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Open-air markets a holiday marathon for artists, retailers

Joyce M. Rosenberg
The Associated Press

NEW YORK – Even through rain, snow and single-digit wind chills, it’s a 38-day adrenaline rush.

That’s how Julie Siegmund feels about spending the cold weeks at the end of the year selling her jewelry at an open-air holiday market, a time when she brings in up to 80 percent of her annual sales. Other than a short break here and there, she’s at her booth in Manhattan’s busy Union Square Park nine hours a day from mid-November to Christmas Eve.

“Toward the end you’re exhausted, but that’s when the real money comes in and you never want it to end,” says Siegmund, who has been at the market for 12 years selling earrings, necklaces and bracelets under the name Carnelian Knoll.

At the holiday markets that pop up annually, many of the booths are staffed by artisans hoping to make a significant portion of their revenue or to get visibility that will translate into sales other times of the year. But the vagaries of the weather can be a big factor for these retailers who don’t have four walls and a roof. Although a light snow can put people in the mood to shop, pelting rain or heavy snow, especially on a weekend, can slice into their sales.

Strategies: Staying warm is an issue, but sellers come prepared, many with heaters. Siegmund wears leggings made for ice fishing, and the bright lights in her booth that shine on her jewelry also help keep her warm.

A wool cap and a fleece jacket are a uniform of sorts for Stephen Duffy, who holds court at a corner booth near the entrance to the Union Square subway stop. He’s been at the market for more than 20 years, and also sells his work — drawings of New York landmarks and scenes, animals, people, places he’s visited — on a Greenwich Village street during the warmer months.

But the holiday market accounts for nearly two-thirds of his revenue, with most customers buying three etchings at a time for $100. Business this season has been better than last year, when he recalls weather keeping people home and his sales falling 20 percent. But when it’s busy, he says he has a good time.

“I get to hear a lot of stories,” he says, and gets orders for custom work. People ask for portraits, or, in the case of one couple, for Duffy to sketch the view from their Manhattan apartment during a full moon.

Sympathy: Many customers at the market, which has more than 200 booths, are aware it’s not easy to be out in the cold for long hours, day after day. When Siegmund sat with her leg elevated two years ago following knee surgery, customers were concerned — and eager to buy.

“I had a lot of sympathy sales,” she recalls.

Some customers offer to buy her coffee, says Tania Carol-Lugones, who has been at the market for 10 years selling handbags and purses in bright colors that she designs under the name Viva Zapata.

“Most people who stop at the booth are very generous. They ask how I’m doing,” she says.

Carol-Lugones found out three weeks before the Union Square market opened this year that she could also sell the jewelry that she and her business partner, Jimena Balmaceda, design and make under the name CaraCruz Brooklyn. So she’s spent quieter moments at the market making more earrings, necklaces and bracelets to be sure she has enough to meet the demand.

The partners are veterans of selling in outdoor and part-time locations — they also have space at a holiday market near Central Park and booths that they operate the rest of the year in lower Manhattan and Brooklyn. Like Duffy, they’re also doing better than a year ago. Carol-Lugones says customers seemed down after the 2016 election.

“New Yorkers were not in the mood for shopping,” she says.

Expanding: For Moshgan Rezania, expanding her merchandise selection beyond her pastel and charcoal paintings — abstracts and depictions of New York and its landmarks — helped her go from a first-year loss to steadily growing profits. She added scarves with her artwork silk-screened onto them to her booth, then tote bags and now, in her fourth year, neckties.

“I realized that at a holiday market, many people are looking for gifts,” says Rezania, who has also seen follow-ups as people come to see her work in her studio.

Among the food vendors at the Union Square market, Fatty Sundays gives away samples of its chocolate-covered pretzels as shoppers stream by. The company, which has been at the market since 2012, raised money through Kickstarter to pay for its first appearance since renting a booth for the season costs upward of $10,000.

But the company made a profit that year, and now selling at the market “more than pays for itself,” co-founder Ali Zmishlany says.

Zmishlany notices a pattern among shoppers as the season progresses.

“The first couple of weeks they’re trying us out,” she says. “The last two to three weeks are the busiest as they get going buying gifts.”