Students purchasing their gifts at the elementary school often strike a thoughtful pose.

Entrepreneurship—any kind, part time or full time—is essential to small-town life. It’s evident along Main Street, out along the main highway, in home offices, and in, of all places, the Christmas craft show.

This year, my foray into the gig economy has led me to become a participant observer in local entrepreneurship at a couple of craft shows in my current hometown of Bushnell, Illinois, population more or less 3,000. It is an entirely new experience to sit on the other side of the table selling and signing my new book.

The holiday craft show is something of an institution in most communities. Whether the goods are handmade—and many are—or “value added” items compiled from store-bought components—it is obvious much effort goes into creating, assembling, packaging, and setting up displays. It is easy to complain about quality, but in a small town with a high poverty level, compiled items offer a wider selection to buyers at lower prices. This is a good thing, come to think of it.

Of course, money changes hands at these craft shows. I’m delighted that people can turn their hobbies and creative endeavors into a little supplementary cash. The craft show, is after all, a great form of buying local.

It’s a joy to be engaged in the social side. When friends are selling to each other, there may be some pressure to buy. But there’s more going on. If the action isn’t in the hands exchanging money, it’s focused around moving mouths. Talk is everywhere: about the products and prices, about the show and attendance, and about the latest gossip, and, of course, there’s fun poking that seems to be universal in small towns.

The two shows I’ve been to this holiday season have been fundraisers for local organizations: The Veterans of Foreign Wars Women’s Auxiliary and the Bushnell-Prairie City Elementary School. They were two entirely different experiences.

The author at the elementary school, ready for a day of sales.
The author at the elementary school, ready for a day of sales.

The VFW show, held on a snowy Sunday, had a fairly steady stream of traffic from the opening at noon until about 2 p.m. when a couple of groups from our schools performed Christmas carols. I met my fondest dreams, selling 15 books, one just as the show was closing. This was my second book signing, and by the end of the day, I really was feeling something of a rush.

Since I have worked outside of Bushnell for most of the 11-plus years we have been here, I had not met many people from town. One of the best parts of the day (of course selling the books was important) was the chance to see people whose names I had heard, but had never met. People were kind, and from what I learned, no surprises here, my wife’s reputation exceeds me in the best of all ways because of her years of volunteering. More than once, I heard, “So, you’re Shannon’s husband.” You know the tone.

The elementary school show was a last-minute deal, arranged by my wife. It was a long day, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., complicated because I wanted to sell books, but not too many because my stock was low and I had another signing scheduled for the following Sunday. As it turned out, I sold eight books, and decided to leave 45 minutes earlier so I would have enough for the next signing. That’s called supply side management.

While VFW show crowd was fairly steady—happy but tempered by maturity—the elementary school event saw waves of chattering students descending on the gymnasium. What a delight. The children were really well behaved, each equipped with a Christmas list and money in an envelope. At the top of each hour, different grades swarmed into the room, spent a half an hour or so making their purchases, and then headed over to the school library where volunteers helped them wrap their gifts. Talk about noisy. With the youngest students, a few cases of shattering glass and crunching pottery punctuated the air, unfortunate accidents of growing up. I was glad my product isn’t breakable. I made sure everything was away from the table’s edge.

All in all, the day at the elementary school—where the true believers congregate—was good. I knew some kids were scrutinizing me because of my white beard and red sweater. One vendor told me a little girl had a perplexed look on her face while I was taking some research notes from my cellphone. Guess she thought I was taking notes on students. I’m sorry I missed that.

Turns out I also was the subject of classroom discussion. While talking with teachers about this after school let out, they generally said they left it up to the students to decide. I said that my preferred approach is to tell students that I am one of Santa’s helpers. But one teacher was not above using my presence as a form of social control. When I asked about this, she quipped, “Whatever it takes.” I still wonder if that’s naughty or nice.

The sad part of the day was having to tell four children that they did not have enough money to buy the book. The flash of disappointment on their faces really did break my heart as they learned a too-early lesson in capitalism. In retrospect, maybe I should have sold them the book for whatever they could pay, but—and my conscience does bother me—I ended up being Scrooge-like because my stock was low. Poor excuse, isn’t it? I will salve my conscience by giving a copy of the book to the school library soon.

The craft shows certainly seem to add to the community’s holiday spirit. They foster gift giving, of course. But they also rely heavily on volunteers. Most of the people selling crafts are senior citizens, giving them ways to demonstrate creativity and get out in public.

For me, this month has seen some personal growth. Sure, I made some money, enough to cover my initial publishing expenses, but certainly not my time writing it. That’s OK. Maybe I’ll get some return on that. Dream on.

The biggest surprise is the discovery of my inner salesman. I am normally pretty introverted. But, I really, really like to talk about the book. Most importantly, I am meeting new people in my community, and maybe, just maybe, I am helping to make their holidays a little brighter.

What more could I ask?

Timothy Collins is an independent writer, editor, and consultant and proprietor of Then and Now Media. From 2005 to 2016, he was assistant director for research, policy, outreach, and sustainability at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. He is the author of a newly released fantasy book, Memories of Santa Claus.

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