tell them we’re going to keep it,” Wulf said. “And I did have to pull one out last year to prove that somebody was actually hand-making their item.”

Not every applicant submits the kind of photos that provide clear proof of originality, though.

“You get pictures that don’t show that,” Wulf said. “And it’s really hard to make sure (the items) are handmade. So many things are replicated so well these days that unless you’re in the business, it’s hard to spot the stuff that’s not handmade.”

If Wulf had her druthers, applicants would submit a video of themselves at work.

“Otherwise, there’s going to be somebody in here selling something made in Korea or China that they’re able to sell at a really low price that’s going to drive the handmade people out of business,” she said.

Screening for buy/sell products through the application process is helpful, but not full-proof.

“I would say normally we find about 20 or so (exhibitors) that you can spot,” Wulf said. “I know last year I had three vendors that I asked to take something off their booth.”

On-site vigilance

Unscrupulous vendors aren’t necessarily “safe” once they make it through the application process. Wulf is part of a three-person committee that reviews every booth during the day of the fair.

“I’ll normally visit all the booths two or three times,” she said.

This year, members of fair committee team will be wearing matching shirts as a way to identify themselves more easily for vendors and buyers who need information.

Wulf said she doesn’t think she’ll be attired that way, though.

“I may not wear mine because I like the anonymity,” she said. “I like (vendors) not knowing who I am. They’re more open with you than they would be if they knew who you were.”

Other exhibitors are good sources of information.

“I’ve got 400 vendors out there helping me,” Wulf said. “Sometimes they don’t give me real good information, but they’ll come up to me and say, ‘So-and-so in so-and-so-booth, their stuff’s not handmade.’

“Sometimes you can do something about it, and sometimes you can’t.”

Wulf said she has asked offending vendors to remove buy/sell items from their booth, but fair organizers have never closed a booth entirely.

“That’s going to cause a big stir during the event,” she said. “How many people are we going to put out who are here to buy? Forget how mad the vendor is, I don’t want to make my shoppers mad.”

Names of vendors who are caught offering buy/sell items are listed for future reference. Needless to say, they won’t be invited back the following year.

But not every complaint is clear cut. Last year, Wulf said she sent letters to 15 vendors stating the validity of their items had been questioned. The committee will reconsider them for future fairs if it receives clear proof of origin-such as copies of bills for materials or more graphic photos of them at work.

On the lookout

Some buy/sell items blatantly have stickers attached proclaiming their origin from another country. Some items are in encased in shrink wrap right from the store.

Those are the easy items to spot, Wulf said. Many items are less obvious to the casual onlooker.

“There’s always some jewelry, but mostly it’s little home-decor items,” she said. “You also see those signs that say something-like a phrase that’s popular that year. There’s a lot of those, too.

“But it’s really hard to tell,” she admitted. “A lot of the decorative painting items (are suspicious), but I don’t always know.”

At the same time, Wulf said she’s encountered some blatant violators along the way.

“Last year there were some little plastic birds that I’d seen at Wal-Mart,” Wulf said. “Everybody at the fair had bought one. There were hundred of them walking around here. They were selling for $1 and I had seen them at Wal-Mart.”

But her top pick for “most blatant” was a vendor who had booth directly in front of the fair’s information booth and was selling purses wrapped in cellophane with “Made in China” labels on the bottom of each one.

“At lot of places, they’ll get away with it,” Wulf said. “I hope we continue our reputation of not allowing that-at least doing our very best to combat the buy/sell problem.”

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