inside the bizarre cleveland bazaar and 10 years of peddling indie arts

While organizer Shannon Okey is expecting upwards of 7,000 shoppers to roam through Cleveland Bazaar's 10th annual holiday show on Dec. 13th and 14th, the event actually started more than a decade ago and quite a few miles away.
 
"I was living in Boston," recalls Okey of the early aughts. "The show started there. One of the originators used to do filthy embroidered things.*" Another participant was make-up artist Punk Rock Mary Kay. "It was hilarious," says Okey, who returned to her hometown of Cleveland in 2004 and decided to host a similar event for the 216.
 
She found a space, the 1300 Gallery (now 78th Street Studios). The first holiday show in 2004 had 15 vendors and approximately 1,000 attendees.
 
"It went well," says Okey. "We got pretty good traffic considering there wasn't social media to promote on."
 
Since then Cleveland Bazaar (formerly Bazaar Bizarre) has become a year-round mainstay, with pop-up shops at places across the city. They have included Shaker Quality Auto Body (a working garage), Market Square Park (across from the West Side Market) and the Dittrick Medical History Museum.
 
"People saw that we'd bring traffic wherever we were," says Okey of Cleveland Bazaar's rise in popularity. "Now we've got stuff going practically every month of the year." This month is particularly busy, with two shows at the 5th Street Arcades, one last weekend for Winterfest and another this weekend—the Manly Mart.
 
The big holiday show at 78th Street Studios will be on Saturday, Dec. 13 from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Sunday, Dec. 14 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. While the show is free, early bird tickets are available for $20 for entry at 9 a.m. on Saturday.
 
This year's show will be Cleveland Bazaar's largest with 140 vendors. Many come from Northeast Ohio, but vendors have traveled from Chicago, Cincinnati, Louisville and even Los Angeles to peddle their wares in past shows. This year, the unusual offerings range from durable handmade bags made in the Screw Factory to pottery from Buffalo, New York, to screen printed posters made by a duo that collaborates between Cleveland, Ohio and Brooklyn, New York. And while many vendors knock on Okey's door, not all make it into the juried show.
 
"If I see one more thing that came from Pat Catan's with a 216 stamped on it," laments Okey, "I'm gonna … " Not to fear, Okey's made sure her 2014 vendor roster is first-rate. "On top of it, you get the building residents, which will be open too."
 
Cleveland Bazaar is only half of Okey's professional life. She's also a one-woman show with her niche business, Knit Grrl Studio, which she operates out of a Screw Factory studio space she shares with artist Arabella Proffer.
 
"Books are the primary business right now, but we're expanding that," says Okey of her LLC, which she founded in 2009 after penning 12 knitting books for other publishers. Knit Grrl also runs a digital magazine with more than 1,500 paid subscribers and sells knitting patterns that it promotes along with its books via a mailing list of 13,000. The company grosses $250,000 annually.
 
Clearly Okey has dived into the maker movement and made it work -- literally. That ethic is also the glimmering drive behind Cleveland Bazaar's indie mentality.
 
"A lot of us come from families where you made stuff. There's almost a heritage factor: grandma embroidered, grandpa made things out of wood. It seems to me sort of a Rust Belt thing: You're thrifty. You're saving things up. You're not just going to the mall and buying 18 pieces of jewelry at Claire's.
 
"The (Cleveland Bazaar holiday) show started before there was an Etsy, before there was a Facebook, before any of those things were around. It wasn't that sort of monkey-see/monkey-do stuff you see now. It wasn't informed by what Martha Stewart told you was cool."
 
*For those smoldering with curiosity over what "filthy embroidered things" entails, visit Greg Der Ananian's flickr pages—at your own risk.

Read more articles by Erin O'Brien.

Erin O'Brien's eclectic features and essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and others. The sixth generation northeast Ohioan is also author of The Irish Hungarian Guide to the Domestic Arts. Visit erinobrien.us for complete profile information.
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