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Annual craft show invades Carver

BY COURTNEY SPEARS | NOVEMBER 20, 2009 7:21 AM

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Artistry will replace athleticism in Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Nov. 22.

Shoppers and craftsmen of all varieties will flock to the arena’s concourse at 9 a.m. for the Annual Fall Arts and Crafts show.

But according to promoter Tom Callahan, this is no “mom-and-pop sock knitting show.”

“You’d be surprised at what you can find,” he said. “It’s not what a lot of people think it’s going to be. There’s a lot of talent and skill involved.”

Among the featured works are hand-crafted jewelry, oak furniture, candles, food products, and clothing, as well as Hawkeye-theme objects to appeal to the Iowa City crowd.

Callahan started promoting arts and craft shows 20 years ago after managing the fairgrounds in Maquoketa, Iowa, a job that involved contact with other promoters and advertisers. When the Northern Iowa graduate decided to put together his first show at the UNI-Dome, it was a wild success. More than 16,000 people attended the bazaar to view and purchase from 390 vendors.



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Since his “show biz” beginnings, Callahan said crowds have subsided a bit because of what he believes is interest in cheap, mass-imported crafts available at some retail stores.

“It’s hard to compete with those prices,” he said. “But they’re not as well-made. People are always looking to save money, and that has hurt the craft-show business.”

Many vendors, however, say Callahan’s events and similar shows serve as a crucial platform for business development, as well as to form customer loyalty.

Jennifer Wilkins, who runs Iowa City’s Downstairs Designs out of her home, sells linen-based wares in around 10 craft events each year, in addition to selling online and at farmers’ markets. Through craft shows, she has been able to establish close connections with customers and other vendors.

“For customers, there is a real interest in buying directly from the makers,” she said. “For me as a business person, it’s an excellent way to get immediate feedback … My customers always come up with far more creative ideas and uses than I do.”

Wilkins said she has gained regular customers over her five years of participating in craft shows, something to which online shopping and whole-sale business doesn’t necessarily lend itself.

“I’ve gotten to watch some kids grow up, from pregnancy to kindergarten,” she said. “With shows like this, you get to form a real community with both the vendors and the customers.”

Her sales also benefit from the expos. While her popular online and wholesale items are geared toward adults, her biggest seller are chalkboard mats for children, which she sells en masse at the fairs.

Like Wilkins, veteran craftsman Rita Douglas said she loves the craft expo experience — in fact, she has been peddling her wares at shows since 1985. The Iowa City resident owns the Back Door Cat, a jewelry and clothing business she runs out of her home and through a craft mall in Bronson, Mo.

Douglas said the shows she has been to lately have not only been well-attended, they have also sold well, which she attributes to the desire for quality holiday gifts.

“ ‘Hand-mades’ really stand the test of time,” she said. “I think people are going back to the grass roots and not to the electronic things that you can find in any store.”

Douglas attends approximately 20 shows a year around the Midwest, in which she sells button jewelry, yarn scarves, and cat-theme clothing. As a frequent vendor, she has seen some of the most out-of-the-box items on the market.

“I bought a flute that a gentleman had formed into the shape of a bird,” the former music teacher said. “That was probably the most unusual item that I had ever seen.”


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