Did The Internet Kill The Craft Fair?

The internet has killed lots of things. Heavy watches. Multi-volume encyclopedia sets. Music videos. Handwriting. Truth. 

Some of these dead ideas and products we are best left without. Some we could really go back to. It’s obviously a bit of both. You could argue the whole invention of the internet is a wash. 

But now that the toothpaste is far and away out of the tube and dried against our countertops and onto the floor, we have to assess the damage. What has the internet spared? Is anything left out of its merciless clutches? I’m especially interested in the age-old idea of the community market, specifically the one where people made things and you bought them, with cash, at a table, from people you knew!

Back in the days when students walked 2.5 miles to school (in the snow!) we had something called craft fairs. You will still find them lingering about in the form of a farmer’s market or some kind of open-air flea market. Craft fairs are still popular, despite the invention of the internet. People crave personal connection, and the craft fair is the most sincere version of that, as if pulled right from the days before the internet. Going to a neighborhood market is enduring and quaint in the best of ways. 

In Person…and Online

Yet, no self-respecting salesperson at a booth in any kind of market would do so without some online presence. It would be catastrophic and business-destroying if you had a booth at a market without an online shop. What would you say to a customer that doesn’t buy anything but is being polite by asking for a business card? “Oh, you have to buy it here, in person, now.” Come on!

It’s only natural to have an extension of your booth available online. It allows you to make sales without actually being physically present at a booth. You can stock up on items you haven’t brought, directing customers to the online shop. It’s an organic extension of your business. It’s also a giant, immense, alienating mess. 

The Hidden Frustrations of the Webstore

With a craft table, you can see and visualize the work. Setting up the table. Ordering and organizing the product. Booking the booth. With a webstore, these costs are secretive, hidden under a layer of minimalist web design. You don’t see the long hours put in, the physical effort of listing, relisting, arguing refunds, adjusting stock, watching fees, and so on that goes into managing a webstore. 

It isn’t for everyone. It’s why we are better off in a world where both in-person craft fairs and online webstores can coexist. Let’s give options not just for buyers, but for the sellers too.

If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Join ‘Em

Etsy is a wonderful company….kind of. Strictly speaking, Etsy has filled the role of the craft fair, except on a global scale and through a massive, widely-supported, and online-based portal. It’s objectively an effective resource for handmade goods, and it’s carbon-free. Offset shipping is ahead of the curve of what should be a fundamental standard.

Yet the idea that Etsy is some free-spirited, anti-corporate entity celebrating widespread and open creativity is kind of a myth. Aside from some practical and favorable listing standards (vintage or handmade only, nothing mass-manufactured), Etsy itself is part of the corporate wheel. If you seek to avoid Amazon, you could do worse. If you are fundamentally against broad-stroke capitalism, Etsy should not be your go-to. The company has shareholders; it’s on the NASDAQ! 

Etsy is the craft fair in the same sort of way that Wal-Mart is the community market. That may be an abrasive example, but I think that’s mostly due to the toxicity of Wal-Mart as a brand name. Despite some non-business-like practices from Etsy’s end, it is still a mega-entity beholden to the shareholder. It’s not awful, but it isn’t exactly, well, small, is it?

Of course, a local community craft fair has its own version of shareholders. And let’s not get into the argument of “selling out,” a phrase mostly stuck in the late 80s punk rock scene. No, what we have here is capitalism that, regardless of its scale, still backs up into creativity. They are at odds – whether in a community market or on a widely-distributed online marketplace with Wall Street stockholders. People still need to make money. And Etsy is interesting in that it has many shareholders that are its users. Despite its flaws, Etsy is, predominantly, a collective portal for millions of very small shareholders and users doing solid creative work. 

The Universal Appeal of the In-Person Craft Table

If you recall the global health pandemic, we tried to replace popular in-person events in a virtual space. Some industries fared better than others. The craft industry’s success is debatable. 

The reality is that a major component of crafting was lost in this virtual space. Craft fairs retain something special, something that can’t be fully mimicked online. In-person crafts open up conversation. Every craft tells a story, and when you engage virtually 100%, a piece of the heart is missing. It’s like listening to an orchestral album on a burned CD. What a travesty! 

We know that virtual crafting is an acceptable, albeit rarely-preferred, alternative to the real deal. But what about the internet as a whole? Are we better off without it?

The craft fair isn’t dead. And no, the internet didn’t kill it. Just like it didn’t kill maps. My grandparents still have some in the back of their seats. But just like anything, we need to see convenience as a trade-off. We are losing something when we accept more convenience without understanding and seeing what we lose in the process. The internet and the traditional idea of a craft fair can work in tandem. As much as I hate the internet and secretly want to live in a mountain town and buy all my goods at the local town square market, I couldn’t imagine a creative world without it.