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Forget the web: These artisans sell their stuff only at craft shows

Ross Stuart’s banjos, available at Toronto’s One of a Kind marketplace.

If you've ever spent time perusing the goods at Toronto's One of a Kind (OOAK) show, you've probably wandered into the glittering world of Danny Pollak. Pollak's booth is a virtual Aladdin's cave presided over by the exuberant jewellery designer and five busy sales staff, who marshal the throngs milling around overflowing, sparkling costume jewellery displays. And Pollak's over-the-top approach has clearly paid off: For the past decade, Danny Pollak Accessories has been a consistent OOAK top five seller.

If you're set on snapping up a piece of Pollak's unique flash, though, you'll need to pick it up in person; Pollak doesn't sell his designs in stores, nor online. "I've set it up so that if you want my art, you'd better buy it there!" Pollak laughs. "I'm not going to hand out my card at shows – that's not what I'm there for at all."

And he's not alone. In an era in which even the most covetable objects are just a few mouse clicks away, a group of independent artisans are making a living selling solely on the show circuit. Take makers Allison and Josh Hill, the couple behind Rogue Goat, based in Eugenia, Ont. The Hills travel to craft shows 10 to 12 weeks of the year, their two youngest children in tow, selling – and often selling out – their art and accessories. While the couple initially also sold their wares in artist-friendly venues like the Owen Sound Artists' Co-op and Collingwood's Tremont Studios, they soon realized that they could go it alone. "It became a struggle to have enough work for anyone but our own direct sales," says Allison Hill. "We're incredibly grateful that what we make strikes such a chord with people."

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When Ross Stuart began hand-building ukuleles and banjos from recycled materials, he knew he was onto something special. "It took three years and $5,000 to come up with the first really viable model," Stuart recalls. "But when I got to the tin-can version, I couldn't make enough. I sold everything I made." In the spring of 2010, Stuart shut down his carpentry business and threw himself into rosbilt TinCan Banjo/Ukulele full-time. This year, he's selling his instruments at 19 shows.

Of course, it's helpful that there's a ready and willing-to-spend market for artisanal goods. Toronto's holiday OOAK show sees about 140,000 visitors over its 11-day run, while the spring event hosts between 55,000 and 58,000. "The artisans know we're delivering them a qualified market," says show director Patti Stewart. "About 92 per cent of the people that walk in the door make a purchase. Any retailer would love to have that kind of stat!" In Vancouver, a steady stream of shoppers from the Lower Mainland, Vancouver Island and beyond make the Circle Craft holiday market one of the top-rated consumer events on the West Coast. "We have 35,000 to 40,000 visitors every year, and 20 per cent of them are new," says Circle Craft show producer Paul Yard.

But even with a booming craft-show market, it's still somewhat surprising that artisans like the Hills, Stuart and Pollak choose not to take advantage of the vast, potentially lucrative world of e-commerce. Wouldn't it make financial sense to do so?

For Hill, the administrative work of getting online simply isn't worth the hassle. "You see us or you e-mail us...we like it that way," she says simply. "The rhythm of show life allows us to indulge the two contrasts we love the most: being on the road and being in the studio. And we get to do both while being with each other and our kids."

After a year and a half selling at stores, Ross Stuart discovered that his customers craved the face-to-face interaction – and he did, too. "People wanted me to explain, promote and demonstrate; they'd come to my workshop and buy from me there after seeing [the instruments] in the store," Stuart says. "One day, I may have a proper website where one can click 'buy,' but I'm really not keen on that type of transaction. Each instrument is personal, and I like to know who I'm selling to."

For Pollak, the intimacy of the in-person transaction just makes sense. "I look the client right in the eye, and I figure out what that person wants," he explains. "If I'm lucky, I have the art that will give that to her. And lucky me for being able to do that!"

But regardless of an artist's motivation to sell exclusively on the show circuit, the biggest winners are arguably their customers. "When you come to One of a Kind, you'll find things you can't really find anywhere else," says Stewart. "It's about more than shopping; it's about meeting the maker and finding out a little bit about them, why they do what they do."

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Yard agrees. "The handcrafted cup you'd buy from a ceramicist doesn't hold coffee any better than the cup you buy at Walmart, but it gives you a much warmer feeling," he says. "And the stories that the craftspeople have to offer – well, it's very worthwhile coming and visiting with them."

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