Bizarre Market

Interview by Nicki Stein
Issue 34 • December 2015 • Richmond

This indie craft festival brings back that personal touch to holiday gift giving and helps keep a community of makers together.

Growing up, I thought of Black Friday as a holiday all its own: the beginning of the gift giving season. It was customary for my Aunt Debbie to wake me up a little before 6 AM the day after Thanksgiving and throw on a pot of flavored coffee as we flipped through the glossy pages of the Sears catalog searching for the best deals. Once our brains were filled to the brim with nuanced shopping intel – like where the 50% off sweaters were at Filene’s Basement – we would strike out to the mall armed with hefty catalogs and knowledge that only comes from reading the fine print of a KB Toys coupon. But honestly, what got me out of my turkey-induced sleep at the crack of dawn was not the allure of a good bargain, but the one-on-one time I was able to spend with a special person in my life, hunting for treasure together.

For me, half the fun of gift giving is still the process. I follow that magnetic, gut instinct with hopes of finding just the right gift for just the right person. In the face of the crass commercialism and dead-eyed capitalism that characterizes holiday shopping in 2015, where does one go to buy a gift that will truly mean something, in terms both economic and emotional? If you live in Richmond, the answer is simple: you go to Bizarre Market.

In a small room on the second floor of Chop Suey Books in Carytown, Bizarre Market sets up camp for their holiday sale from the day after Thanksgiving until Christmas Eve. Bird Cox, who has been at the helm of this holiday event for the past decade, spoke with me just as she had finished whittling down an applicant pool of 150 artisans to the final 50 that will be featured at this year’s market. “We’re looking for work that is fresh and modern. Stuff that makes you think,” she told me, “Not just stuff that’s cranked out because it’s the latest fad.”

Bird Cox in front of Chop Suey Books | Photo by Nicki Stein

The care taken in choosing which artists to accept is made apparent in the layout of the small, cheerful room overflowing with craftwork: ceramic mugs, woven ties, delicate metal jewelry, and sewn stuffed toys. All are carefully stacked on tables, piled on shelves, and hung whimsically on walls. These treasures, handpicked and handmade, glow under a dreamy cascade of twinkling Christmas lights illuminating the space.

The turn towards a quality-focused gift giving economy epitomized by Bizarre Market is one that benefits local artisans. All featured vendors are from Virginia and most are based in Richmond. From its inception, the organizers’ mission has been to bolster the local crafting scene. “We wanted to help people support the maker community and avoid mass produced gifts and goods whenever possible,” said Bird, adding, “Richmond really identifies as an artist city.”

I think that because we’re starting to reflect this artisan and designer identity, people are proud of that. Drawing in people who make things – art, writers, creative people – it only helps to make people proud of the city.

Bird Cox

Bird frames Bizarre Market’s role as a hub for Richmond-centric shopping and a place to find gifts that exhibit local pride in that artistic community. “Richmond is getting a really cool identity,” she told me, “I think that because we’re starting to reflect this artisan and designer identity, people are proud of that. Drawing in people who make things – art, writers, creative people – it only helps to make people proud of the city.”

Each year, Bird is pleasantly surprised by the growing number of customers. “It’s a crazy increase each year,” she said, “And on top of all the new faces, I see the same people in and out every day that have been coming for three years, five years, eight years.” Those dedicated patrons are the real heart of the market says Bird. “I have people say, ‘This is where I come to get all of our gifts because this is what we want to support.’” Illustrating that level of buyer confidence, she added, “People hand their kids thirty bucks, leave the room, and say, ‘Okay, I would like for you to buy me my Christmas present.’”

The connection Bird makes with the people who come year after year, and the quiet moments of anticipation she observes, make the long hours working behind the Bizarre Market register completely worth it. “I can honestly say I love every single part and this is my absolute favorite time of the year,” she said. “My favorite part is probably when I’m at the register and people come in and hand me things to hide from their loved ones so that they can buy them in secret.” Grinning with pride, she confided, “We do this whole secret exchange of nose twitching and ear pulling and winking. I love just how truly happy it makes people. It shows.”

Bizarre Market will be at Chop Suey Books every day through December 24. Follow their other pop-up events throughout the year on Facebook.

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