Local artisans feeling left behind by COVID-19 pandemic
Virtual craft shows don't do much for artisans who bank on customers getting a true feel for their work — the smell of a soy candle, for example, or the intricacies of an old saw repurposed as a welcome sign for a shed.
And with in-person exhibitions all but wiped out by the COVID-19 public health crisis, crafters are attempting to find new ways to share their passions, and hold on to the customers they had garnered pre-pandemic.
"Even last night, I'm laying in my bed figuring out how the hell I'm going to pay certain bills," said Robin Campanale, owner of Brick-based Rusty Old Man.
Campanale's husband gives new life to scrap metal in their garage, in the way of signs, doorstops, bookends and more. The family relies on the operation as supplemental income during retirement.
"Like a lot of other small business owners, we're a lost segment of the market," Campanale said. "We weren't prepared for any of this."
With business essentially nonexistent, Rusty Old Man is one of a handful of operations that have joined a newly launched shop in Downtown Hightstown that gives artisans a chance to sell their products.
The shop, Handmade Art Studios, was created by Bordentown resident Mark Fenton, who relies on income from his wood-carved wall art and pub-style signs to help support his family.
"Last year, I finished up with approximately 30 to 35 (craft) shows. This year, because of the pandemic, I am finishing the year with three shows," Fenton said.
Craft shows would typically account for about 98% of Fenton's business, he said. He's been unsuccessful so far attempting to secure unemployment insurance as a self-employed individual.
Sandcastle Candle, owned by a married couple in Belmar, has also felt the financial impacts of the pandemic. But owners Karen and Bill Barry, who make soy candles in their basement, also have their own full-time jobs that bring in the lion share of household income.
"It keeps us busy. It's kind of stress-reducing," Karen Barry said. "I feel bad for these other vendors I see that are making a living off of their crafts."
Candle businesses typically rely on in-person customers for sales, she said. Very few people would purchase a candle off a website without knowing how it smells beforehand.
"For example, we have a peppermint bark candle out for the holidays, and when you burn it, you want to eat peppermint bark," Karen Barry said.
Sandcastle Candle did have the opportunity to sell at a recent craft fair in Wall, but because of coronavirus restrictions, all vendors were outdoors, battling wind and cold temperatures.
"You don't get a great audience — usually the holiday fairs are inside," Karen Barry said.
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