Tag Archives: shows

State of the Gallery: September 2018

It’s midway through the month already. We’re now a little over a week away from the official autumnal equinox, and just over six weeks until Halloween. Next thing you know, the calendar will have switched over, we’ll be looking over New Year’s Eve 2631, preparing for the Gorash Annexation to set up outposts and the occasional clearance outlet on the other side of our galaxy, and wondering if it really was such a great idea to de-extinct the moa and let them go feral in the Canadian Rockies…but perhaps I’ve said too much.

Over here at the Triffid Ranch, frantic work for the next open house is the order of the day, especially with the number of outside shows and events between now and the end of the year. After a lot of deliberation, particularly with input from people unable to get free on Saturdays to attend previous open houses, the next open house is scheduled for October 26 from 6:00 to 11:00 CST. Yes, a Friday night. Depending upon the success of this open house, we may try a few mid-week open houses as well, especially as football season gets going and Dallas traffic goes from “typically abysmal” to “blow up every highway in the state and require everyone to ride a bike for a month to learn some humility.”

Related news: partly to improve opportunities for people to see the latest Triffid Ranch enclosures outside of open houses and appointments, and partly to help fill a niche with the best damn reptile and amphibian shop in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex, the Texas Triffid Ranch is now partnering with DFW Reptarium in Plano to offer new carnivore enclosures at the Reptarium. For those who haven’t visited it already, the Reptarium is a  herpetophile’s joy, starting with the store’s mascot: an absolutely stunning crocodile monitor named “Whisper” who lives in the front window. In addition to the store’s assemblage of panther chameleons, arrow-poison frogs, emerald tree boas, and the world’s most mellow frilled dragon, the Reptarium now has the Nepenthes bicalcarata enclosure “Hans-Ruedi,” and more will be available based on customer response. In other words, this holiday season is going to be VERY busy.

In the interim, October also features an outdoor show on October 13, thanks to the Garland Urban Flea in, unsurprisingly, Garland, Texas. This marks the first Triffid Ranch show ever held in Garland, and the weather should be absolutely stunning. The October Urban Flea runs from 9:00 am to 4:30 pm, so feel free to stop by for the last of the season’s Venus flytraps and threadleaf sundews.

And for those who might be coming across these missives via Facebook, be warned that a Triffid Ranch Facebook presence is shrinking and will continue to do so. The constant push to boost FB page posts was already becoming annoying, as they still weren’t reaching the people who chose to receive page updates. Now, new posts disappear immediately after entering them, only to pop back up days or weeks later. And then there’s Facebook’s page messaging system, which penalizes page owners if they don’t respond to any message sent to the page within minutes. This means either hiring someone to manage a social media presence (which I suspect is the hope), or get dinged for getting a message minutes after going to bed for the night and answering it only after waking up. Either way, it’s once again time to note that no such problems exist with the Texas Triffid Ranch Occasional Newsletter and Feedlot Clearance Sale, of which a new installment will be out very shortly. Go forth with the clicky to get newsletter-exclusive news and commentary, and occasional cool and educational prizes.

Well, back to the linen mines. Expect a few new enclosure premieres before the end of September, including a fun little commission: it’s either ramping up the enclosure releases or having a really slow holiday season. And on the holiday season, expect some extra surprises with this year’s Nightmare Weekends Before Christmas events. It’s absolutely amazing how much you can get done when you’re not unpacking from an unscheduled move…

The Aftermath: Late Canada Day at the Texas Triffid Ranch

Ever have one of those parties where you’re so tied up in getting everything ready that you don’t notice that it’s time to open the door until you’re in the middle of vacuuming? Where so many people you’re glad to see are waiting at the door, and that they keep piling in for hours? Where the only reason you don’t do this every single week is because the gathering requires a week to prepare and a week to recuperate? Where you look at the calendar for the next event, calculate “I have six weeks to get everything done,” and automatically cut off anything that gets in the way of that deadline, like sleep? Yeah, that pretty much sums up a Triffid Ranch gallery show, at least from this side of the display table. The July 7 Late Canada Day show was our largest one yet, not just in general attendance but in enthusiasm, and it was worth the sleep deprivation.

Just as a friendly reminder, since we don’t have any outside shows scheduled for August, the next Triffid Ranch gallery opening is on August 18, from 6:00 to whenever everyone stops coming through the door. This one is an accumulation of special occasions, all stemming from it being the third anniversary of the very first gallery show at our old Galleries at Midtown location. Among many other things, it’s time to celebrate the birthday of Caroline of Tawanda! Jewelry, the hottie holding court in the front of the gallery space, and it’s also a matter of celebrating two old and dear friends who first formally met and got together at that first show. Watching them after three years makes most people fall to the ground clutching their guts and screaming “Ow! My pancreas!”, so they deserve a party as well. And don’t even get me going about the new enclosures on display for this one.

Upcoming Events, June 2018 Edition

A month after Texas Frightmare Weekend, and things in the gallery are finally under control. New and reworked enclosures are going strong, the propagation area is full of new and exciting species, and the deep freeze in the back is full of frozen blueberries. (Take this from a longtime resident: about the only thing that makes summer in Texas livable is the explosion of East Texas blueberries in farmers’ markets and grocery stores, and the only thing that makes July and August tolerable is knowing that June was spent filling every refrigerated space in the vicinity with June’s and April’s and Melissa’s blueberries. By the time the blueberries run out, the local craft stores are full of Halloween stuff, which is usually enough to get through the last few weeks of baking heat before things start cooling off. This routine works until the day it’s possible to live like an African lungfish and aestivate in mucus and mud cocoons until the rains return.) This is the time of the year where everyone knows firsthand what a grasshopper on a griddle feels like (there’s a very good reason why sheepskin car seat covers were popular in Dallas in the days of vinyl car seats, especially for those fond of shorts), so the idea is to offer events and activities either indoors or after dark, and preferably both.

One of the advantages of emulating a Gila monster in the summer heat (living underground, emerging only to suck eggs and swallow baby bunnies whole, and dealing with interlopers with a venomous bite) is having plenty of time to organize for the days when the sun’s default setting drops below “supernova”. 2018 has been interesting in that regard: this year’s Deep Ellum Arts Fest was an anomalous combination of torrential rains and near-freezing temperatures, so registering for the 2019 Fest wasn’t even a question. This is also the year to see about admission to the famed Cottonwood Art Festival down the road from the gallery in October, as well as a lot of smaller shows and events through the area. The first showing at the Deep Ellum Art Company was a hit, and that may be a regular showing venue as well.

As far as the traditional Triffid Ranch shows are concerned, things are lively. Texas Frightmare Weekend’s open call for vendors starts soon, with notice on acceptance usually arriving in August. That’s also about the time for applications for the Blood Over Texas Horror for the Holidays show in Austin in November, and two weeks after Horror for the Holidays is the two-day revived Dallas Fantasy Fair at the Irving Convention Center. That last one is going to be the most interesting, especially since I was a regular guest during my writing days through the first half of the 1990s until the original convention imploded in 1996. On one side, even the kids who were at the last few Fantasy Fairs are in their thirties and forties now, and nostalgia from the older fans might not be enough. On the other, Dallas still has precious little to do on Thanksgiving weekend that doesn’t involve movies or malls, and the Thanksgiving Fantasy Fair weekends in the Eighties and Nineties made that weekend a lot more tolerable for those of us without family plans (or those with families they had to escape for a while). Either way, let’s see what happens.

(As an aside, while it’s great to get invitations to attend other shows as a vendor, please understand that being able to attend is a combination of logistics and scheduling, and those can collide with interstate regulations, weather patterns, or the laughable concept of “personal life.” Please also understand two things, the first being that my having to reject a vendor request almost always isn’t personal, but that every show requires about a week before the show to prepare and a week after to recuperate and reorganize. Therefore, every two-day or three-day show effectively cuts out three weeks per month that could be used to create new enclosures or perform essential maintenance at the gallery, which is why we schedule the regular gallery shows for the months where we aren’t running an outside event. The second thing is that whining, guilt trips, or pushiness, especially of the “don’t you owe it to yourself to come to our show?” type, WILL guarantee a blacklist on even the remotest possibility of coming out to future events. This is a roundabout way to recommend not following the lead of Fear Con in Salt Lake City and taking a lot of care with vendor contact information. Unsolicited entry into a mailing list is bad enough, but texting when the mailing list wasn’t getting an immediate response? Oh, that’s a blocking.)

And for the regular gallery showings? Scheduling conflicts kicked in for the end of June, so the next Triffid Ranch gallery opening has been moved to Saturday, July 7. It’s a touch late for Canada Day, but as a chance to see Michel Sarrazin‘s namesakes in the pulp, it’ll still be worth the trip. Expect details in the very near future, as well as a few surprises, and some might even include blueberries.

The Aftermath: Texas Frightmare Weekend 2018 – 8

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And that about closes it out for Texas Frightmare Weekend 2018. 350 days to go before Texas Frightmare Weekend 2019, and I can only hope to top this year’s show.(Maybe next year, I’ll be hit by an asteroid.) Many thanks to everyone who came out for this show, innumerable thanks to the staff and crew at Frightmare, and a sincere promise of reparations to the fellow vendors who had to listen to me all weekend long. I truly apologize for your pain.frightmare_2018_78frightmare_2018_79frightmare_2018_80frightmare_2018_81frightmare_2018_82frightmare_2018_83frightmare_2018_84frightmare_2018_85frightmare2018_59

The Aftermath: Texas Frightmare Weekend 2018 – 7

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To be continued…

The Aftermath: Texas Frightmare Weekend 2018 – 6

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To be continued…

The Aftermath: Texas Frightmare Weekend 2018- 5

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As an aside, for those unfamiliar with the Shirt Price policy, buying a Texas Triffid Ranch shirt (or other item of clothing) and then wearing it to a show or gallery event not only makes you the subject of envy and admiration, but it imparts several special abilities. Firstly, the money from the purchases supports local Dallas artist Larry Carey. Secondly, wearing that shirt to an event gives an automatic price discount on all Triffid Ranch purchases. Thirdly, as was the case this weekend, Triffid Ranch shirt wearers received extras, in this case a Venus McFlytrap Monster High doll. People should be rewarded for being unconventionally stylish, right? (And many thanks to the people who had no interest in plants but who wanted to buy a Triffid Ranch shirt anyway. Getting to share Larry’s artwork is a big deal for me, and has been for the last decade.)

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To be continued…

The Aftermath: Texas Frightmare Weekend 2018 – 4

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To be continued…

The Aftermath: Texas Frightmare Weekend 2018 – 3

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To be continued…

The Aftermath: Texas Frightmare Weekend 2018 -Introduction

So. About last week’s Texas Frightmare Weekend show. I could talk about the extra weeks spent on making sure that everything was done in advance, so I could roll up a truck and head out early on Friday morning for load-in. I could bring up the ongoing tradition of Dallas getting heavy thunderstorms during that weekend each year, one of which led to my nickname among the convention staff as “Sparky” after the truck was hit by lightning. I could mention that after my left ankle decided to go in directions not recommended by the rest of my skeletal structure, I’m putting down nonskid tape on the front steps of the gallery this weekend so slipping on rain-slick concrete on those front steps never happens to anyone else. I could mention how after having to miss load-in on Friday, the Frightmare crew helped get me in early on Saturday morning, with everything up and ready literally as the first crowds came rushing back. I could mention that nine hours of standing while talking with customers isn’t bad, except that favoring an injured left ankle puts all sorts of stresses on one’s right knee. I could, but why belabor my failings on what was probably the best Frightmare yet?

As a vendor, I look at each year’s show with surprise: it’s hard to believe that the show runs this smoothly every year without some sort of public incident, but there you have it. When the biggest complaint is the relatively high cost of hotel food, and this is NOTHING compared to comparable costs at various convention centers in which I’ve set up booths, you have a show that should be emulated by everybody in the science fiction/fantasy/horror convention circuit. Events run within a couple of minutes of the stated time, instead of “when we damn well feel like it.” The registration crew handles general queries and emergencies with the aplomb of a tapdancing brain surgeon, and with a lot less mess. Convention security is practically invisible except when needed, and then they cloud up like a bee swarm and take out the issue right then. The promotion is savvy and understated, since the best promotion is word of mouth, and this year’s attendees were a great mix of first-timers and decade-long vets. After decades of conventions with far too many attendees and staffers assuming that Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was an instruction manual, there’s something incredibly relaxing as a vendor in knowing that everyone is watching out for each other, and that’s Frightmare’s greatest strength. All of this needs to be put at the feet of founder Loyd Cryer: every time a reporter notes that he had serious questions from loan officers about the viability of a horror convention in the Dallas area when he started in 2005, we all just laugh and laugh.

In return, as befitting such a great venue, the plant selection rose to the challenge, especially with the number of longtime attendees finally ready to move to more exotic and challenging species. The new butterworts were a huge hit, especially after pointing out the containers full of Utricularia calycifida “Asenath Waite” to the H.P. Lovecraft fans. A wider range of highland and lowland Nepenthes to go with the beginner’s plants, and the first time the Triffid Ranch table had Heliamphora on display…oh, and a starting selection of hot peppers, with both “Numex Halloween” and “Carolina Reaper” catching everyone’s eyes. This year, the problem wasn’t with having enough for everyone. The problem was illustrated by the people who came by later on Sunday because of the crowds four and five rows deep in front of the booth on Saturday.

As with each previous show, the aftermath of this year’s Frightmare tested new display concepts, highlighted the need for new ideas, and emphasized the need to get rid of ideas that no longer work. This means a lot of work between now and next May 3 to finalize such things as QR codes on both individual plants and groupings by genera, leading to pages on basic care in order to make it easier on the folks on the outer edges of the crowds to get information. It means updating display shelves, both for improved access to the plants and for improved weight management. (The only thing heavier than glass is glass full of water and sphagnum moss, as my biceps keep telling me.) It means alternate lighting systems, such as a heavy-duty battery for venues where access to electricity is either unavailable or ridiculously expensive. It’s a lot of work, but now that the gallery is reasonably under control, it’s time to focus on upgrading the off-site presence.

And the really surprising part? It’s a matter of looking back over the preceding shows to see how far it’s all come. That first show in 2009, with all of the plants that could be shoved into the back of a PT Cruiser, a big bookcase full of vintage gonzo gardening books, and a lot of stuff that simply wasn’t necessary or got in the way, was pathetic compared to last weekend. It’s a shock as to how far it’s all come, and that gives incentive to push even harder to get to where it’s going.

To be continued…

State of the Gallery: May 2018

Well. With Texas Frightmare Weekend recently ended (and photos and discussions on same will be online shortly), it’s time to shift gears, relax, and take a couple of weeks off to recover. And if you believe that, I have some great converted shopping mall live/work spaces at the bottom of the Trinity River that I’ll regretfully let go to someone who will appreciate them, too. Right now, the clock starts for preparation for the next Frightmare, and the real trick is to get everything else done over the next year as well.

Because of preparation and arrangement time, May and the first part of June will be relatively quiet as far as gallery events, but that’s because the Triffid Ranch goes mobile over the next two months. The fun starts with a showing at the Deep Ellum Art Company on Sunday, May 20, focusing on larger enclosures, from 2:00 to 6:00 that afternoon. Three weeks later, the Triffid Ranch gets much more hands-on with a workshop on carnivorous plants at Curious Garden and Natural History in Lakewood, including leaving with your own hand-planted sundew or butterwort enclosure. For the latter, contact Curious Garden to reserve your space in the workshop: the fee for registration and supplies is $30 per person.

This doesn’t mean that the gallery is abandoned: the next big gallery event is scheduled for Saturday, June 30 as a very slightly early Canada Day celebration. This includes a celebration of the famed French doctor and naturalist Michel Sarrazin, for whom the genus Sarracenia is named. Yes, that means lots of North American pitcher plants, as well as some other surprises. As always, admission is free, with lots of plants available to take home.

On the convention circuit, things will be quiet for the rest of the year, with one possible exception. After founder Larry Lankford’s death in 2013, an absolute on Dallas conventions with the older crowd was reminiscing about the long-defunct Dallas Fantasy Fairs, which ran three times a year from the mid-Eighties until their demise in 1996. A few members of that old crowd would make noises about reviving the shows every once in a while, but those noises remained such until about two weeks ago. That’s when the first formal announcements of headliner guests announced the 2018 Dallas Fantasy Fair, scheduled for the weekend of November 23-25 at the Irving Convention Center. It’s still early days yet, so the convention has little more than a Facebook page for further information, but the con organizer is already taking vendor requests for more information. If nothing else, a convention the weekend after Thanksgiving is a good way to get started with regular weekend openings at the gallery all through December. Details will follow as they arrive.

And on longterm trips, it’s official: the 2018 International Carnivorous Plant Society Conference is running the weekend of August 3-5, and the Triffid Ranch is heading to California to hear what the real experts have to say. This is purely a factfinding expedition: no plants, no displays, nothing but notebooks and lots of business cards, just in case. That works out the best: I haven’t been in the Bay Area since the beginning of the dotcom boom in 1996, so it’ll be nice to see it without prior job interview commitments or any other commitments.

Finally, the just-concluded Frightmare show marked a solid decade since the first Triffid Ranch show, and the size of the crowds and their needs confirmed that it’s time for a revamp of the show table look. Among other things, it’s time to enter the Twenty-First Century as far as information and organization is concerned. As before, details will follow as they arrive, but let’s just say that attendees at Texas Frightmare Weekend 2018 will have the opportunity to get questions about plants answered so long as they have a smartphone. Considering that the crowds were four and five rows thick through most of the last show, a change is essential before the next one. This doesn’t even start with a project inspired by Demetria at The Curiositeer, which should go live soon. Oh, this one will be entirely too much fun.

State of the Gallery: April 2018

Nearly a third of the way through the year, and April 2018 is already shaping up to be a lot less exciting than April 2017. Of course, this time last year involved frantic shelf-installing and box-unpacking after the move from the old gallery space at Valley View Center, so it’s all a matter of perspective. (And if anybody had any doubts about not getting involved with the Rock Candy Mountain promises of artist spaces opening up at the Midtown project allegedly replacing Valley View, they’re gone now.) Yes, the weather keeps fluctuating between “typical” and “too cold to get out of bed right now,” but we haven’t actually gone below freezing…yet.

As far as last weekend’s Manchester United Flower Show was concerned, April follows in the tradition of last February: announce a gallery event, get everything ready to go, and then watch the weather feeds for impending catastrophe as a sudden atmospheric fewmet comes to visit for a while. Last February, it was a last-minute ice storm that hit north and west of Dallas, making a lot of potential attendees understandably reconsider a trip into Dallas if the roads were going to be frozen over by the time they attempted to return home. This time, Friday festivities were greeted with tornado sirens going off over most of North Texas: we got a bit of heavy rain for about an hour, but a friend coming in from Chicago found shelter with a multitude of others in a furniture store north of here, and folks to the south and the west had their own issues with hail and lightning. What issues Friday brought were mitigated on Saturday, where chilly but otherwise excellent weather brought out lots of first-time visitors and Valley View regulars. If nothing else, the weather caused reevaluations of having an outdoor event in spring, because any tents set up in the parking lot would have been blown to Oz and back. Maybe next year.

And on that note, further events in April will be restricted due to the need to get ready for Texas Frightmare Weekend on May 4 through 6, and then things get interesting. It’s too early to discuss particulars, but everything leads to a gallery show on June 30, just in time for everyone uninterested in traveling out of town for the July 4 weekend. The subject of that show is a secret, too, but let’s just say that anyone attending can say with authority that they’ve never been to an art show like this one.

Lateral shift to go back to talking about Texas Frightmare Weekend: the vendor map and listings arrived yesterday, and we’re back on our favorite row. As for most of the decade, the epicenter of Frightmare is at the Hyatt Regency DFW in DFW Airport, thus making the entire wing of DFW Airport by the hotel available parking for the convention. As in previous years, the Triffid Ranch and Tawanda! Jewelry tables will be in the back of the Made In Texas Hall in the hotel basement, right next to the signing lines. Since this coincides with the first-ever Triffid Ranch show a decade ago, those already taking advantage of the Shirt Price discounts have an extra incentive to wear their Triffid Ranch T-shirts to the show: while supplies last, everyone showing up in a Triffid Ranch shirt or purchasing a shirt at the show gets a special present, no additional purchase necessary or needed. It’s just an extra bit of thanks to those who have not only made Texas Frightmare Weekend one of my favorite shows, but who have made the previous nine shows so much fun.

One ancillary note about Frightmare, not for this year but for next year: I’m regularly asked about getting vendor space at Fan Expo, the local convention that inspired the “Malcolm Rule” mentioned a few weeks back. I’ve balked for many reasons, and now my refusal became personal. Ever since the old Dallas Comicon was purchased by out-of-town convention accumulators and turned into Fan Expo, it and its associated Fan Days events always conveniently scheduled themselves against other similar events so that local attendees could do one or the other but not both. (Longtime fans may remember when the Dallas Fantasy Fairs did the same thing in the early Nineties, stunting or killing up-and-coming conventions that simply couldn’t compete against the Flimsy Fair hype machine and guest lists. Those fans who aren’t longtime fans might not be familiar with the name “Dallas Fantasy Fair,” as the Flimsy Fairs blew up very spectacularly in 1996 after choking out all other competition, just in time for the big comics speculation bust that caused Marvel Comics to file for bankruptcy at the end of the year.) Five years back, Fan Expo’s parent company offered to buy Texas Frightmare Weekend for a pittance, and when told no, attempted to run a horror convention within the main show that was an unrelenting disaster. Since then, Fan Expo management concentrated on scheduling opposite the A-Kon anime convention, ultimately causing it to move out of Dallas entirely, and then settled for running two weeks after All-Con.

Well, that was 2018. You can imagine the surprise vendors at Fan Expo 2018 had when they received advance registration forms for 2019, and discovered that Fan Expo had moved its date to the first weekend of May. Not only does this directly conflict with Texas Frightmare Weekend, forcing attendees and vendors to choose one and only one, but May 4 is also Free Comic Book Day across the US and Canada. Frightmare never competed against the many comic shops in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex participating in Free Comic Book Day, but Fan Expo’s list of comic artist and comic adaptation film and TV star guests does, and not just with comics dealers and stores having to man a booth at Fan Expo during their stores’ busiest day of the year. Fan Expo management hasn’t released a statement as to why the schedule suddenly needed switching, but I’ll bet $10 that when it’s finally released, the statement will bray something along the lines of “this is a pure coincidence.”

I’m sure it is. Of COURSE it is. Likewise, it’ll be a pure coincidence that everyone involved with Frightmare, from staff to vendors to guests to attendees, will spend the next year doing nothing but amping their games so Frightmare isn’t just the biggest show in Dallas on that weekend, but the must-attend show of its kind in all of North America. It’ll also be pure coincidence that so many of us involved in Frightmare will do our utmost to have the backs of our comic shop brethren when May 4, 2019 comes around. Refusing to advertise with venues that continue to do business with Fan Expo, for instance, or otherwise demonstrating with dollars or shoe leather that scheduling opposite established events with the attempt to create a monopoly may not turn out the way everyone expected. After all, the Dallas Fantasy Fairs attempted to create a similar monopoly, and a little voice should have told their organizers what Fan Expo management really needs to hear:

And now on a purely friendly note. It’s been about three years since the last Cat Monday event on this site, mostly due to the time taken by the gallery, but its main subject, Leiber, is still going strong. As of Friday the 13, Leiber turns 16: he’s still the so-dopy-he’s-cute FreakBeast he was when we adopted him in August of 2002, but he’s a little stiffer today. Aren’t we all. Those who have met him are welcome to wish him a happy birthday, although he’ll probably only care if the person offering the wishes brings cat treats as well. And so it goes.

Upcoming Events: The Second Annual Manchester United Flower Show and Other Vagaries

One classic comment about life in Texas states “If you don’t like the weather, hang on five minutes. This ties directly to a less commonly stated but equally apt phrase, “Don’t count on Texas weather.” Getting the reminder that some 12 tornadoes passed over my house six years ago this week, while Day Job co-workers and I huddled in a building seemingly made of nothing BUT windows, and the admonition “keep watching the skies” isn’t just for bicycle commuters. As of right now, the National Weather Service is predicting near-freezing temperatures for Friday and Saturday nights, along with a wind advisory and thunderstorm watches for all evening Friday. Considering that this is the time where traditionally all of the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex outdoor festivals and events start, I truly feel for everyone who has to be outside to run those outdoor festivals. A shoutout to the folks running the Deep Ellum Arts Festival, in particular: last year’s event was so absolutely perfect that it’s heartbreaking to realize that the weather will only be decent on Sunday afternoon. (incidentally, don’t let that stop any of you from going out there: just make sure to bring a coat and a plastic sheet for any art you bring home.)

This, of course, doesn’t affect the gallery: the Second Annual Manchester United Flower Show still runs tonight and Saturday, even if our wild fluctuations in temperature over the last month mean that some of the carnivores are being tetchy about blooming. The Venus flytraps, which normally have full and lively flower scapes by this time of the year, are only now starting to bloom, and don’t even get me started about the hopes for Australian pitcher plant blooms. On the brighter side, this is a good year for Heliamphora pitcher plant blooms, for the first time since the Triffid Ranch started, and the Sarracenia pitcher plants are currently going berserk. Okay, so the flytraps and sundews are delayed, but seeing why Queen Victoria so loved the flower emblem of Newfoundland and Labrador makes up for it. There’s no point in hyping up the bladderwort and Mexican butterwort blooms, because this is definitely their year.

After the flower show, expect a bit of radio silence, mostly because it’s time to get caught up on seriously delinquent support work, especially as far as plant care guides are concerned. That’s because as of today, we’re only a month away from Texas Frightmare Weekend, one of the largest horror conventions on the planet, and it’s time to amp up the Frightmare booth to a whole new level. Expect to see plants that have never appeared at a previous Frightmare, along with ones that most Americans have never seen, as well as other surprises. (Now’s the time to mention that not only do Shirt Price discounts apply at Texas Frightmare Weekend, but I have plans for special surprises for attendees wearing Triffid Ranch shirts that are just a perk.)

And after that? It’s time for a road trip. The original plan was to visit Chicago during the Independent Garden Center show in August, but the 300-pound Samoan attorney is still in the shop and rentals are prohibitively expensive. That’s when a much more lively event opened up. This year’s International Carnivorous Plant Society conference is being hosted by the Bay Area Carnivorous Plant Society on August 3 through 5, which means (a) being in the vicinity of California Carnivores with an expense fund, (b) a demonstration of imposter syndrome-inspired meltdown in the presence of some of the greatest experts on carnivorous plants in this arm of the galaxy, and (c) an extra day in San Francisco for my beloved’s birthday. Working vacations are the best, and the plan is to come back to Dallas with an even larger collection of plants in time for the Triffid Ranch third anniversary party on August 25. August may be a slow month for art galleries, but not here.

And after THAT? well, that depends upon the weather, as always. Details will follow, but expect some surprises for September and October in addition to the annual November drive to Austin for the Blood Over Texas Horror for the Holidays show. We have such sights to show you…

The Aftermath: All-Con 2018 – 3

One of the regular discussions among vendors at last weekend’s All-Con was whether science fiction/fantasy/horror conventions have hit what’s generally referred to as “Peak Con.” The basic idea is that the convention boom that first started up around 2003 is finally reaching saturation, and it’s all downhill from here. For those too young to remember the previous booms and busts, this appears valid: attendance numbers are way down on a lot of shows, and I get notes from friends every other week about one new convention or another blowing up on the pad or facing class-action lawsuits after a disastrous weekend. I particularly wince at the events that were less conventions than displays of organizer hubris, where the vendors had to sleep with their tables because security couldn’t be found and guests woke up on Monday morning to discover they had no way to get to the airport because their contacts couldn’t be reached. Yeah, this is happening a lot…and that’s why I’m enthusiastic for the future.

A lot of the concern at the moment is due to a lack of perspective. The current convention boom has gone on far longer than most others: in my lifetime, I’ve watched three booms and two busts, and the booms generally last about five to six years before the inevitable crash. Three to five years after the bust, and things start to rebuild, mostly with people who saw the last bust and want to do better. The reason why this boom ran for so long is multifold: fandom didn’t “go mainstream” so much as it was folded over into general popular culture, so a lot of attendees jumped in on the idea of “Oh, what the heck, let’s go grab some friends and have some fun.” The boom in costuming had a lot to do with it, especially with social media allowing enthusiasts from all over the planet being able to exchange tips and notes on new materials and techniques. Social media were also responsible for the promotional booms: we’ve gotten inured to television advertising, radio advertising is a joke, and newspapers are pretty much the province of boomers who can’t bear to give up their dead-tree editions, but Facebook and Twitter went everywhere.

The seeds for the boom are also the seed corn for the bust. As big media conventions took off, with ever-increasing lists of big name guests, attendees discovered that they simply didn’t have the money or time to hit every last show in their own area and had to consider their options. Fans were also getting older: hitting three conventions over three weekends sounds great to an 18-year-old, but that isn’t an option to a 30-year-old with three kids and a limited number of vacation days at the day job. (A regular lament about the really big and crowded shows, “I’m too old to be crammed in with that many people,” has particular pertinence here, especially for those potential attendees having to watch kids. A major factor in my refusing to get vendor space at one big convention is what I refer to as “the Malcolm Rule,” after the son of two friends who spent an absolutely miserable time last year at one show where all he could see were the butts of the people in front of him. Any show so determined to shoehorn attendees into too small a space that kids are in danger of falling and being stomped by people behind them is not one in which I care to participate.) The big media conventions are having to reach for more exclusive guests as interest in the previous headliners fades, and the cost of getting them to participate requires larger and larger crowds. And there’s also the issue with goofballs who assume that a convention is an excuse to print money and poison the well with a show purely intended to pull the fillings out of the attendees’ teeth.

Social media is helping with the bust, too: not only are bad conventions getting called out earlier, thereby warning away people willing to take promotion at face value, but we’ve gotten used to ignoring ads, and it’s no longer possible to attract 10,000 people with $1000 in Facebook ads. (One of the funniest not-funny events I’ve witnessed at a failing convention was with the con organizer getting angry over how 2000 people liked his Facebook page but only about 100 of them actually came out for the convention. He did no other advertising, not so much as a postcard on display at local comic shops, and the failure was obviously due to Facebook algorithms instead of his producing a convention that gave nobody a reason to want to deal with Dallas summer heat to see it.) Sooner or later, enough people decide that they’ve had enough and ghost from fandom, and that’s when everyone around them notices “It’s no fun around here any more” and bail out themselves. With every inhalation must come an exhalation, and the decay of the old fan scene produces the loam for the next movement to sprout.

I won’t deny that the current boom and impending bust aren’t rough on vendors. The typical content of a dealer’s room has changed almost beyond recognition in the last fifteen years, and arguably for the better. Amazon wiped out the need for attendees to tolerate obnoxious booksellers, and eBay did the same for vintage comics vendors. The days where a vendor could clear out the local Walmart of Star Trek and Star Wars toys and sell them at conventions at a 500 percent markup died with the last century. Since any vendor’s selection on current licensed products of a fannish bent can be outstripped by the local Hot Topic, there’s no point in trying to compete, especially since any attendee can look at a particular item, pull out a phone, and order it online in seconds. The ongoing trend is toward handmade or otherwise unique items of all kinds: back in the Eighties, the main draw of any dealer’s room was toward being able to find items that you simply couldn’t find back home, and we’ve gone full circle. The difference now is that the creator is right in front of you, ready to answer questions and take commissions, and that requires a level of salesmanship and customer service previously barely known in conventions. That’s one genie that isn’t going to get back in the bottle without a war.

And for the future? Expect a lot of marginal conventions to collapse in 2018 and 2019, either two months before or a few hours after their next scheduled event. People who depended upon conventions for the social aspects, particularly costumers, will probably move to one-day pop-up events that don’t require the logistics of a full-sized convention. The guests will go back to their jobs, hopefully saving enough from these salad days that they’re doing all right in a few years. Vendors that aren’t dependent solely upon showing their wares at conventions will move on to other venues for a while: ones so specialized that they can only sell at conventions will either shut down or pare way back. The smart ones will emulate African lungfish, buried in drying mud in anticipation of future rains, and continue to improve their skills and their inventories. When the rains return, and they will eventually, not only will they be the first to repopulate as new conventions start up, but they’ll be the ones setting the standard of what a dealer’s room should be like. I can’t wait.

The Aftermath: All-Con 2018 – 2

Okay, so the hotel was a nightmare. That happens. Even so, All-Con is one of the two shows guaranteed to have a Triffid Ranch booth every year, and it’s because of the attendees. Not only does the crowd cross all sorts of demographic borders, but they’re also so relaxed. After a while, that relaxation is addictive. For those of us who thrive on peoplewatching, you can’t go wrong here.

To be continued…

The Aftermath: All-Con 2018

Ah, All-Con 2018. A lot of bad craziness happened at this year’s show, mostly involving the host hotel. Said hotel changed its name and ownership the week of the show, where potential patrons looking for the “Hotel Intercontinental” were understandably confused. There’s also something to be said about hotel upgrades that weren’t even close to being finished by the Thursday morning the show started, with lighting fixtures missing, exposed wiring hanging from the ceiling, elevators of dubious functionality that closed on entrants without warning, and the main escalator leading to the second level broken and blocked off. Inside the main dealer’s room wasn’t much better: the carpet in the main banquet hall was freshly installed, sure, but one of the vendors played a game of “How Many Razor Blades and Screws Can We Find On The Floor?” and picked up two full handfuls of broken and dulled razor blades within about fifteen minutes. (The carpet HAD been vacuumed beforehand, as installation was being completed as vendors started moving in stuff on Wednesday night, but with a vacuum that had seen a significant portion of the Twentieth Century firsthand. Besides, that vacuum would have been hard-pressed to clean up the cocaine that flowed across that part of North Dallas and Addison in great rivers during the hotel’s prime, much less the amount of metal left in that carpet, so everyone spent the rest of the weekend joking about who was going to be the poster child for the “Telethon for Tetanus.”) And then there was the parking…

Oh, the parking. One of the grand mysteries concerning convention hotels in this foul Year of Our Lord 2018 is the assumption that people will keep coming back to the hotel for future events when the parking situation assumes that the current year is 1974. The number of hotels in Dallas that barely offer enough parking for hotel guests and staff when the venue is half-full, and then advertise their availability for conventions and conferences with room for three times that count, just beggars the imagination. To make matters even better, most of these hotels automatically assume that convention and conference attendees have their own transportation: Addison has a DART bus hub not far away, but the space between the hub and the hotel last had sidewalks put in back in the 1980s, back when “pedestrian” was a local euphemism for “too poor to afford the valet” and accessibility wasn’t even remotely considered. (By way of example, that immediate area is full of “sidewalks” with telephone poles planted right in the center, requiring users to walk into the street to get around them, and you can imagine the sheer fun faced by those with disabilities trying to get back onto a sidewalk that’s lacking ramps and inclines.)  Combine that with a frantic construction boom in that vicinity, where the slightest rain turns an entire block into a morass of slimy, clinging mud with no option for getting past it without walking into the middle of a busy street, and it’s no surprise that a lot of potential convention attendees circled around the hotel, gave up when they saw that even the valet spots were full, and went home.

That said, for all of the nightmares of access, those of us who came out for All-Con, both vendor and attendee, made the best of the situation. Yes, the total attendance numbers were way down from previous years. That just meant having more of an opportunity to talk to regular attendees, including several that have been coming by the Triffid Ranch booth since the beginning of the decade. THAT made hotel incompetence and stupidity worthwhile, especially with the patrons now raising their own families and bringing their kids by to see plants for themselves.

To be continued…

Show Advice: Priorities

(Note: with 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.)

So you’ve made the big leap from talking about starting a small art retail business to doing it, a feat roughly as terrifying and as awesome as finishing flight school and starting the solo flight. The fear never goes away, nor should it, but that’s combined with increasing confidence in your abilities and skills. This is where you get to discover whether you’re suited for selling your work or if you’re better off putting it on consignment elsewhere. It’s also the point where, like not watching for that flock of geese or filling your auxiliary tanks with black-strap molasses, you’re going to have a whole new set of worries as you evict the old ones.

Right now, the small retail show or vendor’s room is facing stresses and trends that would have been unimaginable 20 years ago. Living in the future means having plenty of options to take payments that don’t involve cash. The same technology, though, means having to focus on uniqueness, which really affects niche events such as science fiction conventions: the days where a vendor could clear out the local Walmart of Star Wars figures and sell them at a 200 percent markup are as dead as Y2k panic, and for as long. Smartphones mean that if you’re selling a commercially available product of any sort and it isn’t perishable or otherwise in immediate need, customers can and will stand right in front of you, price-compare, and make same-day-delivery purchases right then and there. Alternately, one quick picture send out via Instagram or Twitter might mean having a crowd in front of your table in an hour. For those of us who remember having to lug cash registers and halogen lighting to shows, it’s a strange and terrible and wonderful time.

Even with that, it’s always nice to know what concerns are worth worrying about and which ones aren’t and when they switch. For instance, most beginners worry about custom bags and packaging with their contact information emblazoned on it, which should never be a concern to anyone making less than six figures’ worth of sales per year. Even with those who do, a well-placed business card has more of an impact and is less likely to be used as an emergency cat litter box liner. Likewise, the things to worry about can look a lot like the things that should be kicked down the road or kicked off a cliff. While this isn’t a comprehensive or even a coherent list, it hits on the important notes of a decade of Triffid Ranch shows, and here’s hoping my pain is someone else’s enlightenment.

Things Not to Worry About:

Your neighbors selling more than you. A very common fallacy among hubristic vendors at shows is the assumption that any money going to any other vendor is money that’s being stolen from them. It’s a slightly understandable feeling, aggravated by that feeling when you’ve sold maybe three items over a three-day weekend and the vendor next to you has completely sold out of inventory by Friday night. Sometimes that fallacy gets poisonous enough to say something completely inappropriate in public, such as the vintage bookseller who comes to shows and badmouths anybody not selling books before he and his brother set up. Sometimes it gets even worse, where those vendors throw tantrums to the show staff about having to play well with others and threatening never to come back unless the offender is banned forever. (This is one of the reasons why I no longer bother with being a vendor at literary science fiction conventions, especially the big industry events such as World Fantasy or World Horror: the official excuse as to why new vendors aren’t admitted is that “the previous year’s vendors already reserved their spaces for the next event,” and the conventions are very careful not to rent vendor’s room space big enough to expand because they don’t want to deal with the bookseller tantrums.) On a much smaller scale, there’s the grumbling and snide remarks made in passing, which make the event a lot less fun that it could have been.

Instead, here’s what you should do as a vendor when someone else is cleaning up: celebrate it. don’t grumble about your poor sales, especially since you don’t know how long that may last at that show, and the situation may be reversed by the end of the show. Instead, congratulate them when they come up for breath. If your neighbor has a crowd five people deep in front of the booth, use that time to spruce up your own display or otherwise be productive instead of sulking behind your phone. If this continues through the whole show, just break down, pack up, congratulate them again, and acknowledge that you just didn’t find your audience at that show. (If you have several shows in a row with similar experiences, then either you’re picking the wrong shows or your inventory just isn’t clicking, but that’s a subject for a different essay.)

Yeah, you’re tired and you’re disappointed, but you WANT your neighbors to do well. Firstly, the better you treat your show neighbors, the more likely they’ll reciprocate at the next show, and that sort of goodwill is infectious. Secondly, as anyone who has ever worked a carnival or fair will tell you, attendees who see someone else with a new purchase and a big smile are much more likely to buy something themselves, so by cheerleading for the currently hot vendors, you’re increasing your own odds of the show becoming something great.

People “stealing your ideas”. Anybody familiar with publishing knows the ongoing schtick about beginners afraid of someone “stealing my ideas”. Based on the very occasional publicized lawsuit involving a movie or television production company stealing source material from published fiction, the assumption is that every writer with some vague idea of a short story had best go to extreme and legally unsound ideas to keep unethical editors and publishers from swiping that vague concept and making money from it themselves. There’s no need to go into the fallacy of mailing story ideas to yourself as a “poor man’s copyright” or how those lawsuits are based on someone high-grading a creator’s already-completed work, with the emphasis on “work,” and how the plagiarism prevents the original creator from being able to leverage their own work. The main thing to take away is that if you have a truly innovative item or concept that you wish to sell, get it copyrighted, trademarked, or patented, right now.

The reason why I bring this up is because with nearly 8 billion people on the planet, the odds are pretty good that at least two people with the same exposure to the same influences might come up with the same general concept. What turns this from daydream to a marketable concept is the work necessary to implement it. Patent and copyright law in most countries is intended to protect the work, not just the idea. Everything else…well, as tempting as it would be to assume that you’re the only person in the history of humanity to make little wooden chests decoupaged with old comic book pages, you’re probably not. If you’re showing your little chunks of your heart and soul in public and they’re not something that can be protected under the law, there’s not a whole lot you can do to keep someone from seeing it, thinking “Hey, I can do this!”, and trying it themselves. If that weren’t the case, we’d probably still be paying royalties to the Neanderthals for use and development of flintknapping techniques.

So how do you keep someone from walking up to your booth, looking over the items you lovingly knitted, sewed, forged, sintered, potted, or 3-D printed, and getting the same gleam in their eye that some Denisovian had about Mousterian hand-axe construction? You get passionate about your work. The moment somebody planning on hitching themselves to your wagon asks “Is there a lot of money in this?”, tell them, honestly and truthfully, “that isn’t why I’m doing this.” Instead of making lots and lots of the same exact item, continue to expand your range, so that the wannabes see that they need the same level of dedication to catch up. Take the time to explain to customers why your inventory is so special, so even if someone else offers a product roughly similar to yours, they want to buy from YOU. You don’t need some alternate persona or some schtick: be yourself. However, that passion is infectious, and the passion also implies that you’ve put so much more work into your work. If you inspire someone to find that same level of passion, just run with it and welcome them. If they don’t, then they’ll drop it and move to something easier. Either way, your work stands out, and anyone attempting a half-assed knockoff will stand out as such.

Non-customers poking about your sources. It sounds insulting, and it definitely feels insulting: that person coming up to your booth who has no interest in buying anything, but who has to know where you get your materials or components. Note that you as a creator are under no obligation to reveal your sources on anything that isn’t affected by state or federal law, although it’s definitely in your best interests to be completely upfront about materials and components that might be dangerous if misused, especially if it might come into contact with food or drink. However, the vast majority of these non-customers aren’t interested in competing with you or even in trying to get an in with your sources: they’re exactly like the people who have no intention of becoming stage illusionists but who obsess about how to replicate every one of Penn & Teller’s illusions. They don’t want to compete against you: they want to know how you do what you do so they can brag to their friends about this supposed inside knowledge, “direct from the artist,” and be able to provide references if they’re called on it.

Want proof? Respond to a poker with something along the lines of “Oh, the supplier went out of business about five years ago” or the completely honest “I make my own,” go into a little bit of detail, and watch their eyes glaze. Expect the same who want to know about your techniques or who ask if you teach classes: they’re more interested in knowing that you’ll share your knowledge than in partaking of it.

The “You Should Just” crowd. A subset of the pokers are those who have just enough knowledge of your field of expertise that they’ll drop the most esoteric and exotic fact they can find. In the case of carnivorous plants, it’s always a very rare and very hard-to-grow plant that only a couple of people in the United States have the room or the time to give the proper care, such as demanding to see a Nepenthes rajah up close. Upon hearing that you don’t have one, no matter the reason as to why it makes no sense to have one available right then, they’ll cluck their tongues and exclaim “Well, you SHOULD.” This isn’t about a customer with a particular need. If you say “I have X, but it’s back at my shop/in my gallery/in the inventory I haven’t unpacked because I don’t have the room,” they’ll wander off, because it’s all about claiming superiority. If you simply don’t have it, they’ll keep fussing “Well, you should just carry one…” until either you shoo them off or they find another bright shiny object to chase.

If three or four potential customers ask about an item, this suggests a legitimate demand among the community, and you should cater to their needs as quickly as you can. However, if it’s one person who keeps insisting that you really NEED to carry one obscure and expensive item, and doesn’t want to put down a deposit or otherwise confirm an actual interest, ignore them. If you succumb and get that one item just for them, they’ll cluck their tongues, rush off, and make absolutely certain never to see you again.

The $5 crowd. Do enough shows, and most vendors can recognize the people who are only there to snag as much free stuff as they can carry off. (I want to emphasize that a huge distance lies between those who may not have money now but who are interested in your inventory, and those whose sole interest is in getting everything they can for free. The secret here is to treat everyone with respect and consideration unless they prove they don’t deserve it, because that 8-year-old who is in awe of your stuff but who is dead broke usually grows up into an 18-year-old with disposable income who remembers treatment from a decade earlier, even if you don’t.) The more insidious ones are those who somehow get it into their heads that your items should be at some magical price that’s usually way below your cost. I refer to them as “the $5 crowd,” because they get upset that everything isn’t priced at $5US. I’m not sure if this derives from memories of some magical time in the early 1970s when anything short of cars, houses, and nuclear weapons could be purchased for less than $5, or from some strange mental default that sets this value to everything.

Either way, this leads to pointing at an item that incorporates $40 in materials and sneering “I’ll give you $5 for it,” or scoffing “I wouldn’t pay $5 for that.” Sometimes it extends into blatant lies, such as claiming “I saw something JUST LIKE THAT last night on Home Shopping Network that was selling for $5,” or insisting that some magical store three timezones away has something exactly like your handmade and hand-designed item “and THEY only sell it for $5!” It all comes down, though, to the Euclidean idea of the issue, and that was demonstrated to me last year by an East Texas goofball who crashed an art show and harangued every artist there with the same question: “Do y’all know someone who makes something EXACTLY LIKE THIS, but just not for so much?”

The important thing to remember, with these and the people who offer to trade your handmade items for “exposure,” is that your work is important. Your time is important, even if you horribly undercharge for it. You aren’t doing yourself or anybody else any favors by conceding to the $5 Crowd, because not only will they not appreciate the favor, but they’ll then use that as a cudgel against other artists and vendors by screaming “Well, THEY let me have it for $5!” These people are not your customers, and you want to know how you’ll know this? You’ll know when they wander off and then contact you six months later after buying some cheap bootleg knockoff for $5 from Amazon or Walmart or Etsy and demanding that you help them get their money back. (Oh, and don’t even bother to respond to those requests. Just tell them “You might need to bring that up with the person you bought the item from,” because that’s all you owe them.)

Things to Worry About:

Having Enough inventory. Yes, I understand. You work a horrible 40-hour-per-week job for a control freak who clocks your bathroom breaks and collects urine samples every week as a cheap alternative to Budweiser. The commute to and from work makes you wonder if some of your fellow commuters have to be kicked in the chest to be reminded to breathe. You drag yourself home after ten hours of nightmare seemingly designed to bring out your worst misanthropist impulses, and instead of sitting on the couch or bed and crying yourself to sleep, you’re hard at work on making the items that make you live. You subsist on ramen and assorted captured insects so you have money for metal or fabric or glue, and you risk hallucinations from sleep deprivation in order to work way past a normal bedtime. You hear about an upcoming show, further risk rickets and night blindness by spending your grocery money on the booth fee, and gather your available inventory together. You’ve got enough to present yourself at the show, right?

Seriously, and with as much kindness and as much love as I can muster, if you haven’t been a vendor at a show before, look at your existing inventory. If you can put everything you have on one six-foot table and not have anything else on standby, cancel that show and don’t sign up for another one until you have three times that amount. And don’t settle for three times of the same items, either. Increase the variety as well, so that every potential customer that walks by your table will see SOMEthing that catches the eye. If you’re doing clothing, focus on a strong line of items instead of a little bit of kid’s clothes and a little bit of men’s clothes. If you’re doing jewelry, offer options other than just necklaces or rings. While you’re at it, offer items at multiple price points, because the crowds interested in high-end items and penne-ante pieces change between shows. My wife refers to the small items as “bread and butter,” because you can make your booth fee on 40 $5 sales as you can on one $200 sale, and those $5 sales increase the likelihood of those customers coming back, either at that show or at subsequent ones, and buying a lot more.

If any advice to new vendors was the most important, it’s this: too much is better than not enough. Bring out too much inventory, and you’ll have to pack it up and haul it back home when the event ends. That’s a lot better than selling most of your stuff in the first few hours and then having to sit at an empty booth for the rest of a weekend. Much more importantly, even if a potential customer goes over your table and checks out every last item without finding anything, it’s still an opportunity to engage, to ask “So what are you looking for?” and even talk about custom assignments. If the table is mostly empty, odds are that the attendee won’t even get that close: s/he will do a quick driveby, see nothing of import, and scoot out and never return.

For us veteran vendors, nothing is more heartbreaking than seeing someone with undeniable talent and skill who didn’t make a single sale because every last item had to be spread out in an attempt to fill the space. The table doesn’t have to groan and threaten to buckle from the load, but it should always have a reason for a show attendee to stop and give it a chance.

Another reason to have more inventory than you have room to display? Accidents and emergencies. You get to a show and discover that the entire contents of a box or tub are damaged or otherwise unsellable, which happens more often than you’d think, or you realize that the one remaining tub is sitting on your kitchen table. The last thing you want to have is a massive hole where a big item was supposed to be, and sometimes a lot of smaller items can fill the space in both table and sales just as well.

Having your own space and display in order. After a little while, every vendor doing events and shows has at least one story about a particular folly in displays and signage that almost made sense at the time it was first used. The big wooden rack that held paintings but that kept catching the wind and going airborne. The glass display case that looked oh-so-impressive but that required three people to move it into a vehicle and threatened to decapitate the driver during sudden stops. The backlit sign just marginally longer than the available truck bed, causing it to disassemble from road vibration on longer trips. The aspect that nobody wants to talk about: the displays and signage that the business outgrew but couldn’t be pitched because “I paid good money/this was a gift when I started out/I really like it”.

Your display space reflects upon your business as much as the inventory, which means that regular maintenance and upgrading is necessary. With wood furniture, paint or stain the inevitable travel scrapes, and seal the wood to prevent staining from rain or hands. (April Winchell of the much-missed site Regretsy was absolutely right about how bare wood was hipster catnip, and the individuals who go on and on about the authenticity of unfinished wood in displays obviously haven’t been around long enough to see the grodiness of a display after five or six shows, what with Cheeto-covered hands, spilled drinks, and the occasional sneeze.) With metal, carry polishing cloths or bottles of Brasso, and don’t put off fixing broken welds or popped rivets. Plastic? Invest in any number of plastics-safe polishes, and be prepared for the inevitability of plastic and resin eventually going yellow and/or brittle, a lot sooner if you do a lot of outdoor shows. If something breaks to the point where the repair is more noticeable than the rest of the display, replace it with a new one, because if it breaks again, it’ll most likely be on the existing damage.

(Sidenote: If you can possibly help it, set aside a separate fund in your show budget for display upgrades and maintenance, and go through a regular brutal assessment of your displays, lights, and accessories about every six months. Ask friends and family to assist, and ask for their honest opinions on your final arrangement. Are you making contemporary jewelry, but still using New Kids on the Block sheets as a tablecloth? Are your shelves and racks so patched and duct-taped that they could be props on The Red Green Show? Are you still using incandescent or halogen bulbs that were purchased back in the Twentieth Century? Does your assembled display suggest “Fun Shopping Experience” or “Telethon for Tetanus”? If you see issues, that’s what the display upgrade budget is for. At the very least, take advice from professional retailers and upgrade your displays every couple of years just to spark new interest. Yes, it’s money that could be used for inventory or transportation, and that’s why it’s usually severely neglected.)

(Sidenote two: unless you’re struck by lightning at the end of a show and wake up six months later in a body cast, clean up your damn messes when you leave. Yes, shows have either volunteers or paid personnel whose final responsibility is to sweep the floor and dump the garbage after you leave, but dumping your detritus all over and chuckling “Job security” to the poor person having to do final cleanup is a jerk move. That behavior comes back to bite you, especially if it gets back to the show organizer that your area looked as if Hunter S. Thompson had camped there for a month. I know two vendors who somehow managed to leave more junk at the end of every show than they’d packed in at the beginning, and they’re only now starting to realize that the only shows willing to take them are ones desperate for ANY vendors. These are usually shows where the vendors outnumber the attendees, so you understand the importance of cleaning up after your filthy self.)

Timewasters and parasites. As you continue in your small retailer career, you’ll find people who, to be nice, want to be involved but who don’t necessarily have your best interests at heart. This includes people who nag endlessly about “any room for an assistant?”, but who can’t do anything besides sit behind the table and text all day. You’ll be hit up by alleged organizers of big shows who want you to sign up and pay the booth fee RIGHT THEN, and who refuse to go away when you decline. You’ll get the people who work for other shows and come to yours to badmouth their competition. Expect the guy who camps out next to your table and creeps out potential customers with his very loud reviews of his very extensive hentai collection. You’ll get the ones who comment “Gee, you have a nice table here” and either ask if they can have “just a corner” to sell their own items or ask to put a big fat stack of flyers for a direct competitor right out in front. And it’s nearly a rite of passage to get that one seemingly enthusiastic customer who swears on four grandmothers’ graves that s/he will be “right back with the money if you put that item in reserve for me” and then disappears forever. Being a retailer, in any capacity, is an immersion in the human condition, and that includes lots of mixes of stupidity, arrogance, cluelessness, greed, and/or delusion that parade around in skin suits. If you think you might have it bad, just consider what anyone working the front counter at a comic shop or a movie theater has to deal with every day.

Sadly, since nobody has developed a surefire jerkwad repellent (and that person would be the richest person on the planet within weeks of developing it), you’ll have to deal with these people and more, and one technique works well in 97 of 100 cases. The moment someone pops up to try to take advantage of your basic human compassion, just tell them “I’m not in a position to do so right now: could you come around after the show is over?” Well, this works on everyone but the hentai creep: in his case, ask him nicely to move elsewhere and call loudly for security if he refuses.

Always remember that you can say “NO” at any time, and also remember that your ultimate responsibility is to customers, as in “people who exchange money for your inventory.” If that Etsy trunk show organizer shoves one of your customers aside to tell you all about her event next week and doesn’t respond to “could you come by after the show?”, you have no responsibility to be nice or even civil afterwards.

(Sidenote: Many shows and events are sufficiently large or of enough specific interest that they may get bands of roving reporters and photographers wandering around for reaction shots. If your inventory or your backstory has enough of a hook to attract further interest, you might even get a followup from one of those reporters, either asking for a few words and a quick photo of your display or for contact information for a more formal interview. Without fail, they’ll come around right at a time when your booth is completely overwhelmed by curious attendees and returning customers. A quick and easy way to spot the difference between real writers and wannabes is to see how they respond upon seeing a crowd around your booth. Anyone with any actual experience in reportage, or at least any without a major “You, OF COURSE, know who I am, don’t you?” hubris infection, might pop in during a lull between four separate conversations, make a quick introduction, and ask “Mind if I ask some questions when you’re not so busy?” It’s the frauds and incompetents that literally shove people aside and demand that you pay attention to them RIGHT THEN, and blowing them off in order to take care of customers won’t affect you in the slightest.

Last year, I had one such charlatan not only interrupt two people with serious questions, but who huffily asked me “could you get an assistant to take over so I can interview you,” his words, right then and there. He sulked off when I explained that an interview might be better after the show, only to come back when the crowds abated somewhat. Not only has that interview never appeared in any publication, print or online, but the only subsequent contact from him was a solicitation to write blog posts at truly entitled prices.)

Getting enough sleep. No matter how much practice or preparation, the last week before a big show is a cascade of sleep deprivation. If you aren’t staring at the ceiling wondering if you took care of that last-minute thing or coming up with a new concept right when you should be unconscious, you’ll be getting up extra-early to get everything to the show in time. There’s always the joy of thinking “I can get this last thing done in an hour,” getting to work, and looking up to realize that you’ve worked the whole night through. If you work a day job, you have the joys of balancing the last-minute emergencies that always happen as you’re trying to get out the door with show prep.

If the show is far enough away that you have to stay in a hotel, there’s the aggravation of late-night searches for a 24-hour grocery or drugstore because you packed the cat instead of the toothbrush, or discovering that the night manager already gave your hotel room away and the only option is to pay $500 per night for the last room or go to another hotel. If the show has food vendors, those carrying coffee or high-caffeine soft drinks are the angels to incoming vendors, especially in the last few hours before breakdown. I won’t even start with the well-meaning friends who assume that because you’re in town and have a whole six hours between the end of one show day and the beginning of the next, you have to get together with them for dinner or a party. If you’re smart, you’ll bow out on those invitations unless you know you can get enough sleep, because you’re no good to any of your customers if you’re so sleep-deprived and hallucinating that you alternate between extolling the virtues of your work and waving a marlin spike around while yelling about reptiles.

I don’t have any personal stories to relate about particular sleep horrors, although I discovered last September that I can go approximately 40 hours without sleep before I encounter my inner William Burroughs. However, I was neighbor to a vendor at one big show in Fort Worth who ran into everything that might interfere with a good night’s rest. He came in on Sunday morning about a half-hour before the show opened to the public, uncovered his table, told everyone about how he’d driven three hours to be there because his wife had to work that day, sat down in a little folding chair, and promptly passed out. Customers coming by his table couldn’t ask him questions because he was insensate, and his snoring started drowning out sales pitches from other vendors and announcements over the hall intercom. Finally, as the show ended and the rest of us started breaking down our displays, he nodded, stretched, and complained loudly about how he hadn’t sold a thing all day and how he hoped his wife had done better the day before. We didn’t have the heart to tell him that she did the same exact thing, and hoped he’d do better when his turn came. I haven’t seen them at any shows in a while: I hope they’re getting enough rest…

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.

On 2017

2017. Oh, where do we start? Talking about the new gallery after having to move out of the old one is definitely an “Aside from THAT, Mrs. Kennedy, what do you think of Dallas?” situation, but it’s a perfect summation of the entire year for the Triffid Ranch. In fact, this is the first week since before the move that things are relatively quiet. Not that this will last. The synopsis:

The Gallery

Although the short moveout notice led to a bit of a panic in the actual move and then a long rebuilding, it actually worked out for the best. True, the new gallery is about 120 square meters smaller than the Valley View location and it doesn’t have the big industrial sink in the back, but it also has a much more central location for just about everyone in the greater Dallas area. It also has direct access to a DART Red Line station, several excellent restaurants across the street, a nice grocery store around the corner, and some great neighbors, including the porcelain mask and glasswork dealer right next door. Meeting clients for consultations and viewings is much easier for all parties involved, partially because the local traffic congestion is so much less than around Valley View. And should I mention again the DART stop that drops people off right across the street, so they don’t have to deal with traffic congestion at all?

Another factor with the new space is the closed-off main gallery area, which requires artificial light for both finished enclosures and new plants in propagation. That may sound like a disadvantage, but this cuts out light pollution that might affect germination, growth, and blooming. This is a roundabout way of noting that the exceedingly popular Manchester United Flower Show event from 2016 is coming back next spring, and with even more bladderworts than before. The better light and climate control of the new gallery also means that the much-promised expansion into ultra-hot peppers and exotic succulents such as stapeliads, delayed this year because of the move (quite literally, we got the moveout notice two days before the planned pepper seed potting extravaganza), will happen as scheduled. The ultimate plan, since 2018 has five weekends before Christmas, is to offer Bhut Jolokia, Dorchester Naga, and Trinidad Scorpion pepper bushes as highly unorthodox but pre-decorated holiday trees during the Nightmare Weekend events. We’ll see.

Shows

Because of the gallery move and the resultant unpacking and organizing from February to June, signing up for new shows and events moved to the back of the “Things To Do” list, and they stayed there for most of the year. That wasn’t an absolute, but as it turned out, focusing on getting the gallery open was advantageous.

Why? Lots of reasons apply, but one of the biggest was the ongoing shakeout of conventions and fairs in the Dallas area and elsewhere. Ever since the Triffid Ranch’s first show in May of 2008, science fiction, fantasy, and horror conventions have been an essential part of the show season, and that isn’t changing. However, with the exception of Texas Frightmare Weekend and its dedicated and prudent staff and crew, it’s been a really rough year for conventions. To be honest, considering the spectacular and financially devastating implosions of conventions big and small this year, it’s time to pull out the writing-days duster to go with all of the bullet-dodging. Even with existing conventions, numbers are way down for most. Anybody familiar with convention circuit cycles knows that the current downturn was inevitable: the same thing happened in the 1980s and 1990s with big media-related conventions, as new fans grew up and discovered that hitting every convention within the timezone was incompatible with day jobs and new families. The only difference between this cycle and previous ones was in the length, mostly due to the influx of new fans brought in by movies, television, and costuming. A lot of the current generation of congoers are too young to remember the previous crash in the mid-Nineties, so it’ll seen like the end of the world, but I promise that with every bust is the promise of another wave. The big question right now is how long things need to remain fallow before that next wave starts, and a lot of the pain will be felt by vendors at these shows whose entire business history lies within the current cycle.

(Incidentally, the current implosion is why shows outside of the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex require a LOT of vetting these days. For the last three years, Galveston of all places has been the focus of a series of intended conventions and shows that made huge promises of giant crowds and wild events, only for everything to disappear about a month before the start date. The things disappearing include booth fees and deposits: without fail, vendors receive cryptic letters about refunds “eventually”, just before the show’s Web site and Facebook page shut down in the middle of the night. Again, bullet-dodging: several friends lost a considerable amount of money they couldn’t easily replace on one show that fell apart when a fellow vendor called the hotel to find out about loading access and was told the hotel had no knowledge about the show at all. Even worse, most of these incidents weren’t due to any specific malfeasance, but instead from not understanding that telling friends “Hey, let’s put on a show” and actually launching an event have a lot of steps in between that are lubricated with elbow grease and the occasional liter of blood. Combine this with an absolute certainty that somehow, magically, everything will work out all right in the end, and you get shows that create rueful new memes for attendees and financial disaster for vendors and guests.)

Alternately, besides plotting new events at the gallery (many of which may include the previously mentioned neighbors, depending upon their schedules), it’s time for more outreach as well. The move precluded a lot of lectures and events at schools and museums, and it’s time to get that back up and going. Among other things, I’ve needed a good excuse to bug the Fort Worth Museum of Science & History about getting involved with one of its adult programs, and it may be time to do a black light show with traps and blooms to show how they glow under ultraviolet light.

Press and Publicity

When it came to local news coverage, 2017 was much more lively than 2016. It started with the final ARTwalk at Valley View, with the Dallas Observer reporting on plans for the remaining artists, and then with the Observer coming back for the soft opening last July. Suffice to say, nobody was more surprised than I was to win a Best of Dallas Award this year, or eighth place in the best date spots in Dallas. This coincided with a serious reevaluation of the Observer over the last couple of years: the paper is no longer the smarmy, bloated mess it was at the beginning of the century, and it’s now the paper we all wish it had been back when competitors such as The Met and DFW Icon were trying to usurp it. (In particular, I exaggerate not a whit when I compare dining editor Beth Rankin to the late Chicago columnist Mike Royko, one of my childhood heroes. Her articles are a wonderful blend of serious, funny, and thoughtful, with a constant subtext of “I gave you enough rope to hang yourself, so thank you very much for surprising me” like Royko’s best columns. And if you don’t think Dallas needs someone like her, just look back 17 years to when the Observer was facing, and losing, actual libel suits for its dining coverage.) Now that the gallery is established, it’s time to get more word out, and buying advertising means that supporting the new Observer goes beyond lip service.

Elsewhere, a shot of the old gallery even showed up in a pictorial in D magazine of Black Friday 2016 at the old Valley View space.  I won’t even complain about it being run a year late, presumably spiked in favor of the monthly “76,233 Best Doctors Willing to Pay For a Full-Page Ad” cover story: I’m just thrilled to discover that someone at D has an interest in plants and plant byproducts that never comes anywhere near the term “levamisole toxicity”. Miracles abound.

Plans

Strange as it may sound, 2018 is going to be “more of the same”. Most of the plans for next year include lots of alternatives to the shows in which it all started, starting with more events at the gallery. This includes more involvement with groups such as the Arts Incubator of Richardson, as well as gallery tour events through the Dallas area. In addition, it’s time to return to events sadly neglected while getting the old Valley View gallery going: among many other things, it’s time for future Triffid Ranch tables at local reptile shows, museum events, and one-day pop-up shows. Everything, of course, depends upon the Day Job and factors completely uncontrollable, but it’s time to go outside, and 2018 is the year to start walking.

As a sidenote, the upheaval prevented attempts to keep up with everyone online, and that’s already being rectified. In addition to an increased posting schedule, those efforts include a new mailing list that starts up at the beginning of the new year, improvements to the current site (some of you may already notice that the ads that infested the old site are gone, and now it’s a matter of going through all of the external links and removing or updating the defunct ones), and maybe even a bit of video. Now to develop a vaccine for sleep so there’s time to do all of this.

Synopsis

As always, time and tide melt the snowman, so 2018 might end on a drastically different note. As if anyone expected anything different. The main thing is that 2017 epitomized “Hold my beer and watch this,” and barring a truly unfortunate accident with temporal paradoxes, we won’t have to go through it again. Now let’s go explore the new year.