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'Balloon Man' Has Fun Grading Fairs for Profit

December 25, 1985|TOM CHORNEAU | Chorneau is an El Segundo writer. and

Last year the friends and acquaintances of Lee Spiegel rated Manhattan Beach a near-perfect 9--(" Creme de la creme , very crowded, lots of community support, almost sold out!").

A week later they scored Beverly Hills a 7.4, ("Well organized, beautiful; affluent buyers but LOTS of lookers . . ."). Meanwhile, Westwood, 5.4, got panned, ("This show just turned into a giant swap meet!").

San Jose they found to be a mere 0.2 ("Terrible . . . we were promised an ice castle winter wonderland with frozen tundra, live actors and special effects--got one lonely Santa and lost money on the best shopping weekend of the year).

Tough crowd, sometimes even a bit callous, but these critics of hometown fairs and craft shows are the vendors on the circuit itself, full-time artisans and contributors/subscribers to Lee Spiegel's homespun Fair Guide, published quarterly in Mill Valley.

Nomadic on Weekends

They are a loosely bound bunch numbering perhaps several thousand. Nomadic on weekends and during the holidays, they follow a path up and down the state April to December showing at any number of the 1,000 such events here and as far away as New York and Maryland, Chicago and Atlanta.

These are not hobbyists; these are self-employed professionals who earn a living sewing quilts or weaving, candle making, building dolls and polishing jewelry, tanning leather, pulling prints and blowing glass. Some are said to earn as much as $10,000 in a weekend, even $200,000 a year; though more average are the $1,500 days and closer to $20,000 annually.

A lot is at stake when they plan their schedules. The difference between making a profit and not can be as slight as a weather change at an outdoor fair.

"I'm the balloon man at the fairs, that's how all this began about 15 years ago," Spiegel said from his Northern California home where he and a small staff edit, print and distribute the 2,000-circulation guide.

"As the balloon man I could walk around, I was free to visit the different parts of the park, talk to everyone," he said. "I'd ask people how sales were, how the show was last year, where they might be next week. I tried telling others about good fairs I'd hear about because at that time it was really a struggle for all of us.

"There was one (fair) that really set me off, it was terrible--absolutely deserted except for the craftspeople. I saw the need right then for some way of sharing the experience."

He decided on a survey method and he began passing out the forms to vendors explaining his plan to publish and disseminate the findings. He didn't want names, just craft type, number of sales, crowd size, and short comments on fair enjoyability and the promoters.

"There are other guides to the shows, but they tend to have just one or two opinions," Spiegel said. "Mine has as many different points of view as possible."

He tries to publish all the responses as well as the ratings, though sometimes space considerations force editing. All responses are anonymous.

Bible to Craftsmen

"The questionnaire is a good way to get out your aggressions if things haven't gone well," laughed Pam Murray, glass sculptor from Sausalito who does about three fairs a month from April to November. "But the guide has really become sort of a bible to us. Without it craftspeople would be a lot less professional, certainly less profitable."

Marketing her small crystal animals through the fairs as well as from wholesaler orders, Murray says she is busy year-round. She and her husband, Jim, will not travel more than an hour to any particular fair. Within that radius, she said, are probably more craft events than anywhere in the Western United States.

Today, Spiegel and his network review about 700 annual events in the West and has plans to begin guides to the South and Midwest. Soon a publication for promoters will be available on how to sponsor successful shows.

"I like to see where the money is going, who the promoter is, the guide is very important to me," said Bill Auclaire, lithographer. "A number of them are put on now by cities in hopes of raising money for things like recreation departments and cultural entities that have been cut back. You figure 200 artists with entry fees of $100, do that twice a year and you're into some dollars for a worthy cause."

Auclaire, 33, of Hermosa Beach said there are several types of events: "Mom and pop" shows put on by a small town and possibly open only to local residents. Then there's "juried" by check, which means anyone with the entry fee gets space.

Finally, there's the fine craft exhibit where out of a 1,000 entries only 75 or 80 artists will get in. Candidates submit color slides of their wares and are screened for quality and workmanship.

"I used to market my prints through galleries, but most established places take 65% to 75% of the sale," Auclaire said. "This way I'm dealing directly with the buyer.

"It's not just the money," he said. "I felt I was working in a vacuum, it just drove me nuts. I absolutely love talking to people, getting the feedback."

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