For Midwest makers, there's no place like Cleveland Bazaar

It all started in 2004 as a one-day sale for local artists to peddle their creations to people shopping for unique, handmade holiday gifts. Initially known as Bazaar Bizarre, the Cleveland Bazaar began without much fanfare in artist Derek Hess’ studio (located in what is now known as 78th Street Studios).

“It was a small room with maybe 20 artists maximum at the first show,” recalls Jess Kinsinger, an artist who, as owner of Sassyfrass, has sold at Cleveland Bazaar since the beginning. Some of the early shows were often in unused building spaces with no amenities. “It was dark and freezing—there was no heat and very little light. Things have changed quite a bit.”

Indeed, things have changed. Fourteen years later, the Cleveland Bazaar has evolved into Cleveland’s longest-running independent craft show—hosting events not just during the holidays but year-round, and drawing hundreds of artist vendors and thousands of attendees.

The vendor base has grown from just a couple dozen during the first holiday show to more than 70 artisans, taking over all four floors of 78th Street Studios’ 170,000-square-foot space each December.

The number of attendees continues to grow, too. “We had 12,000-plus attendees for the holiday Cleveland Bazaar this year,” says founder and organizer Shannon Okey, who is an artist, author, and entrepreneur in her own right. “In past years, we’d get around 7,000 people. This year, Saturday alone was 9,000 [attendees].”

Jess Kinsinger's booth Sassyfrass

And the Bazaar now extends past the holidays. Okey now organizes Cleveland Bazaar events throughout the year—from additional winter holiday shows like Wintertide at Gordon Square and Winterfest 2017 at 5th Street Arcades to the recent Valentine's Day event at Lake Affect Studios. There are also bi-monthly events throughout the summer at Market Square Park—for which Okey is currently accepting applications through March 1.

FreshWater looks at what has made the Cleveland Bazaar such a success in the city. In addition to a dedicated maker community and a loyal customer base that appreciates handmade crafts, it is Okey’s dedication to the Cleveland Bazaar, the City of Cleveland, and growing entrepreneurship that has fueled the growth.

From Beantown to C-town

Cleveland Bazaar has its roots in the original Boston Bazaar Bizarre, which began in 2001 among a group of friends looking for a way to sell their crafts for the holidays and put on a counterculture entertainment festival.

Okey, a Cleveland native who also owns Cooperative Press, was involved with the Boston show when she decided to return to her hometown.

The concept of Bazaar Bizarre was catching on at the time, with many similar shows launching in places like Los Angeles and San Francisco. In 2004, Okey decided to see how Clevelanders would receive the concept: “I moved back to Cleveland and I said, ‘Hey, mind if I do that?’”

The original founders didn’t mind at all, so Okey organized the first Cleveland Bazaar.

Okey took a suggestion to get in touch with Hess’ manager, Marty Garamita, about setting up the Bazaar in Hess’ studio. “And here we are, years later,” says Okey. “[78th Street Studios building owner] Dan Bush will tell you [that] the Bazaar really helped bring traffic to the building and put it on the map in the early days.”

Kinsinger, who makes asymmetrical earrings—each one unique—from architectural objects she finds at flea markets, antique shops, and even “the side of the road if it looks cool,” had been following Bazaar Bizarre in Boston and San Francisco when she learned from crafting chat rooms and art forums on AOL that one was starting in Cleveland.

“No one else was doing anything like that [in Cleveland],” Kinsinger recalls. “But it was kind of fun, even though we were freezing our butts off.”

Jess and Darcye were married at the Bazaar by Shannon OkeyFourteen years later, she can’t imagine her artistic career without the Cleveland Bazaar.

“It always feels like going home for me,” says Kinsinger, who also works at the Cleveland Clinic’s Green Roots Collection and raises her 14-year-old son, Gryffin, with her wife, Darcye. (The two first met 10 years ago in Kinsinger’s Bazaar space and were married in the same spot by Okey six years later). 

“It feels like family, like going back home to a family you’ve made.”

A stepping stone to bigger things

In 2013, Okey changed the name from Bazaar Bizarre to Cleveland Bazaar. Today, many of the bazaars in other cities have disappeared, while Cleveland is only growing. 

“There are only a couple of shows left, and we’re one of them,” Okey shares, adding that the overhead has caused a lot of events to shut down. “A lot of them were priced out. We’re lucky that we have a good number of spaces to rent that aren’t $10,000 a day.” 

A booth at Cleveland Bazaar event is often just the first step into a full-blown business, says Okey, who cites successful companies—like Cleveland Clothing Company, Oceanne, or We Bleed Ohio—that got their starts as vendors at Cleveland Bazaar and turned into full-fledged brick-and-mortar small businesses.

Okey sees herself as not only the organizer behind Cleveland Bazaar, but also as a resource for artisans looking for grow their businesses. In 2016, she started Retail Lab at Legacy Village and in Tremont to give vendors a taste of traditional retail.

“People were able to try it out, and the majority of them said, ‘This isn’t right for me,’” says Okey. “Because it’s not for everyone. You can’t have 70 vendors and open 70 stores.”

Andrea Howell, who has been a Cleveland Bazaar vendor for seven years, participated in Retail Lab, even though in May 2016 she had just opened Tidal Cool through the Tremont Storefront Incubator Program. “It was interesting,” the fashion designer says. “It showed me I’m happy with what I’m doing and where I am.”

Okey says other Bazaar vendors later this month are attending Niche Fair—a wholesale show where independent makers can show their wares to mainstream retailers. “Vendors are trying things like that,” she says. “It’s business development in all different ways.”

A family affair

Howell became a vendor at the Bazaar after attending for a few years as a shopper. “I thought it was a really cool thing, so I went into business,” she explains. “I’m not only a seller and a maker, it’s also a community.”

That sense of community is what Okey strives for. She hosts a private Facebook group for Cleveland Bazaar vendors. “Vendors can swap stories or ask questions,” she explains. “We drive that Bazaar family mentality, and it’s a good mentality. Our vendors are really supportive of each other. We can see them grow and help each other grow.”

Howell says she finds the private group as a great way to connect to like-minded people. “It’s a pretty active page,” she says. “Not everything is Bazaar-related, but it’s still maker-related. Even though I’ve been in business for a while, there’s always something to learn about, always something new.”

Cleveland Bazaar Valentine at Lake Affect Studios 2018














 



With an ever-growing maker community in Northeast Ohio, many of the veterans see the Cleveland Bazaar as family—and one that looks out for each other. “Every year, there are new people just getting started,” Howell observes. “And we’re unofficially mentoring them, whether it’s in setting up for events or displays.”

A Cleveland economic boost

While Okey sees the Cleveland Bazaar as a good way to show off the region’s maker movement, she also sees the potential economic impact for the city. She has worked with city council­—particularly councilmembers Matt Zone and Kerry McCormack—in ensuring fair conditions for the vendors.

“It’s an economic development job more than a crafts job,” Okey says of her role.

When the city was enforcing a vendor license ordinance designed for roving street vendors—charging $70 for vendors at events like the Cleveland Bazaar, Night Market, and the Cleveland Flea—Okey went to work.

“This permit was never designed to target vendors like ours, who hold a variety of other permits already,” explains Okey. “No other city or municipality in the state does this.” So Okey went to Zone and McCormack, as well as council president Kevin Kelley, and got the ordinance changed.

“I think there are a lot of [makers] here, but it takes public support to keep us here. If it weren’t for Cleveland, I wouldn’t be as big for as long as I have,” says Kinsinger. “In terms of public support, the city has been great. Shannon’s really gone to bat for us. There’s always the potential to grow.”

Additionally, Okey is creating a non-profit arm of the Cleveland Bazaar, in which she plans to help interested vendors improve their business models, work on packaging and marketing, and get other help in growing their small businesses.

“Shannon’s good about putting people on the right track,” says Kinsinger. “She knows everybody, and she’s made a relationship with 78th Street Studios. It’s my best show of the year, always. And it’s still my least expensive show.”

Rocking the Rust Belt

Okey attributes at least some of Cleveland Bazaar’s success to being in the heart of the Rust Belt, where people embrace the region’s reputation for hard work and, well, making things—whether it’s industrial manufacturing like steel and autos, or handcrafted works like coffee tables, confections, and clothing. 

“Cleveland is very good at supporting handmade, and I think part of that is due to the fact that, overall, our region made things,” Okay says. “We appreciate the amount of work and skill that goes into creating something.”

Okey overhears this philosophy all the time at Bazaar events. “If you listen to customer conversations, you'll often hear them remark that someone in their family also knits, does metalwork, works with ceramic or glass, et cetera,” she says. “They know what goes into it. Or if they don't, they're usually curious to know more, which is why events like Bazaar are so popular—they can talk to the makers in person and learn about their process.”

It’s not just Cleveland that embraces the maker movement. Okey says other nearby cities in the Rust Belt only fuel the movement.

“I absolutely consider Cleveland a maker city, not to mention the wider Rust Belt region,” she says. “Akron, Pittsburgh, Toledo, Detroit—their maker communities are very similar to ours, and we definitely have a lot of crossover with makers doing events in all the various cities throughout the year."

And many of those cities can thank Cleveland Bazaar for helping put Midwest makers on the map.

Read more articles by Karin Connelly Rice.

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.
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