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Crafty couple finds a creative outlet at annual Holiday Mart

Peering out from a crafting table amid traditional holiday heroes such as Santa and Frosty are the faces of other figures beloved by area residents.

Birds are popular, both Orioles and Ravens. And there are Terrapins and Redskins, too, to appease those whose team allegiances lie a bit farther to the south.

Shoppers at the 41st annual Holiday Mart in Cooksville on Saturday, Dec. 7, will find hand-painted sports team logos, Christmas icons and other symbols on wineglasses, beer mugs and ornaments, thanks to the long hours being put in by Debbie Rich. The Ellicott City resident is winding up months of preparation for the arts and crafts show.

"No two are ever alike," she said of her enamel paintings on glass, though finding the slight distinctions her artist's eye sees is a bit like spotting the slight differences in those tricky side-by-side photographs. "That's the uniqueness of it."

Nearby in the basement workshop of the home she shares with her husband, Tim, is his stash of handmade crafts, lined up rows deep on the floor and mixed in with her overflow on the pool table.

He's been busy making sports-themed ornaments, which he uses to decorate 6-, 12-, 18- and 24-inch lighted Christmas trees. Clay footballs with Ravens logos and fuzzy ravens are two of his popular designs.

The couple believes in teamwork, feeding off each other's ideas and helping to complete each other's projects, Debbie said. They also sell hand-painted light bulbs, wine bottles and crab shells, as well as pine cone-filled baskets, wineglass charms and more.

Move over, elves: The Riches are burning the midnight oil as they head down the final stretch of their 20th consecutive appearance in the juried crafts sale.

Holiday Mart, which was first held at Wilde Lake High School in 1972, now operates from the Gary J. Arthur Community Center off Route 97 in Cooksville. Many loyal shoppers also recall when the auditorium of Centennial High School was the area's mecca for holiday crafts for about 20 years until the show moved to the Glenwood complex in 2009.

"We certainly have maintained a loyal following over the years," said Linda Bell, a craft coordinator with the county Recreation and Parks Department for 28 years.

"We anticipate 2,500 to 2,750 people will attend," she said. "A lot of customers return to visit specific crafters who have a tremendous following and wait in line to buy their stuff. But about 15 to 20 percent of the vendors are new each year to keep the event fresh."

Proceeds from the event go to the county, which uses the funds to support recreation scholarships for kids with special needs, Bell said.

Among the handcrafted items that will be available from 120 vendors are pottery, skin products, woodcarvings and photographs from artisans who come from as far away as Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia to sell their wares. Fresh wreaths and floral arrangements are always a hit, she said.

The Riches run one of the longest-participating crafts booths, Bell said, and they bring customers in year after year.

Debbie has a simple explanation for the couple's staying power: "We love what we do, and we're both perfectionists," she said, adding that the time they invest in their creations pays off in customer loyalty and repeat business.

Added Tim: "We feel you do it right, or what's the point?"

Tim, a district manager for a gas pipeline company, said he enjoys being able to measure his skills as a hobbyist by the tangible products he creates, as opposed to a progress report generated at the end of a workday.

"I do this for the satisfaction of seeing people appreciate what I've made," he said. "I really like it when they say they pull [the item] out every year and that it's become a part of their holiday."

The Riches, both 55, met when they were 15 at a dance at St. John's Episcopal Church in Ellicott City, where Tim's father, Ernest Albert Rich, was rector for 25 years until retiring in 1981.

He went to Gilman School and she attended St. Paul's Catholic Church and Mount Hebron High, and they went on to different colleges as well. They dated for nine years despite their geographical separation, and married in 1983. Their children are Morgan, 24, and Matthew, 22.

Debbie has been a stay-at-home mom for years but treats her craft projects like a full-time job starting in September each year. She has always enjoyed crafting and also loves to sew.

Tim has built custom-made desks and curio cabinets, and made wine cabinets from coffins for two funeral directors they know, by far "the weirdest request" he's received, he said.

The vast variety of their craft inventory — which they estimate as over 300 different items — makes setting up their display booth a hardship, they say. They erect PVC shelving that Tim custom-made to display their goods and also assemble a 7-foot artificial Christmas tree on which they hang samples of their hand-painted ornaments. Much of Debbie's stuff is glass and must be handled with care.

Now that their children are grown, "we have more freedom [to pursue our hobbies] but less energy," Tim said with a laugh.

Debbie said, "When it stops being fun, we'll stop doing it," but for now it's business as usual.

Holiday Mart will be held from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sat., Dec. 7, at the Gary J. Arthur Community Center, at 2400 Route 97 in Cooksville. Admission is $4 at the door. A free children's craft corner is available, and refreshments and lunch items will be sold.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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