Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Marketing rural arts to affluent suburbanites

I was in Washington, DC, this past week-end and staying with friends in Alexandria, Virginia, a close-in suburb. On Saturday morning, we visited Art on the Avenue, an annual arts and crafts event in the Del Ray neighborhood. My hosts had raved about how great the event was, how so many vendors came from all over. Indeed, the array of wares was impressive. As we walked through the stands, one of my companions told me of Tennessee vendors who had been there the prior year selling bird house. She described how distinctive, lovely and large they were--and under-priced, she said. She thought that the birdhouses they had been selling for less than $100 might have gone for as much as three or four times that amount. Last year, she said, they had sold out by noon. She wondered if they would be back this year, prices elevated to fit the metropolitan market.

A short time later we came upon their display, and my friend exclaimed that the prices were as low as last year--but that the craftsmen/vendors had adopted a volume strategy. The group of four or five young men had more than 50 bird houses on display. When my friend commented that they were back, with even more birdhouses than the previous year, one of the men gestured to the trailer they had brought, still loaded with more birdhouses. We chatted with them about their products and the process by which they had been constructed. One of the men explained that they went into the woods to gather the raw materials--logs and branches and such. They then worked together to cut the logs and assemble and decorate. It was a truly collective effort.

On their wares was a sign that said "Handmade in East Tennessee, Butler, TN." I asked them where Butler was, and they said it was about half an hour from Johnson City. I was (for some reason) stunned to return home, check out Bulter, TN on the U.S. Census Bureau's American FactFinder, and learn it is not even a Census Designated Place. Wikipedia, however, listed it as a community in Johnson County, population 17,499, and explained why it was known as the "town that wouldn't drown." (Read more here; hint: the Tennessee Valley Authority and a dam are involved).

Later, as we browsed the stalls on the other side of the street, we saw a quilt stall with an identical sign: "Handmade in East Tennessee, Butler, TN." We left the arts festival before noon, so I am not sure how these wares from Butler fared, but I'm hoping there was another sell out in 2009.

1 comment:

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