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Patrons browse at last year’s Cherry Street Artisans Holiday Sale and Cafe.

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Cherry Street Artisans hold their ‘grand finale’ holiday cafe

BRATTLEBORO—As they’ve done for the last six years on the first weekend after Thanksgiving, the craftspeople organizing the Cherry Street Artisans Holiday Sale & Cafe will transform the first floor of Judy Zemel’s Victorian-era home into a space where commerce, creativity, and community meet.

This year marks the grand finale.

This year’s event, on Dec. 6 and 7, will offer the final opportunity to attend the event, which supports local artists, craftspeople, chefs, and bakers.

There’s no single reason that the event has run its course, but its founders and organizers are proud of what they describe as a beloved holiday tradition that transcends blatant commerce.

“The Cherry Street Artisans Holiday Sale & Cafe is different from a typical craft fair,” says Naomi Lindenfeld, one of the original founders and organizers. “It’s an intimate craft fair, held in a private home. It’s also a social gathering.”

Pamela Cubbage, an artisan involved for four years, said the fair “is both a gathering place and a marketplace,” and encourages “community building” among the participating craftspeople and the attendees.

All three — Zemel, Lindenfeld, and Cubbage —— mention the distinct character of the Cherry Street Holiday event: It’s not commercial.

“You can talk to the people who make these items, and get the stories behind them, and what inspired them. It’s not like going into a store,” says Lindenfeld.

Although money is exchanged for goods, Zemel describes the event as “like a party.”

“There’s food... it’s got a congenial feel,” she says. “It’s a real labor of love. People see people they recognize but have never met. For the past seven years, I’ve had complete strangers come up to me and say, ‘I went to your party!’”

For some attendees, the fair felt more like a celebration than a moneymaking endeavor.

Still, one of the founding principles of the fair is to support local arts and crafts — and the people who make them.

“As Brattleboro figures out how to make its economy viable, especially for artisans,” Zemel suggests that planners, look to places that combine “a marketplace and a social aspect” for inspiration.

“People need a place to buy things and hang out,” she says.

She mentions her open house and the local farmers’ markets as two successful examples.

Cubbage says that “one of the reasons I live here is that I can create a life that’s beautiful, sustainable, and where I can make a living.”

She quit her previous cooking career because she “didn’t love it” and wanted something less physically demanding. “Being part of Cherry Street has given me a venue for sales, and has inspired new items, such as Christmas stockings, knitted hats, and aprons. It’s been fun to expand my repertoire, because I know there’s a market for it.”

“And, it’s fun!” she says.

‘No idea if they would come’

Zemel, a long-time fabric artist, describes the life of a professional craftsperson.

“If you’re a professional, you either sell wholesale, or you travel to craft shows a lot.” She says many craftspeople give up because it’s too hard, and the hourly rate — if you can even calculate it — is very low, even if one’s pieces sell for a high price.

She says many craftspeople ask themselves: “How can I earn a living?” especially without having to travel all the time.

Eight years ago, as Zemel and co-founder Teta Hilsdon took their daily walk with their dogs in the woods, they came upon a possible solution, and The Cherry Street Artisans were born.

“Teta had been a professional potter for years,” Zemel says. “She had a ‘regular’ job, but wanted a once-per-year opportunity to sell her stuff, and keep her hands in clay.”

Retired from the craft-fair circuit, Zemel says she still had “an inventory of hand-woven and -dyed rayon chenille clothing.”

“Somehow this idea evolved into a plan to move all the furniture out of [my] house, invite two other artisans and a baker/cook to join the venture, and call it an open house,” Zemel says.

“We set it up as a real gallery, with shelves, lighting. We made postcards and posters ourselves. We had no idea if anyone would come.”

But they did.

“We couldn’t believe how many people came. We were completely bowled over,” said Zemel. “Sales were strong. By the end of the weekend, ‘the Cherries’ were amazed, happy, and very tired.”

As the years progressed, the founding group — Zemel, Hilsdon, Lindenfeld, and Linda Sturgeon (who has since stopped participating) — invited others to become “Cherries,” and the event expanded every year.

Last year’s open house, with 12 vendors, was the biggest yet, and Lindenfeld said, “it got so big that it got really crowded, and became more complicated to negotiate making decisions. But we wanted to add new people every year to keep things fresh and interesting.”

Simplifying for the final year

For the final year, the organizers invited no new craftspeople and pared back to six longstanding participants, partly to make the space more comfortable for attendees. Although the organizers and their helpers move all of Zemel’s furniture, plants, and decor from her living room, dining room and bedroom — and turn her spacious kitchen into a petite cafe — it’s still just a house.

The group did add one new participant for this year’s weekend event: Becka Mears, who, according to the Cherry Street Artisans Website, is a “baker extraordinaire.” She’ll serve dessert, sharing the kitchen’s cafe space with Aew Ladd.

Each year since joining, Ladd performs double-duty at Cherry Street’s open house. Along with providing homemade Thai cuisine, she also sells her woven shawls and scarves.

Cubbage returns with her sewn fabric napkins, handbags and pot-holders.

Hilsdon, executive director of In-Sight Photography, creates functional, hand-thrown and hand-carved stoneware pieces such as mugs and kitchenware.

Lindenfeld, a pottery teacher at The Putney School, who specializes in colored clay pottery, describes her work as “hand-built and -thrown, functional pieces — butter dishes, soap dishes, lamps, teapots -- with colored patterns.”

Brattleboro Selectboard and town School Board member David Schoales makes cutting boards and kitchen items from Vermont hardwoods.

And Zemel will sell what the group’s Website says are “her usual diverse array of textiles,” mobiles made of objects found in nature and man-made components, and plants in handmade pots.

This year also continues the tradition of including work of participants’ family members, even if they can’t attend.

Mothers, daughters, sisters, granddaughters, and grandsons contribute handmade fabric items, paper goods, soap, and furniture, with some of the items’ proceeds going to charitable organizations.

Lindenfeld says the event has something for everyone: “There’s variety, with the crafts selling at all price points.”

A new home for 2015?

With such success, why is the yearly open house ending?

Some members cannot commit to next year; some “have moved on”; others have “changed [their] relationship to material goods,” Lindenfield says.

Lindenfeld says that even though “the house itself is so conducive to doing this event... because of its old-fashioned Victorian Christmas feeling,” the open house might find a new home.

“Some ‘Cherries’ might do a similar event at a different house,” she says. “Somebody else’s house could turn into something magical.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #282 (Wednesday, November 26, 2014). This story appeared on page C1.

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