Category Archives: Shows

Show Advice: The Costs of Doing Business

(Note: with the 2018 Triffid Ranch show season getting ready to start, a lot of bystanders and longtime customers interested in starting their own small businesses ask for advice and recommendations about attending and selling at shows. While asking me for business advice is comparable to asking Jeffrey Dahmer for tips on vegan recipes, these ruminations might be of some entertainment value, especially among those thinking about jumping into the show circuit.)

As of this coming May, the Texas Triffid Ranch celebrates ten years since it went live, and nothing over the intervening decade was as good a teacher as doing lots and lots of shows in various venues. It originally started with comic and science fiction conventions, and moved over to various craft fairs and art shows for years before everything moved to the first gallery in 2015. Lots of little shows helped nail down what works and what doesn’t: the items that clear out within the first ten minutes and the ones that don’t move at all, the displays and support gear that knocked everyone’s socks off and the ones that really needed to be thrown in the trash before the show. A book on camping that I owned when I was a kid recommended that beginning backpackers should make lots of local trips, then deliberate as to what they should bring with them after they get back. The phrase “every ounce that you didn’t need feels like a pound when you’re on the trail” applies equally well to everything that needs to be loaded and unloaded at a show location, especially if you’re the only one doing the heavy lifting and you can’t get your cart close enough to where it all has to go. The experiences and occasional scars lead to sometimes great after-show stories (I have friends at Texas Frightmare Weekend who still call me “Sparky” after my truck was struck by lightning before one show), but they also explain the occasional winces when someone asks “So, have you considered vending at (fill in the blank) show?”

It’s a very valid question, and one that’s asked all of the time. Sometimes it’s asked by bystanders who don’t want to purchase something right then who hope to snag it at the next show. Sometimes it’s asked by someone who came across a mention of a new event seeking vendors to fill a dealer’s room, or a pop-up show looking for something different. Many times, it’s asked by customers far enough away from Dallas that they’d be willing to travel to a halfway point, and other times by those who’d just love to see the plants in their own home towns. It’s the next question after answering “No,” “Why?”, that’s the entertaining one.

The reason for the entertainment is because no one answer applies, and each vendor answers it differently. Sometimes it’s because the show has bad timing with other events, sometimes it’s due to logistics such as access to transport or parking, and sometimes it’s because the vendor had such a horrible experience at a previous show that bankruptcy and homelessness are preferable to setting up another booth at the next one. A lot of times, though, it’s purely a matter of economics: unless a vendor is in his/her business solely as charity, the basic idea of being a vendor at a show or event is to try to make more money by the end of a show than what the vendor started with at the beginning. Even if the vendor IS a charity, the idea is to get more of a return, either by reaching more people or more unquantifiable reasons, than the vendor would get by staying home and slamming his/her head in a car door. Figuring out which shows and events are amenable to these needs and which ones don’t have any compatibility is a skill that has to be learned, usually from years of experience.

To start, let’s define why a vendor wants to go to a particular show, and vice versa. The motivations for the vendor were just mentioned, so let’s take a look at the venue. Some shows are nothing more than markets: the organizers rent or otherwise utilize an otherwise unused space, indoors and/or outdoors, and rent individual spaces to the vendors and anybody else willing to put down the money. These may or may not charge an entry fee to attendees who want to come in and look around. Some are tied to a charity or other nonprofit organization, where in addition to charging for vendor booths, vendors may be asked to give a percentage of their final sales. Others offer vendor spaces as a way to pay for other programming: a great example is with literary conventions, where fees for vendor spaces help pay for spaces for author readings, signings, and other activities. A real cynic would bring up the shows that are intended as private parties for the organization staff, where the only reason anyone else is allowed entry is to pay for the beer, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

While we’re at it, it’s time to bring up something that should be absolutely clear: the reasons for attendees to go to an event aren’t the same as for vendors, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Without fail, when anyone asks a vendor about setting up a booth at a show that didn’t work out that well, an explanation of the why gets at least one utterly enraged person whining “Well, I liked it!”, as if that neutralizes any of the vendor’s issues. It’s GREAT that you had the time of your life at a show, that you encountered the experience or the person that completely changed your world, or even that you found someone willing to take your extensive 35-year collection of Chuck E. Cheese game tokens. You’re coming in for an experience to take you away from daily concerns: for us, it’s work. (This is why most vendors will gracefully bow out of going to parties or any activity other than a medically induced coma after shutting down for the night. We’ve all been “on” all day or night, and while we love you all, all most of us want to do is sit someplace quiet with a drink of choice in hand and an hour or so of down time before going to bed.)

Let’s start with a breakdown of costs, to help explain which events make sense and which ones don’t. Above everything else is the basic fee for setting up at an event or convention, the shorthand for which is “Booth”. The Euclidean ideal of Booth is a space, usually 10 feet by 10 feet (the average floor area of a show tent) in which a vendor can put up tables, shelves, displays, and everything else needed with which to conduct business, and everything else is incidental. Many shows include a table and two chairs as part of Booth, some include electricity or wifi access, and others charge fees for everything other than the floor space. The prices are also wildly variable, depending upon the venue, any support required to set up, and the intended audience. Some shows offer discounted rates for educators or artists, but also segregate the discount spaces from the main vendor area and refer to the space as “Artist’s Alley.” Either way, if you hear a vendor bragging about how “I made Booth about an hour after we opened,” that means the vendor sold enough in an hour to cover the cost of the space and everything provided as part of the booth fee. As a general rule, the booth fee has to be paid long before the vendor can set up, and walking in and telling the management “I’ll pay you with the money I make at the show” usually gets a response of roaring laughter or short gestures with a taser.

Sidenote: To make sure that the vendors at a festival or show offer products that match the theme or tone, those events may need to prescreen applicants before allowing them in. Since this requires a staff to go through applications and determine who fits the show theme and who is showing up with a big crate of flea market vacuum cleaners (and don’t laugh: I’ve seen it) before any ill will starts between vendors, expenses have to be covered. Smaller shows roll those expenditures into the booth fee, but larger ones that have to sift through thousands of applicants may charge an application fee. More often than not, that fee is nonrefundable, but it’s also a small fraction of the price of a booth. If the application and fee go in and the jury decides that your booth is essential, then and only then does an invoice for payment go out. This is why having a separate bank account for business makes sense: keeping booth and application fees in the business account means that the fee money isn’t grabbed by accident to pay personal expenditures, and show management really like the vendors who can pay for their spaces nearly immediately instead of after multiple reminders.

Sidenote two: As with application fees, some fees and donations are completely acceptable in the business, but might be a dealbreaker for some vendors. For instance, many shows run by nonprofits may request a donation of an individual item or service for a raffle or auction, or a percentage of total sales over a day or weekend, with the proceeds going to the show. Just make sure that the event has clear wording on whether unsold donations are kept or given back to the vendor: a big first-time show of my acquaintance last year decided to host an art show full of solicited artworks, where the organizers assumed, “because that’s how it’s always been done,” that they kept all unsold artwork for themselves. One show of my acquaintance has a non-refundable “preference fee,” where paying the fee encourages the vendor’s room organizers to give preference for particular locations, but it’s not a guarantee. Likewise, although this has only happened to me once, any mention of an additional deposit to be refunded at the end of the show is a big screaming red sign warning “the only way we can keep vendors from packing up early and leaving on Friday evening is by holding their deposits hostage, because that’s the only money they’ll be getting the whole weekend.” If a proviso in an event sounds suspicious or otherwise dubious, such as one show that not only charged for booth space but required a $1 million insurance policy against possible damages (and the number isn’t a typo), bail if you feel uncomfortable making the expenditure.

Now we get into incidental expenditures, which are only incidental compared to booth fees. Unless you live literally next door to the venue, you’ll need some sort of transport to get inventory and displays to the venue location. Starting out, a car may work, but rapidly a larger vehicle becomes essential, and it’s completely your choice as to whether you buy it or rent it. Renting a van or truck makes more sense if you have fewer big shows in a year, but the convenience of not having to worry about depreciation and maintenance is offset in being charged by the mile and/or the day and whether the day of your show coincides with every apartment dweller in your neighborhood needing to move. (Very seriously, should you go for rental vehicles, reserve your chosen vehicle early, and always budget about three times as much time as you think you’ll need for setup and teardown.) Do you have a cart or dolly to haul heavy stuff to the booth location, or will everything you plan to sell fit into containers you can haul yourself? An equally important question: do you have someone who loves you enough to help you set up and break down without thought of compensation, or will you have to pay for assistance, both in compensation and in event passes? If the venue doesn’t include electricity or wifi access as part of Booth, these are usually covered as separate charges, and their use depends upon how badly you need lights or video displays. (With a lot of hotels, the electrical fees can be almost as high as the booth fee, and a disturbing number of hotels still charge for wifi as if it’s still the 20th Century. You laugh, but being stuck in a hotel banquet room where the manager has an illegal jammer for hotspots and charges $75 per day for slow and spotty access is something that still happens.) Local shows mean being able to sleep in your own bed and bring your own lunch, so consider hotel and food costs if you’re doing one out of town. And with outdoor events, you’d best have some kind of tent or other shelter, and tents of a suitable size can be expensive. Add all of this up with the booth fee, and this gives you the absolute bare minimum you need to make in sales before you break even.

Since we’ve covered costs, let’s look at time. Assuming that you’re a small vendor who still has to work a day job to pay bills, a remotely busy show schedule burns through accumulated vacation and personal time before  you know it, and every unpaid day spent at a show means a bigger chunk of disposable income gone if the show is slow. Don’t measure time just on days, either: there are the hours spent getting to and from the location, the hours unloading and setting up, the minutes spent trying to locate something that you SWORE you packed up before you left, the seconds of life left to the person trying to encourage you to take a chance on another show by shoving aside a customer just about ready to buy…it all adds up. Does the event location allow you to have a reasonably leisurely setup, or do you have to get everything in and at the booth within a half-hour or so? Is the loading ramp on the other side of the building from the booth location, and will you have to pass through crowds to get to it? If the event is outside, will you have paved spaces over which you can haul your stuff, or is the main area a combination of grass and mud? If you need a tent for an outdoor show, how much time do you need for tent setup and securing before the event starts, and can you drive your vehicle directly to the spot or will you have to haul tent and all across pavement or mud? And when breaking down at the end of a show, is that on a tight timeline, or will yours be laborious enough that letting the quick packers leave first makes more sense? This may sound pedantic, but a show that runs late on a Sunday and requires an extra four hours to get home and unpack might require taking Monday off as well to recuperate, and you have to decide if that’s worth the return.

Another aspect of time: how can that time be best used? Because of the rather limited belts of clement weather in Dallas before and after summer, a lot of unrelated events get scheduled for the same weekends, and determining which ones are worth choosing is usually gained from experience. For instance, let’s start with the assumption that Event A is a three-day event while Event B is a one-day event. On its face, a longer duration suggests that Event A might draw more attendees, but then consider that Event A is a three-hour drive away while Event B is literally down the road. Alternately, Event A very peripherally connects to your inventory and what your company is about, while Company B is loaded with exactly the sort of potential customers you’ve dreamt about your entire life.  And then there are the other factors, such as your inventory being perishable or living: can you risk being caught in a traffic jam in the middle of summer heat and an inadequate truck air conditioner? Do you need special permits to bring your inventory across state lines? Or, and there’s no delicate way of putting it, does the event have any indications that it’s overinflating the number of projected attendees, or that it’s going to have huge numbers but attendees who come out with one shirt and one $5 bill and don’t change either for the entire weekend?

Finally, the last big factor that every vendor should consider is experience. Every year, any number of organizations decide to start a big event and solicit vendors and attendees, and some of these events may turn out to be blowout extravaganzas sung about in myth and legend. Others fall flat on their faces due to poor organization or sometimes just bad timing. Even the successful ones may not get a second year due to logistical issues or an inability to find a suitable venue. Since blowout and dud shows can be indistinguishable a week before opening, experienced vendors tend to be leery of first-year events, and are much more likely to pay for booth space the next year, after they’ve compared notes with the people with spaces from the year before. (This isn’t completely dependable: certain sleazy operators are known for buying the names of shows where the previous organizers had to drop out of the business, pitching the new show to vendors on the reputation of the previous organizers, and refusing to honor any of the contractually obligated commitments promised. One show here in Dallas runs every few years under a brand new name, so as to avoid online search results, because the organizers know that the vendors don’t sell a thing but the organizers need the booth fees to pay for the after-show staff party.) It can be a hard thing to turn down what appears to be on paper a sure-thing first-year convention or festival, but from long experience, I’ve had fewer regrets on passing on excellent shows than celebrations on dodging bullets.

Is this everything? Not in the slightest. This hasn’t even touched on how to know when to cut your losses on a formerly successful show, at what times it’s best to ignore “being professional” and pack up before the show is over, or what to do when a show organizer simply won’t take “no” for an answer and keeps pushing to get you to register for a show when you’ve repeatedly declined. However, after considering these factors, when a vendor begs off repeated requests of “So why aren’t you at this show?”, the points already shared explain why.

Show Advice: The Essentials

(Note: with the 2018 Triffid Ranch show season getting ready to start, a lot of bystanders and longtime customers interested in starting their own small businesses ask for advice and recommendations about attending and selling at shows. While asking me for business advice is comparable to asking Jeffrey Dahmer for tips on vegan recipes, these ruminations might be of some entertainment value, especially among those thinking about jumping into the show circuit.)

It’s every beginning vendor’s lament: why isn’t there just one kit available with all of the stuff I need to start selling my stuff at a show? It’s bad enough to discover all the things you should have had ready for your first show, but it’s even more embarrassing to discover that item or service that you absolutely needed for the fifth or twentieth show. “Worse” is discovering, long after you’d despaired and kludged together something that performs a very specific function, that someone else had a perfect solution that you didn’t know about because you weren’t asking the right questions. It doesn’t get any better as time goes on, either: consider the number of old-school vendors who purchased halogen lighting around 2002 for suitable light for ceramics or jewelry, who now grind teeth on LED kits selling for a fraction of their paid price, using a fraction of the power, and producing a tiny fraction of the ambient heat.

The reason that nobody makes an all-in-one beginner’s show kit, aside from an issue of units moved, is that every vendor has specific needs that a generic kit won’t fill. A glassworker will share certain bits of show equipment with a jeweler, but possibly more with a potter or a blacksmith, and probably very little with a painter or someone offering unique beef jerky. Needs change based both on increased inventory and on changing markets: aside from the halogen lights mentioned above, what may have been an essential item a decade ago might be pointless to carry today. (For instance, when I started selling plants a decade ago, I regularly brought out a small bookcase, full of various new and used books that applied to the subject at hand. Three years later, I left the bookcase at home for good because of Amazon and the then-new habit of customers scanning a cover and making a purchase online. I still make book recommendations, but the weight of the books and the bulkiness of the bookcase soon became more effort than they returned.) However, the need for a recommendations list still applies, and the organization of my list of recommendations comes from a rather unorthodox source.

For those who aren’t classic Volkswagen enthusiasts, one of the classic guides to Volkswagen repair and maintenance is the very thorough, very detailed, and very funny book How To Keep Your Volkswagen Alive by John Muir. The pertinent aspect we need to focus on is that Muir broke down tool kits and collections into three categories. Type 1 tools were the ones any Volkswagen driver should have in the vehicle at all times, no matter what. Type 2 tools are ones that should be in the vehicle if possible, but absolutely should be available at home for more advanced repairs. The Type 3 toolkit was a collection of items that may not be necessary for emergency repairs, but that the Volkswagen addict would need for tuneups, overhauls, and extensive modifications. You didn’t need a Type 3 kit in the back of your 1973 Superbeetle for an everyday commute, but combining all three toolkits took care of pretty much everything that might go wrong with an air-cooled engine.

With this inspiration, a decade of Triffid Ranch shows hasn’t come across the full spectrum of possible necessities, but that decade managed to sift through “a lot of weight to haul around for something that gets used maybe once per year,” “nice to have,: and “I’ll set your grandmother on fire if you try to steal mine” items and accessories. Much like the aforementioned Volkswagen tools, this guide breaks them down into Type 1, Type 2, and Type 3 accessories. These include:

Type 1 Toolkit – Essential At All Times

A dependable credit card reader or POS (point of sale) system: Cash may still be king, but the introduction of Square and other mobile credit card processing apps immediately changed the game for most vendors: it meant being able to take credit card payments without expensive and irritating credit card processing systems. Fifteen years ago, anybody setting up a business license or applying for a tax ID number in the States was hounded for years with random unsolicited phone calls about purchasing credit card readers that may or may not have been legitimate, but Square and Paypal killed that market. (Imagine that.) Today, most attendees at any event you can imagine will tell you “I just don’t carry cash any more,” and any purchase that requires cash is probably one that won’t happen. If you can afford to have 40 to 60 percent of your potential sales walk off because you can’t or won’t process credit cards, knock yourself out, but everybody else this far into the 21st Century will have some kind of card reader and software ready to take that payment. Pick the card processing service you like the most, but pick one, preferably one with a reader that can process chipped cards, and have it handy for all shows. Later, if you have enough items that you need to track incoming and outgoing inventory, a point of sale system will make you and your tax accountant very happy, but worry about being able to process purchases before you worry about tracking them.

A cash box and sufficient change: Although paying by card is more and more of a standard, never, ever pass up any cash thrown in your direction. This requires (a) enough change to break larger bills and (b) a lockable and securable box to hold that change. Depending upon the size of the show, that means both making change for innumerable transactions under $20 and the occasional big transaction requiring more than $15 in change in return. Make sure that this box can be kept secure so that it can’t be snatched if your back is turned, nor set underneath a table or boxes to where reaching it is inconvenient. While I won’t tell you how much change you need, make a fair assessment on your inventory (most items under $15 will be paid for in cash) and bring at least twice to three times what you think you’ll need, in both bills and coins. Any excess in change at the end of a show is just that much more change that won’t have to be collected before the next one. Also, if you are selling in a state that charges sales tax, make sure not only to have enough coinage to handle a day’s transactions, but purchase a sales tax calculation card so you don’t have to punch the final amount into a calculator with every transaction.

Sidenote: everyone who has ever worked retail will tell you about That Guy who walks in right at opening and tries to pay for some tiny item with a $100 bill. You are not obligated to give up all of your change because he didn’t want to get his bill broken beforehand, and point out that you may not have any way to get change for anybody else. If this happens often enough, or if you have concerns that these are attempts to get rid of counterfeit bills, feel free to display a sign reading “We Cannot Give Change For Any Bills Above $X.”

All necessary permits and IDs: This category depends upon federal and state law and municipal ordinances at a show location, and requires research that depends upon what is being sold and where. DO NOT SKIMP ON THIS RESEARCH. At the bare minimum, in the US, register for a state tax ID number long before your first show, and keep a copy of the tax ID with you at all times. A tax ID confers a lot of privileges in most states, such as being able to purchase wholesale inventory, but it’s also vital for both state income and sales taxes. (For instance, here in Texas, residents do not pay a state income tax, but pay a state sales tax on most items purchased within Texas. Oregon has exactly the opposite situation, with a state income tax but no sales tax.) Since all businesses selling items within Texas are expected to collect and pay sales tax, tax agents can and will hold event organizers responsible for allowing sales without that remittance, so most events require proof of tax ID before vendors can start setting up. This also applies to food, alcohol, or other perishable permits, additional handling permits for restricted items, inspection tags, and anything else that may be regulated in the state in which you’re operating. If the cost of those permits is higher than the potential return on sales, then you might want to reconsider exactly how badly you want to do the show.

Sidenote: For a very long time, many movie and television intellectual property holders looked the other way when various small vendors offered products that infringed upon copyright law, partly because tracking down infringers wasn’t worth the time and partly because sales of little handmade items were seen as encouraging sales of larger and more expensive licensed items. Those days are as dead as Fotomats and milk delivery. IP agents can and will drop by shows and conventions and drop off cease & desist orders against individuals selling items that use the agents’ parent company’s intellectual property without compensation. The good news is that if you’re serious about a particular product, many IP holders are willing to negotiate licenses based upon expected sales: for decades, plastic and resin model kit manufacturers have worked with movie and TV studios on official licensed products that trade a very low licensing price in exchange for not being able to use the actual property name. If you get a license under those terms, bring that paperwork with you to be able to show any agents asking about your permissions to sell a particular item. Just don’t be surprised that arguing about the invalidity of copyright law with bootleg toys, clothing, music, or sculptures won’t go very far.

A dependable, sturdy cart and/or handcart: These come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, but pick one based on the needs of your inventory and displays, as well as accessibility in elevators and in narrow hallways, and be reminded of the adage “Cheap is expensive.” If you can, spend the extra money and buy one with pneumatic tires. Hard rubber tires are okay on hard, smooth surfaces such as hotel hallways, but they always manage to get caught in tracks and elevator floors, and they’re nightmarish on irregular surfaces such as unpaved lots or trails. Much like discovering exactly how many inclines your “flat” neighborhood has once you start bicycling it instead of driving, hard cart wheels let you learn exactly how irregular and gravel-strewn that allegedly immaculate roadway or parking garage really is. Spend the money to get a good cart, because there’s no guarantee that the event location will have any to borrow (a lot of hotels are banning the use of luggage carts by event vendors, because they tend to disappear for the entire weekend and hotel guests can’t access them), and treat that cart as if your liver is strapped to the underside. That means respecting it and not bashing it around because you can, making sure the wheels are properly inflated (get a good bicycle pump, and not one of the bike-kit pumps intended to strap onto your bike, unless you like sitting around for the next three hours pumping up a flat or underinflated tire), and never EVER lending it to someone you don’t know who just needs to borrow it “for just a minute; I can pay you!” Even if you get it back, which isn’t always a guarantee, you have no guarantee that you won’t get it back damaged or demolished. If you trust someone enough to lend a cart, get something as collateral that requires that person to come back, such as car keys or at least two children. Anything else, and it’ll walk because “what I left is worth more than the cart,” and you still need that cart to haul your stuff back when the show is done.

Sturdy storage tubs: If you’re just starting off and can’t afford anything else, you can squeak by a few shows with those cheap Rubbermaid tubs intended for longterm storage of Christmas ornaments. If the total weight of items in each tub exceeds 10 kilos, you need lots of packing to protect fragile items, or if the items need to be protected from weather extremes, spend the extra money for locking, stackable storage tubs. Those Rubbermaid Christmas tubs can’t handle larger or bulkier contents for very long, they have a real problem with cracking or rupturing when used often, and stacking them with any significant weight in the upper tubs means that the lower ones probably will be flattened by the time you get to your destination. Stacking tubs means increasing the amount of inventory you can bring to a show that can be fitted into a vehicle, and tops that lock onto the tub mean that contents won’t go bouncing out if your vehicle hits a pothole. Most importantly, don’t even think of using cardboard boxes unless you like playing with cardboard slurry when setting up or breaking down in the middle of a thunderstorm. You may think it won’t happen to you: I thought the same before getting caught in a near-tornado in Fort Worth and watching fellow vendors make frantic dashes to their vehicles with containers that fell apart in their hands.

Pens, pencils, and Sharpie markers: You don’t have to go crazy with different varieties of pens and pencils, and you don’t absolutely have to buy pens and pencils with your contact information on it, but you WILL need some sort of writing implement at all times. It’s not just for you writing down essential information for transfer to more permanent media: it’s for others either getting information from you or giving it to you. Throw at least a pair of permanent markers (I recommend Sharpies, but I also recommend checking them on a regular basis both for ink flow and for unmashed tips), for marking packages, bags, and wayward children.

Flyers, postcards, and other physical media with your contact information:  You’d think that in the days of the internet, physical media wouldn’t be necessary. Put up a URL or QC code on a banner, and you’re golden, right? That argument is complete garbage for two reasons. The first is that while people are more and more likely to take a photo of a URL than in times past, that’s no guarantee that they’ll be able to read the final photo. “Vern, is that an ‘l’ or an ‘i’?”The second is that it might not be accessed in the first place. The best way to prevent that worry is to make sure you have plenty of physical media with your contact information. I am perpetually surprised at the number of vendors at shows who think that ripping up a sheet of lined spiral notebook paper and scribbling contact information in it is enough to guarantee a later sale.

Now, what you decide needs to be on your card, sticker, refrigerator magnet, or NFC chip is up to you, but a few tips based on experience. Unless you have a physical storefront location, don’t include your address on business cards, unless you want people to stop by in the middle of the night. (I’ve had a maildrop since the beginning, and the Web site specifically states that this address is a mailing address only, but I still get at least one person per month who goes to that address “to see the ranch” and blows a gasket to discover that they can’t just walk in to see the plants.) After you settle on a logo and design, pass it to a few friends for readability: if it’s so Illustrator-poisoned that a friend can’t figure out what you’re selling, then your customers definitely won’t. While supplemental material can be photocopied, don’t use photocopied flyers as the main promotion material: the only venues that still do this are old-school science fiction conventions where the head of promotion had to sneak access to his mom’s Xerox at work. These days, postcards are considerably cheaper than they were in times past (especially through online services that cut deals for bulk orders), they can look exceedingly professional, and they’re just large enough that they’re less likely to be dropped in a pocket and forgotten.

Batteries or other power sources, especially for phones and tablets:  Even with the best of shows, accidents happen that might cut off your electronic devices’ access to sweet light alternating current. Sometimes, it’s incidents outside of the event organizers’ control: a personal favorite was with the hotel that suddenly decided that the event couldn’t have access to electricity…after most of the vendors had paid for same. (The hotel manager stalked through the event the whole four-day weekend, making sure that nobody at the event was stealing his power by inspecting every last outlet on the floor.) In others, you only discover an issue when you arrive and someone breathlessly tells you “Oh, yeah, we don’t have power” because the organizer decided to spend the money on an ad…on AM radio. In all of these cases, anybody running a point of sale system or credit card reader is going to be wincing, and wincing even more if the phone or tablet doing the processing doesn’t have a full charge. Even if the event has the most dependable power source ever seen by humanity, purchase a power storage device good for at least an additional eight hours of continuous use, and KEEP IT CHARGED. Experienced vendors know from firsthand experience that a lot of transactions can occur long after official closing hours or in situations where you’re unplugged, and those transactions can’t be completed on a device that’s completely drained.

Clips and fasteners: Clothespins and paperclips for holding paper and light cloth together, heavy clips for attaching signage to your table, Zip ties for securing power cables, or bungee cords for holding folding items closed while transporting them: get good ones and make sure to have them in an easily accessible container.

Lightweight displays and table covers: With the shows that offer tables and chairs as part of the booth fee, most include tablecloths and table skirts to make the (usually beaten half to death) tables look better. If you have so little in the way of inventory that you can lay all of it atop your table, then you’re done. If you have more, or if it needs to be shown in a particular way, make sure to get or make displays that show them the best, because presentation DOES matter. Likewise, make sure to have at least a couple of good tablecloths to make your items stand out or to garner interest from passersby that you wouldn’t get from standard white tablecloths. Oh, and for those vending at shows over multiple days, bring a couple of sheets to cover your table and inventory once the show shuts down. Should you be a little late arriving the next morning, the sheet signals “gone Chopin, be Bach in a minuet” and minimizes the chances of early arrivers messing with your displays.

Type 2 Toolkit – Good To Have

A sturdy folding table and chairs: Many shows and events seeking vendors advertise tables and chairs as being provided as part of the booth fee. Others simply lease out the space to put said tables and chairs, and it’s completely up to you as to how you want to arrange it, and still others charge extra for them. One way or another, having a good table and chair set is worth the expenditure, especially if the provided items are inadequate to the task (which happens often) or they just aren’t available. For ease of transport and setup, I recommend tables that fold in half for storage, and I also recommend buying a new table instead of depending upon that one that a friend or neighbor had in the garage for the last decade. (Neil Young was right: rust never sleeps, and you don’t want to discover rust’s effect on support pins or table legs five minutes after getting all of your sale items and displays on top.) The most important thing to consider is how much weight that table will support, and whatever you do, do NOT assume that it will and bring it to a show without verifying this. Test  it first, preferably with something nonbreakable. Likewise, when doing outside shows, always bring boards or other supports to go under the table legs, unless you like your table sinking into the ground and dislodging everything atop it.

Banners and signage: Signs and banners serve two very valuable purposes. The first is to attract attention from a distance and encourage potential customers to give your booth a try. The second is to prevent particularly stupid people from wandering up and bellowing “WHAT’S THIS?” at your inventory over and over. (To be fair, some will do that anyway, either because they’re too lazy to read or because their lives aren’t complete unless they interrupt a conversation with a paying customer with a well-placed vowel movement. The best you can do is reassure yourself that the idiot will choke to death on his 42-ounce cup of Brawndo.) Even a few years back, banner options consisted of heavy vinyl either tacked to a backdrop or wall or installed in an equally heavy frame, but now vertical and horizontal banners are available in a wide variety of materials and print options. In addition, lightweight display stands are more and more affordable, allowing vertical banners to go up on tables or in front of extra inventory. Right now, many big-box office supply stores offer excellent online options for composing the layout of your own banners before sending them to print, thereby making sure that any mistakes in spelling or syntax are yours, and in matching the right display stand to the right banner.

Lights: The bad news: even indoor shows have problems with available ambient light, especially if the venue hosting the show hasn’t switched out its fluorescent tubes since the Harding Administration. Outdoor shows have even more problems: even discounting the problems inherent when the big yellow hurty thing in the sky ultimately descends in the west every night, sufficiently overcast days can make viewing unlit items a bit problematic. The good news: at the turn of the last century, most lighting options with a remotely decent lumen output involved energy-hungry and heat-intensive halogen or incandescent light bulbs, which were both delicate and dangerous to work around until they had enough time to cool after use. Today, LED options both provide similar lumens for a fraction of the energy of incandescents, but they can be used in places and around items that would have been a serious fire hazard 20 years ago. Any discussion of lighting options is an essay in itself, but do some research, look into power options (for venues without available electricity, running an LED array off a marine battery with a DC-to-AC inverter is now a practical reality), and consider the best light type and source for your inventory.

Heavy displays: Need bookshelves, heavy racks for large pieces of clothing, or wire racks for displaying jewelry or electronic items? These qualify as “heavy displays.” Obviously, the heavy displays depend upon what you’re selling, but make sure they’re kept well-maintained, and consider weight and fragility when bringing them to a show. Remember that plastic scratches, glass chips and shatters, metal gets metal fatigue or pops welds or rivets, and wood gets dry rot, and a catastrophic failure of your display could potentially lead to injury or death. Consider why you need a heavy display and why you’re bringing it: that big glass display case being discarded at work might make a great display for your inventory, but consider that glass is both heavy and fragile, and you’ll experience them both sooner or later, especially if you’re moving it by yourself. Without fail, really big shows have at least one vendor who gives up on trying to haul back a big set of metal racks or glass shelves that are a nightmare to move in and out of elevators, and they stay put because the other vendors know better than to take them for themselves.

Type 3 Toolkit – Nice But Not Absolutely Necessary All The Time

Tent and sidewalls: It’s possible to go through a healthy vendor career without ever needing to show items outside. During the extremes of summer and winter, the only people more happy to see a show listing that reads “Indoor vending” than the vendors are the customers. The rest of the year, though, having access to a tent opens up a lot of opportunities. Some events include access to pre-pitched tents as part of the vendor fee, but a lot will emphasize that you need to bring your own. Most vendors go with standard 10 x 10 pop-up tents: getting ones in custom colors or with custom signage built-in is at the discretion of the vendor, but they’re definitely not necessary. Just make sure that either the tent comes with sidewalls or that sidewalls may be purchased separately, and not just to keep rain out during a show. Outdoor events generally hire security crews to watch over vendor tents left overnight, but they expect that the vendors put up sidewalls on all four sides before the vendors leave for the evening or break down and move out any valuable items.

Tent weights: Anyone wrangling a standard pop-up tent into position can complain about the weight all day long, but consider that a typical show tent has a lot of surface area with a relatively lightweight structure underneath to give it shape. With a sufficient amount of wind, and that “sufficient amount” may not be all that much, a tent makes an excellent parachute. If all it does is bounce up on two legs before falling over and blowing across a parking lot, consider yourself lucky, because anyone doing outdoor shows long enough in windy places like Texas can tell you stories of tents flying up in severe winds before losing lift and coming down to crash. Pop-up tent frames are strong, but they’re not strong enough to handle the impact of falling two stories or so before slamming into a hard surface. The spectacle of flying tents can be minimized either by buying commercially made tent weights that wrap around the tent legs, or by making your own from concrete or metal. However you go about it, remember that tent weights don’t work if they’re left at home or they’re not attached to the tent in some way, and the word “weight” in “tent weight” is there for a reason. Remember that cart or handtruck in your Type 1 toolkit, and make sure beforehand that it can handle moving the tent weights, either all at once or one at a time.

Is this everything? Well, that’s a good question. Let me know after you’ve done a decade’s worth of shows: you’ll probably teach me a lot when we compare notes.

State of the Gallery: January 2018

Doom and Gloom (mostly gloom) in Dallas in JanuaryAnd the holiday season is over. Well, that’s not completely true: we can’t forget the importance of February 2, when Sid Vicious rises from his grave, looks down for his shadow, and learns if he has to wait six more weeks until spring. The decorations are down, the last of the leftovers are dispatched (unless your grandmother is like mine and wants to see if she can make turkey-flavored Jell-O out of the carcass residue left in the refrigerator), the more gothically inclined are building dinosaur skeletons with the chunks Grandma couldn’t use, and everyone in retail can get rid of that twitch from overplay of the mandatory Christmas radio station. True, you don’t want to go anywhere near a gym for the rest of the month, especially in the parking lot as everyone fights for the closest space to the door, and we’re all keeping an eye on the skies for that one falling snowflake that convinces the worst drivers on the road that they need to switch things up by driving with their buttocks. All things considered, though, things are good.

Out here at the Triffid Ranch, it’s time for introspection, renovation, negotiation, and potential amputation. We may have 295 days until that happiest holiday of the year, but the work starts now. This includes cleaning and prepping new glassware, potting new plants, scoping out new shows and new venues, and trying to limit nervous breakdowns to every other Tuesday. In other words, just like every year since the gallery first opened. The highlights:

First and foremost, the emphasis in 2018 is finishing new enclosures, and that starts with getting commissioned enclosures out now. (A friendly reminder for those who purchased Nepenthes pitcher plants at Triffid Ranch shows in the past: now’s the time to ask about upgrades to give your plants more room.) This includes getting more photos with those enclosures, in order to enter enclosures in regional and national art shows and inform local media outlets of those shows. Right now, everything is being kept on a winter lighting schedule to encourage growth later, but when the timers switch to spring hours in March, the fun really begins. It’s not just a matter of viewing Nepenthes blooms, but trying some luck with pollinating flowers in order to develop a few new hybrids.

On the subject of shows, it’s no surprise that the first big Triffid Ranch show of the year is All-Con on St. Patrick’s Day weekend. The surprise was discovering the new venue for the 2018 event. For years, All-Con ran at the increasingly cramped Crowne Plaza hotel, but size limitations required a move to a larger venue. Two years ago, it moved to a much larger space with a bit of a parking problem: hotel management promised to augment its tiny parking area with access to the parking garages of the office buildings around it, which was a surprise to the owners of said office buildings. A majority of attendees discovering that parking options consisted of a muddy field across from the hotel wasn’t enough to kill the convention, and last year’s All-Con returned to the Crowne Plaza, which was now charging for parking when it wasn’t hosting meth labs. This year, though, All-Con moves to a MUCH larger venue, the Hotel InterContinental in Addison, right along Dallas North Tollway.

Why is this such a big deal? Well, for starters, the InterContinental, formerly the Grand Kempinski, is a legacy of Dallas’s great oil and development boom of the 1980s, back from the days when it was the tallest building in the area. Because the old Grand Kempinski was intended to compete for convention and conference business with the Anatole and Fairmont hotels near downtown, this meant having an absolutely gigantic ballroom on the second floor and an equally expansive ground floor atrium. This means that instead of fighting crowds in the artist’s alley section to get to the main dealer’s room, we have room to stretch out. Even better, this is one hotel where the promise of “multiple restaurants within walking distance” is quite actually true, and more than just a McDonald’s or Jack In The Box. (The hotel is just off Addison’s impressive Restaurant Row, which includes pubs, novelty venues such as the world-famous Magic Time Machine, and even a Whole Foods within a ten-minute walk.) A convention with food options other than the hotel restaurant and a convenience store? The mind boggles.

For vendors, the situation gets even better. The Hotel Intercontinental features two large entrances, big enough to allow two-way traffic while loading and unloading, and a large elevator sits right by the escalator leading to the second floor. (Those familiar with the absolute mess at the Crowne Royal can understand why this is a big deal.) With most of the club and Artist Alley tables on the ground floor, all groups involved won’t be fighting for room, especially close to opening hours. Parking is voluminous, and the loading lanes are big enough for small aircraft. Miss this one at your peril, because with the convention running during Spring Break for most of the high schools and colleges in the greater Dallas area, we’re going to see crowds at sizes we could have only dream about seeing at previous shows…and they’ll all have elbow room.

Not that All-Con and Texas Frightmare Weekend are the only shows outside of the gallery for 2018: these are just the only ones that can be discussed at the moment. Right now, the greater Dallas area has an excess of riches as far as art shows are concerned, and while the Deep Ellum Arts Fest isn’t an option this year, a lot of other events are going on at the same time. Right now, it’s all about confirmation, as well as making sure that schedules don’t conflict. Keep checking back for more details.

With the carnivores, the biggest change in the Triffid Ranch involves an expansion into Mexican butterworts and terrestrial bladderworts, two traditionally neglected groups of carnivorous plant. As mentioned before, this is just a continuation of plans set for last year before the gallery move, but with the advantage of many of the new species of butterwort exploding with new plantlets over the winter. Even better, both butterworts and bladderworts are now big and sassy enough to bloom in spring, adding an extra angle to the planned Manchester United Flower Show showing in April. Again, details as the date gets closer.

In hot pepper news, it’s time to start the new year’s first batch of pepper seedlings, and it’s time to make an admission. Namely, Carolina Reaper peppers are the Venus flytraps of the Capsicum world. Want to thrill me? start a discussion on comparing the colors and flavors of Black Pearl and Numex Halloween peppers both ripe and green. Compare the dishes best using Uba Tubas versus Trinidad Scorpions. Share a flavor combination for salsa with Bhut Jolokias that works even better than mango. (This may not be possible, but I’m always open to argument.) Carolina Reapers, though, are a one-trick pony. They grow to an impressive size in cultivation, but nothing about their foliage nor their shape distinguishes them from other peppers. The fruit, ripe or green, is only marginally more interesting than a standard green bell pepper, and once you get past the “you’ll pee fire!” heat, they taste like tomb dust. Aside from the subjective and often dubious Scoville Scale ranking, the Carolina Reaper has precious little distinction in growth, flavor, or idiosyncrasy. But what’s the one pepper EVERYONE asks if I’m growing? Ah well.

And if this is a roundabout way of hyping up the ZestFest 2018 spicy foods convention (https://zestfest.net/) at the Irving Convention Center at the end of January, so be it. ZestFest has a grand supply of salsa and barbecue sauce vendors pushing “no pepper is too hot for ME to eat!” neural overloads, but its main emphasis is on flavor, and the danger isn’t in not finding anything that tempts enough to buy a case or two. The danger is in not bringing a basket with wheels, because it WILL fill up by the time you reach the end, and all of those glass bottles and jars are heavy.

In any case, it’s time to get back to the linen mines. The plants won’t water themselves, and one of the new enclosure elements requires lots and lots of tumbled glass shards for the proper effect. Pictures will follow: I promise.

Dallas Comic Show 2017: The Aftermath – 3

And as far as the Dallas Comic Show is concerned in the future? That’s a very interesting question. The experiment in two shows in two weekends was a relative success, as in it didn’t kill me, even if the heat in the middle of September nearly did. The crew running it is professional, the fellow vendors were a lot of fun to have as neighbors, and the attendees are enthusiastic and very, very curious. These are all things to consider when the convention starts soliciting vendors for next fall.

Dallas Comic Show 2017: The Aftermath – 2

In an area where the the trend has been toward huge media convention extravaganzas in the last ten years, the Dallas Comic Show is an outlier. It’s still in the same venue as it was when I first encountered it in the early 2000s, and the only big change is the number of costume enthusiasts attending. It’s held at the Richardson Convention Center, which also holds the Richardson City Hall offices, so the loooooooooong hallway at the entrance is a bit surprising, but it works very nicely for both attendees and comics pros in the tables lining the hallway. The main dealer’s room is spacious and much easier to access than many at other conventions (having two separated doors that allow inflow and egress makes a huge difference), and said room blessedly has enough light that setting up lamps isn’t required. Best of all, since it’s not associated with a hotel, the convention only runs for two days, which means plenty of time on Friday to set up.

Dallas Comic Show 2017: The Aftermath – 1


It’s always good to remember your roots, and the Triffid Ranch got its start with little science fiction and comic conventions oh so long ago. That’s why, in a blast of inspiration partly fueled by sleep deprivation, it was time for an experiment: was it possible to run two shows on adjoining weekends? Part of the idea was to test logistics: with the gallery nearly open, was it possible to pot up, haul out, and set up enough plants for two shows? The other part involved friends asking if setting up a Triffid Ranch booth at the Dallas Comic Show was reasonable or sane. The experiment turned out pretty well, especially since the DCS locale was literally up Central Expressway from the gallery, and it answered a lot of questions about conducting more shows in the Dallas area. The biggest question: has anyone developed an antidote for sleep, and where can I buy it in bulk?

Blood Over Texas Horror For the Holidays 4: The Aftermath – 3

Plans for next year’s Blood Over Texas Horror For the Holidays show: more comfortable van seats. Finding a more regular source for Lava Lamp bottles. Explaining to the cats that we won’t be gone forever and ever and ever. Other than that, don’t change a thing.

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Blood Over Texas Horror For the Holidays 4: The Aftermath – 2

Because the only thing better than a Blood Over Texas Horror For the Holidays show is a festive screening of the Alien Holiday Special

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Blood Over Texas Horror For the Holidays 4: The Aftermath -1

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It’s a one-day show. At top speed, the commute between Dallas and Austin is still over three hours. Highway I-35, the only artery offering a direct route between two cities, has been under perpetual expansion and repair since I first moved to Texas 38 years ago. Oh, and Austinites apparently consider allowing fellow drivers to merge into traffic to be a mortal sin. With all that, not only is the Blood Over Texas Horror For the Holidays show an essential event, but I have only one complaint about it: it’s ONLY a one-day show. Two or three days with the sort of people attracted to a horror-themed gift market? Where do I sign up, and where was this 30 years ago?

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SmallCon 2017: The Aftermath -1

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September and October in the Dallas area are a little magical: it’s still hot compared to other parts of the world, but it’s not the mind-numbing blast furnace of August, so people brave starting to go outside without air conditioning support around the middle of September. If the first adventurers don’t burst into flames or scream as their lungs sizzle, everyone else follows, and the weekend social calendar is packed until the holiday season. Food, music, art, information: we have so many things to do before the end of November, and nowhere near enough weekends in which to see it all.

In a roundabout way, that’s how the Triffid Ranch ended up at SmallCon, a one-day event in Addison dedicated to encouraging girls to enter the STEM fields. As usual, attending any of the events required leaving the table, but considering the enthusiastic attendees, I picked up enough by osmosis. So…when is vendor registration for the 2018 event?

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State of the Gallery: November


Another month, another expansion. The official opening of the gallery on October 13 went without any serious hitches, and subsequent group appointments went even better, including one group that came out from Memphis just to view the new enclosures. The school lecture schedule started last month, and my experiences just confirm that no matter what teachers are paid, it’s never enough. (The art teacher at one lecture in Fort Worth was responsible for the Nepenthes hemsleyana portrait at the top of this post: this is going up in a place of honor on the gallery’s art wall.) Other than that, it’s the usual October rush: getting the gallery ready for the holiday season, doing everything that needs to be done outside before it’s too cold to do so, and prepping the Sarracenia and other temperate carnivores for their winter dormancy. Even Halloween was a surprise, with considerably more trick-or-treaters out, with regular threats of rain, than at any other time in the last decade. I won’t even start with the plans for next spring, because the last two years imparted that lesson over and over.

And what does that mean for November? Well, it means that the first two weekends of the month are going to be ridiculously busy, because it’s time to focus on the now-annual road trip to Austin. This year, the Blood Over Texas Horror for the Holidays show runs on November 19, so it’s a matter of loading the van on Saturday, driving down, recuperating for a few hours, setting up on Sunday morning, breaking down on Sunday evening, and driving back on Monday. The advantage of the new date isn’t just a lack of conflict with events at the University of Texas, but an opportunity to say hello to people starting an early holiday vacation that weekend. This is important because…

…the rest of November and December are going to be just as busy. As with last year, the Triffid Ranch will be open both for the Friday after Thanksgiving and for Small Business Saturday from noon until 6 p.m. CST: the difference between this year and last is, of course, having a much more central location. After that, the gallery will be open every Saturday from noon until 6 CST until Christmas (which works out to December 2, 9, 16, and 23), with earlier or later hours by appointment. As always, the Triffid Ranch is open by appointment during the week, but the holiday hours facilitate drop-by visits, especially from people desperately wanting to get away from the malls. For those seeking custom enclosures by Christmas, get your specifications in early, and we can even facilitate special deliveries and premieres at the gallery if you’re planning a special surprise.

After that? As a particularly influential television show noted nearly two decades ago, it’s a matter of going back to the end of the beginning. December 2002 was an especially rough time, and a 15th wedding anniversary party should celebrate how far you’ve come from those early days, right? Details will follow, because it’s been a very long strange trip over the intervening decade-and-a-half. Until then, see you in the future.

New Developments


Now that the gallery is open and available for commissions, it’s time to make plans for the rest of the year and the whole of 2018. Dallas has had a relatively mild summer so far as compared to the first half of the decade, but August is still the month where we all take inspiration from my animal role model, the Gila monster, and find someplace cool and dark to plot strategy. While Triffid Ranch strategy might not match Gila monster strategy, which consists of crawling to the surface to suck eggs and swallow baby bunnies whole, we’re not completely unsympathetic. Gila monster strategy pretty much summed up my entire writing career through the Eighties and Nineties.

The first part of Triffid Ranch strategy involves planning local events, both at the new gallery and throughout the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex. This starts with a lecture and presentation at Half Price Books Mesquite on July 22 from noon to 3 pm, and several new events between now and the beginning of November that aren’t nailed down yet. As always, check the Shows, Lectures, and Other Events page for schedule changes and additions, and expect some surprising venues if things work out well.

 The biggest change in strategy, though, involves making the biggest jump in show audiences the Triffid Ranch has ever done, and I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a bit scary. Last April, an impulse trip to the Deep Ellum Arts Festival was nothing short of a mental explosion: the Festival has grown a LOT since its early days in the Twentieth Century, with a selection of artists and other vendors for whom the word “incredible” was an impotent shadow. Friday night alone was one of the most vibrant outdoor shows I’ve ever attended. no doubt accented by the best festival weather one could imagine. (Yes, summers in Dallas are harsh, but the springs and autumns out here make four months of slow simmering worthwhile.) Since then, checking on the availability of visual artist applications was a weekly event, and the applications for artists, musicians, and food vendors just opened. (And did I mention that the food at the Festival was so good that you could gain ten pounds just by standing at one of the intersections and inhaling for ten minutes?) This doesn’t just mean preparing for the huge crowds at Texas Frightmare Weekend during the first weekend of May, but having to prepare even more plants and enclosures for the Festival a month earlier. Applying is no guarantee of being accepted, and nobody will know anything until November, but considering that May 2018 marks a solid decade since the first-ever Triffid Ranch show, it’s time to make the jump. Here’s hoping I don’t faceplant any harder than usual.

And just in time for early preparation for local teachers in search of something different for their classrooms, watch this space for a big announcement next week on affordable enclosure acquisition and maintenance. This won’t be exclusively for teachers: doctors, lawyers, and dentists might have a big interest in this as well. However, teachers will appreciate the maintenance advantages. Details will follow.

State of the Gallery

Well. We made it. We had to get through the first half of the year to get there, but the Texas Triffid Ranch is set and situated in its new home. The gallery’s soft opening (the art world’s equivalent of a dress rehearsal) occurred on June 30, with the only problem being everyone coming early. Not that this was a problem: the early attendees included Nicholas Bostick of the Dallas Observer, and his assessment of the soft opening gives a lot of ideas for future plans. Combine that with commentary and suggestions from other attendees, and it’s off to the races for the next big exhibition, Relics, starting on October 13.

In the interim, in addition to the Small-Con and Blood Over Texas shows in September and November, the Triffid Ranch goes on the road. Of course, it’s just down the road to the Half Price Books Mesquite store, with a lecture and presentation starting at 12:00. Admission is free, and this may be the start of many at Half Price stores through the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex. Emphasis on “may”: everything depends upon the attendance at this one, so feel free to come out and gaze upon South American and Australian pitcher plants and other surprises. (Later this month, I hope to share news about upcoming shows for the next year, but a lot of that involves confirmation of acceptance. For instance, next year would mark ten years of the Triffid Ranch at Texas Frightmare Weekend, this is dependent upon making it past the juried acceptance process, and neither I nor any other vendor at TFW will make that kind of assumption. We have too much respect for the TFW crew to even think about it.) 

And future plans for the gallery? As mentioned previously, a new exhibition, Relics, opens on October 13, full of new enclosures and displays, and expect hints and in-progress shots on a regular basis. Until then, keep checking back, because reality stretches, and things currently invisible may emerge if reality stretches enough.

State of the Gallery


Four months. Four months since the old Triffid Ranch location had to shut down, and we had to track down a new space. Four months of potting, painting, sweeping, drilling, screwing (keep your mind out of the gutter), stacking, pitching, dumping (again with the bathroom humor), repositioning, and vacuuming. Four months of discovering the joys of the difference between renting residential and commercial properties, the vagaries of plumbing replacement, and the tribulations of a moth invasion that came literally from nowhere. Four months of learning more about security systems, air conditioning units, bathroom plumbing, and glass polishing than anyone would think was necessary, and then the real fun with potting and prepping plants began. Combine this with two of the biggest Triffid Ranch shows of the year in the middle, and the necessary downtime on gallery preparation to focus on those shows, and guess what?

We’re nearly there.

Things still aren’t perfect: one of the advantages to the new gallery is a significant increase in usable wall area and volume, along with a nearly exponential increase in power outlets compared to the old Valley View space. This means doubling the old space’s shelf space, which also goes with an increase of usable floor area and tables to take advantage of it. This means that the next big Triffid Ranch exhibition is tentatively scheduled for mid-October, just to build enough enclosures to fill all that new display space. (Sadly, the regular ARTwalk exhibitions are as dead as Valley View’s artist community, because the time lost in preparing for and cleaning up after each ARTwalk cut into enclosure preparation and construction time.) Details will follow, but the upshot is that the Triffid Ranch opens for commissions and consultation as of July 1. 

(Please note: as with the Valley View space, the new gallery is open by appointment only, preferably with at least 24 hours’ advance notice. Apologies for the inconvenience, but a day job intrudes.) 

And on the subject of shows, the rest of summer and all of autumn are going to be busy, with things staying lively all the way through the end of November. Many of the events are awaiting final confirmation, but Small-Con in Addison on September 9 and the Blood Over Texas Horror for the Holidays show in Austin on November 19 are absolutes. As this changes, the calendar will be updated accordingly. This goes double for events in spring 2018: vendor applications for Texas Frightmare Weekend officially open on June 23, and we hope to have a special surprise lined up for next April. We’ll see how it goes.

In other developments, visitors at the Dallas Arboretum may have noticed the new carnivorous plant bog in the Children’s Adventure Garden, and expect more carnivores very quickly. Because of a bumper crop of second-year plants from last year’s seedlings, getting the new plants potted up requires having to make room, and the big established Sarracenia are perfect for the Arboretum’s purposes. Expect photos soon, especially if our expected rains on Saturday don’t wash us all back to Oz, because everyone involved really made an exceptional display, and it just needs more plants to fill out the area. It has a way to go before it can compete with the Atlanta Botanic Garden’s carnivore beds, but the challenge is half of the fun. 

Free plugs: both of these deserve proper reviews, but keep an eye open for both the BBC/PBS two-part miniseries Plants Behaving Badly, narrated by Sir David Attenborough, and the new Janit Calvo book The Gardening In Miniature Prop Shop, published by Timber Press. The former dedicates one episode each to carnivorous plants and orchids, and the only issue with either is that one hour is nowhere near enough time for a decent presentation. The latter, though, is going to be an essential resource in the Triffid Ranch workshop, so buy both for the best effect. And so it goes. 

 

The Aftermath: Texas Frightmare Weekend 2017 – 9

In all of the obvious love shown to Texas Frightmare Weekend, don’t think that it’s always perfect. No, there’s always someone who takes issue with what the Triffid Ranch is doing. The plants are living things, they yell, you shouldn’t be selling them, they yell, at least not something I can’t smoke. By way of example, for the first time, I share pictures of a heckler. The character came below and did nothing but take offense that his brethren and sisters were available for sale in glass bottles and containers, and he let me know it. Well, he kinda did: he was rather hard to understand, and random grumbling and wheezing counts as heckling, right?


Very seriously, it’s no exaggeration that I now spend the entire year getting ready for Texas Frightmare Weekend in one way or another, and I hope to pull off a display in 2018 that’s not affected by a sudden gallery eviction and relocation. Many thanks to everyone involved with Frightmare: attendees, guests, staff, support crew, and fellow vendors, and thanks in particular to convention founder Loyd Cryer: if not for him ignoring the various voices in the area telling him that a horror convention in “as conservative a city as Dallas” wouldn’t work, we wouldn’t be having THIS much fun. Here’s to seeing everyone next year, because the only way I’d miss it is by being dead, and even then.

The Aftermath: Texas Frightmare Weekend 2017 – 8

Trying to describe a show like Texas Frightmare Weekend to folks completely unfamiliar with the concept is hard enough, but trying to explain the costumers is harder. Part of it comes from the assumption that the costumers are just nostalgic for Halloween, or from the cliche of the convention costumer circa 1985. Both work from an assumption that costumes should be quick, flashy, and quickly discarded once the event is over. And that assumption is so wrong that it’s saddening.

As someone who first started attending conventions in the early 1980s, and who only became a vendor during the great costuming renaissance of the 2000s, this is another area of fandom where I have no interest or urge to go back to the Good Old Days. The sheer professionalism of costuming these days makes it worthy of further study: in fact, it’s the reason why so many TV and newspaper crews come to events like Frightmare to get images and video of the proceedings. In many ways, they treat Halloween the way Hunter S. Thompson handled New Year’s Eve: that’s the day you back off and let the amateurs have their fun.

As for being a vendor? I get to watch literally thousands of enthusiasts go by, and I get to ask questions. For a short time in the Eighties, I took inspiration from such makeup effects maestros as Dick Smith and Tom Savini and wanted to dive right into the world of movie illusions. I’ve gone off in a drastically different direction since then, but a lot of what I learned back then still influences plant enclosures today. How do I make this illusion? How do I put it together for the maximum effect? Does it grab the audience in the same way it grabbed me? I may be using live plants, long-fiber sphagnum, and perlite instead of silicone and resin, but it’s still the same thrill.


The Aftermath: Texas Frightmare Weekend 2017 – 7

One of the things that’s hard for people outside of the dealer’s room at a big convention such as Texas Frightmare Weekend is that it’s WORK. Heck, it’s hard for some people in the dealer’s room to understand, for that matter. (And no, I’m not naming names, although it’s tempting.) This means that very few of us have the time or opportunity to break free from the booth to view preview movie screenings or guest signings. This means that while the attendees are heading out to catch after-hours parties and concerts, we’re usually either heading home or to our hotel rooms to get some sleep before it starts all over again. This means having to cancel dinner plans with near and dear friends because a customer asked for a special commission that has to be ready by the next day. For anywhere from two to four days, depending upon the length of the convention, it’s a matter of scrambling and dancing and occasionally throwing things (you get really good at hitting trash cans from a distance when the crowd is too thick to get to it directly), and none of us would give it up for anything. 

And why wouldn’t we give it up? That’s because the party comes to us. At Frightmare, that meant anywhere between six and nine hours of fascinating people coming from all over the planet, in costume and out, all with different stories about why they were there. It’s a three-day Troll Market, and everyone involved simultaneously wishes that it could go on for years AND thanks Odin, Marduk, and Arioch that it doesn’t go on for a solid week. I don’t think any of us could handle more than five days, just because there are limits as to what the human body can endure.

The Aftermath: Texas Frightmare Weekend 2017 – 6

As an aside, it’s time to share the Great Doughtnut Dropoff story. When Texas Frightmare Weekend moved to its current location at DFW Airport five years ago, we made a run on a grocery store for drinks on the last day of the show, and decided “what the heck: let’s pick up a flat of doughnuts to share with the vendors and the staff.” Considering how many vendors were waiting for their final sales on Sunday to know how much gas money they’d have (yes, things were a bit tight that year), the box was denuded within seconds. Since then, things have gotten considerably better for the vendors, but the doughnut tradition continues. Every Sunday at the end of Frightmare, it’s a matter of going over to Donut Palace in Garland, one of the best doughnut shops in the whole of the D/FW Metroplex, and picking up a few dozen for the staff. They’re exhausted from running the show, so the sugar pick-me-up is important, and it’s a very careful thank-you for the realization that while all sorts of emergencies may have occurred over the weekend, attendees and vendors didn’t know about any of them. (Remind me to tell you about the fire alarm at Space City Con in Houston in 2014 some time.) 

This year, it was the usual: seven dozen, all fresh out of the fryer, and a suitable mix so that everybody got at least one of their favorites. By the end of the show, though, one box remained on the registration desk, with two or three remaining. By the time we finished packing up the truck and did the traditional “Did we get EVERYTHING?” inspection of the booth before leaving for the night, one was still there. It looked perfectly edible, so was that last one left because nobody wanted to be That Guy Who Took the Last Doughnut (And Thereby Had To Dispose Of The Box), or did someone write “Lovingly prepared by Tyler Durden” on the bottom? Next year, I’m setting up a remote camera, just to check.

The Aftermath: Texas Frightmare Weekend 2017 – 5

Now, not that this year’s Frightmare was perfect. The horror lay in leaving the show. Everything packed up perfectly, we were all done and loaded into the truck at least an hour ahead of schedule, and it looked as if the few remaining plants would go back into the gallery before dark. Everything was going great, until the truck encountered the tollbooths at the north exit of DFW Airport. Judging by the scars on the concrete barriers separating each toll booth, a lot of drivers discover that they don’t have very much clearance at all. In my case, I came to the booth, inserted my original toll ticket and the parking validation from the hotel, started forward, and caught a lovely “BLAM!” Starting forward a little further, the right wheel was making a lovely whup-whup-whup sound, so it’s time to pull over. One of the wheel struts had broken, so it was a matter of waiting for a tow truck to haul the beast back to the gallery and from there to a repair center. (A little bit of advice for first-time vendors at conventions and shows: if you get to the point where you need a truck to haul merchandise to shows, go for a rental to each show until you reach the point where the rentals are costing more than payments on a new truck. If you rent, always, ALWAYS buy the offered insurance, because that $20 to $40 expenditure every show is much better than the $2000 or more that will come out of your hide if something should happen. Thirdly, if you find a dependable and friendly rental service, stick with these people, and let them know how much you love them at every opportunity. Not only can I depend upon U-Haul Moving & Storage of Garland, but I let them know much they’re helping, every time I pick up a van.) U-Haul driver support was exceptional, the tow truck driver was a hoot, and I was able to get everything unloaded and in the gallery within minutes, with only one broken flask. Not exactly how I wanted to spend a Sunday evening, but it beat waiting on the side of the road, wondering what I’d do next.

The Aftermath: Texas Frightmare Weekend 2017 – 4

As the greatest movie ever to namedrop the town of Garland, Texas noted, “sometimes it’s all about the little things.” We didn’t have Woody Harrelson and Emma Stone tearing things up out here, but the sentiment applied all weekend. Half of the fun wasn’t just in introducing new people to the world of carnivorous plants: it was meeting someone who was in middle school when she bought her first carnivore at her first Frightmare show, introducing her husband and first child all these years later. This is why I do this.