Julia Dixon | Creativity at Work: Shopping hyper-local for the holidays
NORTH ADAMS — December is here. It's time to trim the tree, hang the stockings, and wrap the presents. Holiday shopping
has gotten easier, and cheaper, thanks to the growth of e-commerce companies and brick-and-mortar retailers that are selling more online.
This emphasis on convenience has been a boom for consumers but a bust for small businesses that are unable to compete with the cost of doing such high-volume business. When American Express launched
Small Business Saturday in 2010, it felt like (and perhaps turned out to be) the beginning of a national shift in small business inclusivity, or, an awareness of how important small businesses are to the health of our downtowns, communities and the overall economy.
Seasonal markets take the creed "shop locally" to a much more micro level. Summer farmers markets provide shoppers with direct access to neighborhood farmers and food producers who sell fresh produce and hand-crafted delicacies. Winter holiday markets allow artists and artisans to get out of their studios and sell directly to consumers, bypassing the wholesale and consignment process.
Perhaps more importantly, these markets provide small batch makers and early-stage entrepreneurs with the sales they need to sustain their practice or build towards growth.
This rings true for Michael Vincent Bushy, a print maker and bookbinder based in Pittsfield. As a "side hustle" artisan with a full-time job in education, he has neither the time nor the interest in developing a self-sustaining business.
"Unless you live in Milan, you aren't making a living as a bookmaker," he explained. "Markets provide the best return on my investment."
And in the Northeast, markets are aplenty. Bushy has vended at 10 markets from Albany, N.Y. to New Bedford and the southeastern Massachusetts area between September and December. It's a weekend/evening business for the artist, who relies on this kind of marketplace for its schedule, affordability, and clientele to sell his stock of books.
"It's so easy to go on Etsy and buy something handmade," he said. "But people in this area seem to relish the opportunity to buy directly from the artist."
Maud Geng and Bob Kasper of Dancing Bare Soap agree. Their soaps and skincare products can be purchased on the company's website, but the bulk of their sales occur at regional markets.
"Besides the return, it's the interaction with the customer that's important," said Kasper. Hearing customers describe how much they enjoy the product is "extremely gratifying and, of course, helps Maud do more and more."
Geng, who produces the soap, got her start at Berkshire Grown's December Holiday Farmers Market seven years ago. She sold everything she brought with her to eager customers who suggested she try new scents and encouraged her to return to the market.
"They are still my customers," she said.
Dancing Bare may not get any bigger. Geng, who calls the company a part-time business, makes a limited quantity of product by hand and, as such, can control the quality as well as sales and marketing
by herself. But she has seen fellow market vendors grow their production, staff, and profits over the years, thanks in part to markets' low cost and quality customers.
Today, Dancing Bare can be found in Williamstown at Berkshire Grown's final Holiday Farmers Market and the Delightful & Delectable Holiday Market in Great Barrington, two of the last regional markets of the season. With over a dozen summer farmers markets and an array of annual holiday markets, Berkshire County is an ideal place for a small batch or new creative business to be rooted. And these kinds of businesses are critical to the creative economy. They bring product diversity, innovation, inspiration, and vibrancy to the local marketplace - even if their products aren't available year-round.
A holiday market isn't just a fun way to shop for festive gifts. It's a viable marketplace for the hyperlocal maker. So shop markets this season and help ensure that small batch artisans and "side hustles" stay open for business.
A former creative economy specialist for 1Berkshire, Julia Dixon is chair of the North Adams Public Art Commission, and a creative economy consultant, entrepreneur and visual artist.
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