Monday, January 28, 2013

Shopping monkey returns from market, tired but happy.

I returned home from the Atlanta gift market just a few weeks ago, and just now feel like I've finally caught up on sleep. What a marathon that was. It's immense, it's full of wonderful, innovative products... alongside some really scary junk and useless things. There are a million decisions to be made.

Last night I had this long dream about going back to school: the campus was composed of three enormous and confusing buildings, with escalators that only went to certain floors, cross-hatched tunnels that connected the buildings, but only if you found the secret entrance... I was late for classes because I'd go to the right floor in the wrong building, or could see where I wanted to end up, but couldn't find the path to get there. When I woke up,  I realized I was back at market, traversing these giant buildings and sometimes going in circles. You'd think I'd have it all figured out by now, but no. There is just so much to see.

I did find some fabulous things for the shop; in fact, I'm really excited and happy about all my discoveries. Cannot wait for them to start coming in (a few already have), and will post pictures as we go along.

I did spot a number of trends... not that we really get in on a lot of that (space considerations for one thing), but it's always interesting to see. There was a little less of the industrial-inspired furniture. Don't get me wrong, I love that look, but just a little mixed in works nicely – not a whole diet of it. And some of it was just a little too chunky and raw and crusty for my taste. What I really like is the real thing: a true industrial cart or case... but they are very hard to find and expensive. Sometimes the faux-industrial pieces go too far, like maybe too many gears and wheels where they should have kept it simpler. But I loved all the natural wood and chunky cutting boards and bowls and recycled pieces.

I also saw a lot of Hollywood Regency look, which is another love of mine, but also in small doses. Lots of starburst mirrors, mirrored cabinets, sleek tables... none of which we have room for in the shop, so we're not going there anyway. The artwork all seemed very large to me. Gigantic pieces to make a huge statement. I like that too (one of my favorite pieces of my parents is a 1950s painting that's about 7'x5'). But that kind of size doesn't work everywhere, for everyone. If you live in a 1920s cottage, you might not be able to handle a monster piece.

There was a lot of Ikat designs (pillows, bedding, table linens), and I ordered some of my favorites. It really is a classic, and I'm glad to see a few ideas coming back around (as in, from the 1960s). Less apparent was the flame stitch design so prevalent in the last few years. I was happy it was kind of gone: it reminds me too much of syrupy 70's wall hangings. The burlap/jute theme on everything was a little toned down, too. Another look I like, but only in small bits. On the other hand, a natural linen will always be gorgeous and welcome.

The jewelry was fabulous this season. Lots of bangles and wraps (yep, we've got 'em) and really fun pieces, from chunky to delicate, vintage to modern. Druzy stones were the star of the day, and I had a good time choosing my favorites. It also reminded me of the 60s, but in a whole new way. Is it the redux of the hippies? What's next? Macramé plant holders? Not for this girl...

Stay tuned for all our new arrivals.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Off to market...

One comment we get a lot in our shop goes something like: "You must really have fun shopping for all this stuff!" And we do, we do. I am, afterall, the official Shopping Monkey. I love to shop. Always have. But not in the way of gorging on too many clothes or shoes or unnecessary doo-dads: I'm a thoughtful shopper, a hunter, a finder. My finds have to be useful, or beautiful, artful, interesting, or very comfortable. There's – ahem – a lot that falls into that category. Fortunately, I get to buy for our shop, and that gives me a lot of satisfaction – I truly love it.

So the month before market is a build-up of some sort of child-like anticipation for me. What new will we find? What will inspire and wow and give me this fluttery, happy feeling in my stomach? What direction will the store take in the new year? It's not just product, either. Going to market also means getting fresh ideas for display (even if some of it is so over the top it could never be repeated in any reasonable fashion), sensory input, and a chance to gab with fellow store owners. It kind of jars one out of whatever little rut you might think you're in.

I always bring a little notebook to record some of the more unusual moments. Or some of the more unusual product offerings (translation: some of the truly ugly crap you might pass by). I am always so tempted to take a picture of some of the more hideous creations someone has come up with. But taking photos is not allowed, and I follow rules. These things stick in my brain, a reminder that everyone has different taste, and that somewhere, somehow, someone is delighted when they receive the gift of a gaudy, bulging-eyed, mermaid lamp. Or a preternaturally tanned and buffed, half-naked male angel figurine made out of resin (yes! it exists!). Do angels wear clothes? Do they work out?

Weeks ago I finalized the flight to Atlanta for winter market. Hotel reservations were made eleven months ago, right after last January's show (you have to, to secure a room). Reality hit me, how soon this is all happening (as in now). We are just slowly coming back to some sort of normalcy after Christmas, and haven't had time to think about anything else. A little extra sleeping-in time helped.  I love holiday time at the shop, and we depend on it to pull us out of the mire, but it is intense. Every second counts, where we're running around restocking, reordering, replenishing, agonizing over late (or incorrect) shipments, wrapping, wrapping, wrapping... even our dreams are accompanied by the Christmas music we're playing in the shop (Charlie Brown, I love you, but...).

So I am really looking forward to going to market. But there's a bit of trepidation, too. It is an almost insane amount of work and concentration and pain and bad eating. Atlanta is one of the biggest markets of all: the three buildings that house the market are massive, city-block size buildings, each with something like 20 floors. Millions of square feet, and so convoluted in places that you need a map.

There are measures you learn to take at market. First, don't be afraid to look like a dork. It is very tempting to try and keep up with some of the trendy women there. And they're everywhere: perfectly coiffed and made up, carrying slouchy jumbo handbags... and teetering around on spiky heels. Now that's one way to be sick of market in one day (and it takes a week to do it properly, even though you will not – ever – see it all). We're talking 10-12 hour days here, and a lot of miles on the pedometer. No. I am bringing tennis shoes and walking shoes. I am slinging my slimmest Baggallini across my shoulders, and carrying the lightest weight tote for the occasional catalog I must have. Mostly, I will request catalogs be sent to the shop. Otherwise you end up with a 50-pound bag and bursitis in your shoulder. And throbbing feet at the end of each day.

Second rule: bring food. The food offerings suck at the Atlanta market. And there's not much of it for the 50,000 buyers who attend. It's a great mystery to me (because other convention centers – like Seattle – have managed to put together some very nice cafés and food courts). There's a place where you can get an okay ham sandwich from a refrigerator... and then go stand in a hallway to eat (unless you're lucky enough to score one of the very few tables available). There are several Chick-Fil-A outlets, where you buy your messy "chikn" sandwich and then sit on the floor jammed in with several hundred other people sitting on the floor. Good luck getting up. And have you ever had a Chick-Fil-A? Politics aside, it is a most unappetizing, yucky deep-fried chicken bit in a spongy white-bread bun. I ate half of one when desperate one time. And get this: they're closed on Sundays. 50,000 buyers roaming about, and half the available "cafés" at market are closed (and Sunday is a busy day: so many store owners can't leave until then). One year I just about had a total mental breakdown after walking up three floors and traversing two floors diagonally to find the only eating spot (yes, the dreaded Chick) within six floors... only to find it closed. Sunday! Gah! Last year, thankfully, market management produced a map with eating spots, and their hours, so that you didn't waste time searching for a closed café.

The showrooms often have food available for buyers (sometimes a bowl of m+ms; sometimes a fully catered affair with little sandwiches or cheese and crackers). But you can't count on it. And sometimes you can't even get to it. You should see the scene of 200 buyers in a showroom descending on the poor caterers who just brought in plates of canapés. Like little hungry wolverines. Last year I stumbled into one showroom I always visit; it was maybe 5pm and I hadn't eaten anything since some poor little dry scone first thing in the morning. {And that is part of the problem; you don't even realize what time it is, and so you don't eat, and then become ravenous and unreasonable by about 3pm.} They had the most beautiful array of really, really good hot appetizers. I ate; I felt better; I placed orders.

So my new rule is to have an apple, banana, power bar, something, in the bag at all times. And water. That way I'm not beholden to any junk food purveyors and their crazy schedules. If the hotel offers a breakfast buffet, I'll grab an apple on my way out, and that may become lunch at market. It's not very glamorous, but it works.

Rule Number Three. Never wear a coat you can't carry around with you. Now this could present a problem, because Atlanta can actually be quite cold in January. Remember the videos from a few years ago, showing people ice skating down a major thoroughfare? I was right there, slipping and sliding myself. Even though my hotel was relatively close, those city blocks are loooong. But wear a big heavy coat to and from market, and you'll be stuck in a coatcheck line for 45 minutes on each end of the day. No thanks. So I rely on my tried and true, favorite-ever, precious Mycra-Pak jacket. We used to carry this lovely outerwear, but no longer do. They're a tad expensive, but really, really well made and stylish. Reversible and extremely lightweight, I can roll mine up into my bag in the morning, and fluff it out in the evening, as I sail past those waiting in line for their coats.

Rule Four: start at the top and walk down. The elevators and escalators are jammed at opening and closing time at market. Taking the escalator down 20 floors with wall-to-wall people trying to get on will take you at least half an hour. Walking down the stairs isn't quite as suffocating (although you might have to put up with a bit of illicit cigarette smoke).

Go with a partner if you can. Robert and I used to always go to shows together (and we are a great team), but the truth of it is, it is very, very expensive and you have to draw the line somewhere. We will attend a regional show together – somewhere we can drive to and not be gone too long – but the big shows are tough to justify the both of us going. Sigh. Thing is, when there are two of you, you can bounce ideas and opinions off each other. It really helps when you're dog-tired and the old brain isn't operating at full speed. For instance: no, don't order that... remember we ordered something very similar yesterday at another showroom? Oops. You can play tag team with two people. Go into a big showroom and one person starts keying in on what to order; the other goes to find an available rep to take the order. Finish up and one person moves on to the next booth while the other stays behind to provide all the necessary details for the order (credit card, correct address on file, copy of the order, etc.). That stuff can take another fifteen minutes. Times that by eight (the average number of orders placed in a day?) and you've wasted a full two hours on administrative details. You also don't get lost as often when there are two of you keeping track of the direction you're traveling in (sometimes circles).

And you have better adventures in the evening with two, as you are more likely to venture out and seek some local neighborhoods, some better dining options than the mostly boring convention hotel fare.

One thing you learn quickly: you have to be fierce and decisive about which booths or showrooms you're going to spend time in. At the same time, you have to keep an eye open for the hidden treasures an otherwise unappealing booth might have. In some areas, the booths are little more than 10x10 spaces lined up and down these mass corridors. Some are little start-up companies with a unique product line (which I love best); some are just kind of schlocky. In some, the vendor might actually be asleep (yes! even on the first day sometimes they sit in a chair and nod off while thousands of people bustle past), and in some, they stand outside the booth and attack buyers as if they were offering carnival rides. "Hey! What kind of a shop do you have?" is the favorite opening line... and if you stopped and politely answered back to everyone who asked that question, you'd never get anywhere. So you breeze past, you look, you judge, you stop or go. You become a little brusque sometimes, because there's no time for chitchat, and you have no patience for the hard sell. And do I really care that your second cousin visited Bend ten years ago? Eh, not really.

Some vendors are so completely creative and clever about how they present their products. They have to be: we buyers are judgmental and biased and big into display ourselves. Sometimes they stop us in our tracks with an over-the-top structure or backdrop or way of showing product that is so original that we stop in awe. But, the product itself still has to be right for our shops, and we have to be able to show it in our own way that will stand out. Will it look as good in our own environments? Do we have the light and space and fixture that will highlight it, or will it just get lost amidst everything else? You can't be swayed by the display.

On the other hand, some of our favorite vendors have just set up a few tables with a very modest display of their wares... but those pieces were so perfect for us that we stopped and placed an order without a moment's hesitation.

We do what we call the 'head wag' as we move down aisles and aisles of displays. You swing your head in one direction, then sweep to the other side, back and forth, until something catches your eye: that one little cream of the crop product, or a design or collection that might work.

So here I go, into the wild blue yonder. Every moment for the next week will be consumed with shopping, starting with Christmas 2013 (six floors of nothing but holiday décor; that alone could take a few days). I'm really excited about finding some new products, and seeing what our favorite vendors have designed for the new year. It always reshapes and invigorates our shop. And us. Watch for a possible post from the road...