Holiday Markets Welcome Pandemic Entrepreneurs

Sander Gusinow
Bronwyn Williams, co-owner of Ferret’s Stash in Eugene.

Seasonal craft markets see an uptick in vendor applications, with many crafters saying COVID-19 prompted them to start new businesses.

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The warm, birch-colored walls of the Lane County Fairgrounds pavilion weren’t lined with customers. The dull roar of the crowd from years past was replaced by a modest hum of shoppers practicing social distancing. But longtime vendors at Eugene’s annual Holiday Market described it as an above average year for customers  — a welcome change from operating outside and at 50% capacity, as it did in 2020. 

But there was one key difference that had Diane McWhorte, Board Secretary of the Eugene Saturday Market which hosted the event, smiling from ear to ear. 

“There seems to be a great supply of young people getting into the crafts. I think the pandemic has actually helped establish more small businesses,” she told me, as we spoke in her booth at the holiday fair. Of the 600 vendors signed up to participate at the Lane County Holiday market, 150 were new members.

holidaymarket.jpgShoppers peruse the Lane County Holiday Market. Photo: Sander Gusinow

One of these sellers, fiber artist Bronwyn Williams, was a seamstress and a homemaker before starting her business Ferret’s Stash, named for her prior hobby of rescuing ferrets, with her sister. 

“We started off sewing masks, which I don’t mind saying I’m sick of making,” she jokes. Once orders began piling up, Williams made the decision to finally start her business. “My partner said to me, ‘You have been waiting for this to take off. This is how it takes off.’” Williams and her sister still make masks, but also sell tote bags, reusable produce bags and other items from “rescued” fabrics that would otherwise be discarded.

According to the US Census Bureau, 2020 was the one of the biggest years on record for new businesses. 4.4 million new businesses were created in the U.S. during 2020 — a 24.3% increase from 2019 and 51.0% higher than the 2010-19 average.

allie2.jpgAllison Reilly sells artwork at her Holiday Market booth. Photo: Sander Gusinow

As customers return to in-person shopping this holiday season, holiday market organizers are seeing new vendors joining the ranks, many of whom started their own food or craft business during COVID-19. For membership organizations like farmer’s markets and craft fairs, the pandemic has laid the groundwork for a new generation of sellers.

Sarah Bast was laid off from her job at a coffee shop before joining forces with her sister Racheal to start their feltwork business, Studio Bast, in 2020. The sisters began posting their work on Instagram, which was the catalyst for the business taking off.

“I got laid off, and decided I would learn to needle,” says Bast. “Then people, mostly parents, started to respond to it.”

The rise of online shopping and the increase in the amount of time most Americans spend online, has made getting a small business off the ground a less daunting prospect. Instead of having to invest in a booth at craft fairs to get the word out, craftspeople have been able to build a reputation in the virtual space — and make needed sales — before fully committing financially to the business. 

“I had friends tell me I was good at art, so I decided to put one of my pieces on Etsy,” says Allison Reilly, owner of Allison’s Artristries in Eugene. “I sold one painting and I was like, ‘No way, this is crazy. I want to spend all my time making art.’” 

For new vendors, the holiday market season is a chance to dip their toes into the water. And there is reason to believe this year will be a welcoming environment. 

Rebecca Landis, market director of the Corvallis-Albany Farmers Markets, which will host its Holiday Market in December, expects there is more interest on both sides of the vendor booth this year. Despite signs of global supply chain issues easing, holiday shoppers are still having difficulties purchasing holiday essentials, like food, wine and toys. 

“It’s sort of an all-hands-on-deck moment for people who still have the product,” says Landis. 

Landis did not have exact numbers on the amount of new vendors registered to participate in the Holiday Market, but she estimated a 10% increase in the number of vendors compared to 2019. And supply chain issues have meant shoppers showing up in equal measure.

“We were able to get a lot of public attention this year because of the supply chain situation. Most people didn’t even talk about supply chains until this year,” says Landis. “I think it has really shined a spotlight on buying locally.” 

Landis hopes sales this holiday season will serve as a catalyst for farmers markets becoming a regular part of more customers’ lives. For local vendors, supply chain problems coming out of COVID-19 could be an unexpected gift. 

“It’s a slow-growing thing, but the farmers market movement in Oregon has periods of acceleration,” says Landis. “We’ve had two years of successful markets. We’re hoping to create a year-round market environment.”

For McWharte, who began selling at the Eugene Saturday Market in 1976, the year’s surprising number of new entrants means a bright future for the Eugene crafts scene. McWharte has seen waxing and waning interest in the crafts from young people over the years, but the new suite of pandemic small businesses means the market could stay vibrant for years to come. 

“We’re a membership organization, so our new members are our future,” says McWharte. “It feels like we’ve built a strong foundation and are handing things off to the next generation.”


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