If you’ve been to an outdoor amusement facility of any kind, you’ve been sized up by a carnival worker at some point. Whether they’re betting against you in a ‘guess your weight’, sizing you up to see what kind of veiled insult will get you to part with the most cash, or determining your basic intelligence… their rapid appraisal of you helps them make bank at the end of the night.
~One of our many booths… possibly in Texas?
Renaissance faires aren’t exactly carnie career centers, but they are similar in their seasonal, somewhat transient appeal. There, you’ll meet people who work a summer or two for fun or for reduced entry fees, but you’ll also meet people who rely on a few faires for their year’s cashflow. Our family started out as the latter, with our roots in the Michigan Renaissance Faire. Building a permanent structure in 1985 under the name Lizards, Wizards & Ringz, we’d done well enough within a few years to branch out to various other faires around the US.
~My beautiful Momma on the left, with her beautiful [late] sister Roseanne on the right. Miss you, Aunt Rose. The offending plank shelf is in the background.
By the mid 90s, I was a teen, and left in charge of the ring and pendant section of our bustling booth. My dad, who taught me everything I knew up until that point, would spend most weekends at our Ohio show location, while my mom, sisters and I would man our various stages in the Michigan booth. It was a busy show then, before Michigan was known as the Rust Belt. Our customers were a variety of blue and white collar people from all over southeastern Michigan- auto industry workers, teachers, steelworkers, you name it.
~Our shop in the Michigan Renaissance Faire, Holly, MI. We owned this from 1985 until 2008 or so.
The artwork that my dad did for these shows was unique, it fired the imagination and drew a following of sorts. Silver rings, pewter figurines, bronze keychains… we made many fantasy and tribal pieces to sell and always added new product. I was learning design as well, and my pieces were rapidly being introduced to the cases. Customers would line up during our busiest hours, two and three deep, waiting to try on rings or buy pendants off our hanging display.
~Me, age 8 or 9… still short enough to see under the stupid plank… even with a unicorn horn. We hadn’t even added a proper jewelry line at this time, had no idea what was in store for us.
The booth was constructed with a wide cedar display plank exactly at my eye level. On this plank marched pewter dragon figurines, goblets, gargoyles, and unicorns rearing up from amethyst landscapes. Because of the juxtaposition of this plank to the counter, I was not able to make proper eye contact with most of my customers. I could see short people, or very tall people, or duck under the plank and hit my head to make eye contact if the booth was not too crowded, but many of my client conversations were conducted with teeshirts. I learned very quickly to size up a customer by the things that they said, the enthusiasm in their voice over certain aspects of design, and their vague pointing at “that ring!”.
~The booth built in the Kansas Renaissance Faire, late 90s. Built by my sis Julie, myself, and my dad in one grueling hot sticky summer.
It became a game of sorts- with myself- to guess what a person would want before they themselves knew it. Their clothes sometimes gave it away, of course the all-black wearing goths wanted the lace band in antiqued silver, and the biker dudes always bought the Jolly Roger ring or one of our thick industrial bands. But then there were specific anomalies: skinny chicks in hemp shirts always wanted peridot rings with wide bands, and very tan women with dyed hair and low-cut shirts went for the ice blue topaz and hot pink CZ rings, who knew? After the weekends, Dad and I would spend time going over the stock levels for the following week’s production rush, and I was eventually able to put together lists of specific items that would sell every time he’d trust me enough to listen.
And those triumphs of human guesswork? It wasn’t just about selling something, or taking their cash either… it was about watching that person walk out of the shop with our creation on their hand, it was knowing that something I’d put my own hand to, that something would become part of their wardrobe.
~Always camera shy.
I think those early days have molded me well for my current position. I still don’t often see the faces of the people I serve- more than 90% of my daily clients are through email, and many I will never meet in person. And although you can’t hear a voice inflection through an email message, you can still pick up on enthusiasm and a personality, and that can steer me in the right directions for your design. And although the pieces I create and sell now cost ten times what they used to, I’m still the awkward, ambitious kid behind the counter just having a blast putting rings on people’s hands…
I’m just wearing jeans today instead of a muddy 16th century reproduction skirt.
-Sarah J. Christenson, 2012
~My work nowadays.