Thanksgiving doesn’t arrive until later this week, but the Christmas shopping season was in full swing Saturday at the Maryville Community Center during the fifth annual Christmas Craft & Vendor Fair hosted by Maryville Parks and Recreation.
Nearly 70 vendors packed the center’s gymnasium floor from 9 a.m. until 2 p.m. as an estimated 1,000 shoppers moved from booth to booth.
Parks and Rec marketing manager Jordyn Swalley said the number of vendors was up this year, continuing a trend of rapid growth for the event, which began in 2013 with only about 20 seller displays, mostly offering wares created by local crafters.
While Maryville-area artisans and home-based businesses are still an important part of the fair, Swalley said the annual holiday season kickoff has evolved into a truly regional event that attracts sellers from Kansas City as well as communities in Nebraska, Iowa and across northwest Missouri.
Swalley said the fair has grown to become Parks and Rec’s largest commercial exhibition, and the Community Center parking lot on Saturday was jammed from almost the moment the venue’s doors opened.
Dozens of shoppers were forced to park on grass and gravel areas adjoining the lot, while others simply pulled onto the sidewalk along a street connecting the center to the Northwest Missouri State University campus.
While the number of both shoppers and vendors has grown dramatically, the event has seen other changes as well, most notably with regard to the kind and quality of merchandise available for sale.
During the fair’s first couple of years, most of the booths offered handmade Christmas ornaments, scented candles, knitted apparel, costume jewelry, handmade home décor items and other moderately priced craft-based merchandise.
While such offerings still abound, the fair has definitely taken on an upscale atmosphere, with some vendors displaying boutique-quality and one-of-a-kind articles one would normally expect to see in pricey malls and galleries of the sort found in exclusive big-city shopping districts.
There was, for example, a display of exquisite woodworking creations by local artist Ken Nelsen, an emeritus professor of art at Northwest Missouri State University whose hand-turned and hand-carved vessels, bowls, cups, urns and kitchen implements rise to the level of sculpture.
Nelsen said he relies on his fine-arts background even when creating functional objects and likes to use wood — white oak, box elder, maple and red elm — harvested here in northwest Missouri.
His creations make the most of naturally occurring swirls and grain patterns, along with “spalt” — blackish irregular lines resulting from fungal decay that produce distinctive decorative surfaces.
Finished with wipe-on polyurethane or walnut oil, Nelsen’s works, whether utilitarian or “mantel sculpture,” glow with an inner fire and the unmistakable look of high-level craftsmanship. And like other high-end vendors at this year’s fair, his prices reflect the merchandise’s inherent quality.
While customer lined up to purchase small cups, bowls and stir-fry spatulas for $15 or $20, larger works, lidded urns and bowls, sold for several hundred dollars each.
Now 76, Nelsen has been making art out of wood, which he sometimes ages for years before placing it on the lathe, since the late 1970s. He said he still spends time in his home studio every day and remains committed to a creative process honed over decades.
“I’m not compulsive about it, but if I can be out there (in the studio) I will,” he said — a little compulsively.
Elsewhere on the show floor, vendors were selling just about every kind of decorative and craft item imaginable.
There were, for instance, Davenna Drozd’s framed, stenciled samplers proclaiming such slogans as “Faith, Family, Farming,” “Many have eaten here. Few have died,” Home is where someone runs to greet you” and “Meddle not in the affairs of dragons, for you are crunchy and good with ketchup.”
Next to Drozd’s display, and attracting long lines of customers throughout the morning, was Joyce’s Cookies & Cupcakes, a rural Maryville home business that offered a host of gourmet treats.
Other vendors purveyed everything from traditional holiday decorations to skimpy lingerie, scrapbooking supplies, children’s books, kitchen gear, hand-stitched quilts and bling-covered caps and scarves.
One of the more unique crafters was Becky Shisler, an Albany farmwife and owner of Gourds from the Vine.
Shisler carves, cuts, shapes, paints and decorates a large variety of homegrown gourds, transforming them into holiday-themed decorations that include everything from worried-looking turkeys to smiling Santa Clauses and cheerful snowmen.
Also on hand for the fair — and marketing his wares to a distinct minority consisting of male shoppers — was Jeremy Walker of Maryville Man Cave, a business that produces laser-cut metal sports and military logos suitable for use as wall hangings and illuminated with concealed LED lighting strips.
Walker sells his creations for $175 each, and said his home-based business, which began with making donated items for the annual Maryville D.A.R.E. auction, is growing a little too fast for comfort.
“It’s been keeping me busier than I’d like,” he said. “I’ve already got a job.”