Living for the weekend: Crafters’ market draws residents and tourists to downtown Pictou, creating new opportunities in the wake of shipyard closure
Joyce Battist didn’t make a nickel the first year she and a friend opened the Pictou County Weekend Market as a crafters’ co-operative. After the ice melted in the spring of 1995, Battist and carpenter Jim MacMullin rented the New Caledonian Curling Club on the Pictou waterfront, and covered the walls with plain newsprint. “We had to run with the stapler every time the wind blew,” Battist says.
That was 17 years ago. Since then, the curling rink walls have been refinished, and the market, now a private business, has developed into a Maritime summer shopping destination. Every Saturday and Sunday from June to September, hundreds of shoppers are drawn to the forest of booths, separated by portable dividSmith Snacksers dressed in hand-made wares of every description. They wander around the spacious aisles and engage in conversation with cheerful vendors and fellow shoppers. Tourists trickle in from nearby historic attractions, restaurants or accommodations; local residents dash in to buy gifts, to order big-ticket items, or to re-supply their cupboards; and hikers from a waterfront trail who take refuge from rain or heat often end up making purchases. Although busy, the market is not crowded, allowing shoppers easy access and giving artisans opportunities to describe their products.
Battist admits she’s surprised at both the longevity and success of the enterprise. She estimates that in 2010, in just 28 days of weekend operation, the market earned a total of $350,000 for about 20 vendors. That’s a significant amount in a town that struggled to market its history to tourists after a 1990s shipyard closure caused an economic slump; and where financial woes temporarily closed Pictou’s central attraction, the replica sailing ship Hector, for the 2010 season.
The market’s artisans and crafters who sublet booth space enjoy a wide and loyal following for their products, which include soap, toys, high-end wood furniture and décor, food, wine, clothing, jewellery and art. The largest is a well-appointed consignment booth, nicknamed the “department store” by operators Myrna and Ivan Walsh.
Vendors can leave their booths in place from weekend to weekend, instead of dismantling them every Sunday evening. Battist sold her own hand-made kitchen supplies at fairs and flea markets before establishing the Pictou venue, so she knows that such permanency saves the artisans time and energy.
“It’s great that this stays set up,” says Ann McGee, a call centre employee who turned her passion for making naturally-scented soap and candles into the part-time business Millstream Cottage Crafts. McGee discovered that her steady summer appearances at the Pictou County Weekend Market offer a way to test new products and increase exposure for her wares. The result is a handful of year-round contracts to supply gift shops in the region, which will help her reach her goal of becoming a full-time entrepreneur.
Other market vendors have graduated to premises of their own in order to fill large contracts for furnishing hotels or supplying shops, says Battist, who gets emotionally involved in the vendors’ successes.
“If a vendor does really well, I’m ecstatic,” she says, adding that she also feels guilty if they don’t do well. She offers steady encouragement and advice, especially to the beginners. “Some of them don’t realize how good they are,” she says.
“Coming here was the best move we ever made,” notes Mary Keeping, who moved to Pictou with her husband Bill to be close to the market. Along with paper and fabric art and rustic birdhouses, they sell Bill’s handmade replicas of famous sailing ships like the Bluenose and Pictou’s own Hector, docked across the street from the curling club. Now, the Keepings sell $350 to $1,200, they are exported all over North America. The market’s website (pictouweekendmarket.com) helps both tourists and local shoppers find vendors after they get home and think about what they didn’t buy, Bill says.
The benefit of a website was one of the many lessons Battist learned along the way. Battist also discovered the value of booth design, public relations, maintaining a variety of vendors, and co-operating with other businesses to increase traffic throughout downtown Pictou.
Market shoppers sometimes stay in town the whole weekend, which benefits other Pictou businesses, she says. “They don’t just come to the market.”
Says Anne Emmett, president of the Hector Quay Society and owner-operator of the Braeside Inn, “The first day it opened this year it was very obvious that the market brings people to Pictou who wouldn’t otherwise be here.” Emmett has noticed that if people have to search for a parking spot, it encourages them to stop and find out why the place is so busy.
“The market makes the town bustle,” she said, adding that she encourages her guests to look around the vendors’ booths. In return, Battist and her vendors tell shoppers about the ship Hector, the Braeside, and other attractions in the town. “They are good for us, and we’re good for them.”
As well as offering a downtown attraction and a collegial venue for artisans, Battist provides space to the Pictou Business and Marketing Society for an information kiosk, said society chairman Luke Young.
“It’s a great thing to have a market,” he said. “The more that happens downtown, the better it is for everyone.” – Monica Graham