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16th Century Business in the 21st Century

Becoming a jewelry merchant at a Renaissance Faire
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photo by Juli McCarthy

For Week Two of Facet's Month of Fantasy and Adventure, we are transporting back in time to the world of Renaissance Faires. I am lucky enough to live near the Bristol Renaissance Faire, so I travel back to Elizabethan England at least once per summer. Many devoted attendees go every weekend, or travel from much greater distances to immerse themselves in the culture of queens and kingdoms, knights in shining armor, and lords and ladies. They experience jousting, medieval music, wenches, jesters, and even fairies, while gnawing on giant turkey legs and raising a tankard of ale or mead. 

We wanted to explore what it was like to actually work at a Renaissance Faire as a vendor, and to bring an authentic experience to those devoted patrons. We turned to Juli McCarthy, owner of Mockingbird Studio and a long-time jewelry maker who has found her niche at Faire. In Part One, she shares with us the actual business side of becoming a vendor at a Faire: it's not as simple as just filling out an application!  Be sure to check out Part Two, where she describes an actual day at Faire and what it's like to interact with customers while staying in character as a 16th Century merchant! ~kk

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photo by Alyson Grauer
open wide the gates, huzzah!

There are more than 300 Renaissance Faire events held annually in the United States. On any given weekend, you can find somewhere to travel back in time for a day. I've been selling my handcrafted polymer clay jewelry at Renaissance Faires and festivals for more than ten years.

For patrons, a day at the Renaissance Faire is a day of fantasy and escape from the mundane; a chance to go back in time and explore the history of the era without having to actually contract the plague. They can enjoy the music, comedy, adventure, and theater; the food and drink; and shop 'til they drop. But before the opening day cannons go off, the bells start ringing, and the shout of "OPEN WIDE THE GATES" echoes through the faire site, a cast and crew of several hundred people has been hard at work for months. For those of us who make and sell handcrafted items at faires, it can be a full-time, year-round job.

How to Become a merchant
There's a process to becoming a merchant at a Renaissance Faire. First and foremost, your work will need to be approved by someone in faire management. This may be a marketplace coordinator, an art coordinator, or a management committee. This person or committee will not only decide if your work is of sufficiently high-quality and if it fits in with the theme or time period of the faire, but also whether your medium is already over-represented. Frequently, there is a waitlist of approved artists, particularly in the categories of jewelry and costumes. 
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photo by Juli McCarthy
Creating the right atmosphere

If your work is accepted, you will then need to have a place within the faire to sell it. For smaller faires and weekend festivals, this may be as simple as taping off a 10'x10' space on the site and erecting a pop-up tent. Events with a distinct historical setting may require your tent be period-appropriate, too, so contemporary materials like ripstop nylon walls, telescoping poles, and folding tables will need to be disguised to appear more authentically period.

For "hard sites" and longer seasonal events, you may need to buy, rent or build a shop on the faire grounds. If you buy or build, you will own the structure, but NOT the land it sits upon. You'll be required to make sure the structure fits in visually with existing faire buildings, and you'll be required to maintain it to city/county building codes and fire ordinances.  If you rent, you may be restricted from making any changes to the building. 

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photo by Alyson Grauer
The (21st Century) Business Side of Things

There will be paperwork and fees. Merchants usually need to pay a vendor fee and occasionally a commission on sales. You're also responsible for collecting and paying sales tax to the state in which the faire is held. If you need help in your shop, you have to hire staff and pay them (or not, if you're fortunate enough to have a partner who will work for pizza!). You'll be responsible for insurance, too.

One of the faires I sell at requires vendors to pay a residency fee if they wish to stay overnight on site during the run of the faire, either in faire-owned tent camping, or within the shops themselves, to help defray the water and electricity costs accrued. Some faires offer free tent camping or reduced prices for electrical hookups for trailers or RVs. Some sites have no lodging on site, and merchants have to book rooms in local motels.

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photo courtesy of Juli McCarthy

And then there's garb. Most faires require their vendors to look the part, so you won't be wearing jeans. Costume guidelines vary from faire to faire, but it's a safe bet that you'll be clad in voluminous skirts and a tight bodice, or loose trousers and a doublet.

Finally, all the paperwork is done! You've got a shop, inventory to fill it, and everything you need to run it. That's when the gates open and the patrons come in. 

On Thursday, we'll continue our look at a Day at Faire, stay tuned!

 
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