DANVILLE, Va. — For about 12 years now, Jean Terry has taken her crocheted baby blankets and sewn dresses to the Danville Farmers’ Market in an attempt to earn some money to supplement her monthly Social Security checks.
She’s had her crochet and sewing skills for much of her life, but she only started selling some of her work after she retired as a way to keep busy. Business had traditionally been profitable, but the COVID-19 pandemic has interrupted that pretty severely.
Because Terry, 80, does not make or sell items that are currently deemed “essential,” there has been no space for her at the farmers market on Saturdays this year. Thanks to some business cards made by her son, Terry has still been able to make a few sales, but business is nothing like it was.
“It’s a real bummer because I’m a person that likes to talk to other people. I like to hear some of their stories, they like to hear some of my stories,” she said. “And I did a good business over there.”
Terry’s plight is a familiar one these days.
Ever since the farmers market opened one week late in May, there have been restrictions on what vendors are permitted to sell.
During the first two phases of Virginia’s reopening, farmers markets were limited to vendors selling food and horticultural products, like flowers or produce, along with “handcrafted products critical for hygiene and sanitation such as handmade soaps and face coverings,” according to Gov. Ralph Northam’s guidelines.
In the current phase of reopening, that restriction has been lifted, but the markets must still adhere to physical distancing guidelines. With a limited amount of space, the Danville Farmers’ Market can only welcome about half as many vendors as normal, said Kenny Porzio, program coordinator at Crossing at the Dan.
With space at a premium — less than 30 vendor booths are now available — Porzio and his supervisors within Danville Parks and Recreation jointly made the decision to only offer vendor space to those selling essential items.
“We’ve continued to follow the best practices from Phase 2 up to this current period of time due to our spacing limitations,” Porzio said.
Such a decision, though, leaves Terry and her fellow crafters with fewer opportunities to share their work and make money.
Shut out of the farmers market and having to deal with the cancellation of various other craft or homeware shows, certain vendors are facing a bleak financial outlook for the year.
Sharon Waddey — owner of Sha-Lee Accessories, which offers handmade jewelry, scarves, wraps and pocketbooks, among other items — likened the current ups and downs of running a craft business to those of riding a roller coaster, complete with the same stomach sensations at unexpected times.
“Some of us scream when we’re going down [the coaster],” she joked. “Some of it is an enjoyment kind of scream, and some of it is a scary kind of scream.”
Waddey, 55, has been fortunate enough to remain at the farmers market because she started making and donating masks early on during the pandemic.
“When the door opened for me to do the masks at the market, I said I’d like to at least try,” she said.
She now offers all sorts of patterns with sports team logos, emojis and vibrant colors. Waddey said she’s seeing increased interest lately as more people return to work and more children return to schools.
“Masks are still in full force,” she said.
Other vendors, though, can’t adapt as easily and will see less money as a result.
“We’ll be lucky if we get a third of the money we normally get,” said Tim McClanahan, speaking on behalf of his wife, Brenda, who specializes in festive wreaths, flower arrangements, wooden signs and other decorations for various holidays and seasons.
With few other options, Brenda McClanahan has started promoting and selling her items on various community Facebook pages. As the seasons change, Tim McClanahan, 60, said, customers start to want different decorations, so Brenda, 57, has to quickly pivot to making new crafts while still sitting on a pile of unsold decorations from the previous season.
After loading up on craft materials this spring, most of the events the couple would go to were canceled, making it that much tougher to recoup the money spent on making the decorations in the first place.
“You’ve still got to pay that bill whether you’ve got the money to pay it or not,” Tim McClanahan said. “It ain’t that we need the money for living expenses because my retirement’s covering that pretty fairly, but she would like to be able to pay off all of her craft expenses and have a little money left to spend on herself.”
Other crafters, however, rely on the farmers market and similar community events for at least some of their household income.
Waddey, for instance, likes to run her own business because she loves what she does and it helps take pressure off her husband, an assistant principal at a school in North Carolina.
Much of her jewelry sales — including her new line called “Life Waves” — now have to take place through the Sha-Lee Accessories Facebook page. She hopes to soon launch a more formal online store, but she is saddened that not all vendors are in the same position to do so.
“Some of the older vendors don’t know anything about online stores or anything like that,” she said. “I don’t know a lot about online stores either, but I’m trying to learn. Some of us don’t have that means with a computer and making a connection online to up a website. It’s like that roller coaster dip with a slap in the face.”
Dena Aaron, owner of My Little Soapbox Co., operates a store on Etsy that has gained more traction since the start of the pandemic, but she wishes she could sell more of her homemade items — like candles, lotions and bath bombs — at the farmers’ market instead of just soap.
“Someone could purchase those items from national chain stores,” Aaron, 45, wrote in an email. “I don’t agree that there should be different standards for the market and not all of the other stores.”
Her soaps are her bestsellers, she said, but she also relies on winter and holiday events to sell 100-200 gift box sets. Despite the uptick in online sales, she wrote, “without those shows my business will suffer this year.”
Like Waddey, her booth neighbor on Saturdays, Aaron is glad to have an online presence, but she recognizes that not all vendors are as fortunate to have that and still be able to sell in person.
“The market is a great place to meet new people and build up a local clientele,” she wrote. “Without the market, those small business owners suffer.”
There are only four Saturdays left for the farmers market this year — the last one being on Halloween — and then the traditional holiday shows will not be held due to the pandemic. As long as COVID-19 is still lingering around, Porzio expects many of the same restrictions to remain in place.
“Between the masks and the distancing, I think those are two things that are going to be with us for quite a while,” he said.
If that’s the case, crafters and small business owners across the region who rely on these events may continue to feel the effects more harshly than others.