Hundreds of crafts people have converged on Baltimore for the 15th annual American Craft Council Craft Fair, which is being hailed as a bellwether for how sales of exclusive handmade items will fare in a recession.

"Everyone is watching this fair because it is the first big trade and retail crafts fair of the season," Carol Sedestrom Ross, senior vice president of the New York-based council, said yesterday. "All eyes and ears are on us."


Last year's Baltimore fair brought in $16 million in revenues for the artisans, and $14 million of that was for items sold wholesale to retailers, Ms. Ross said.

The latter figure is the one artisans are looking to beat.


The fair opened to the trade Tuesday and will be open to the public tomorrow through Sunday at the Baltimore Convention Center and Festival Hall.

The council sponsors six other fairs around the country, ending in August with one in San Francisco.

It seems that the sluggish economy has not prevented artisans from shelling out the money to attend the Baltimore fair, which can cost more than $2,000 for booth space, accommodations and travel.

But to many crafts people, fairs like this one are tickets to staying in business, since they are able to make contacts and long-term sales agreements.

More than 600 exhibitors are attending this year's fair, up slightly from last year, said Paula Rome of Paula Rome & Associates, the local public relations firm that promotes the fair in Baltimore.

Anthony Stokan, a retail strategist who spoke at a breakfast seminar held for the artisans yesterday, said crafts people have the ability to fare well in what appears to be a frugal period but one in which customers still want individualized service and products.

"Because a customer can't go to 25 other stores in the neighborhood and buy what you sell, you have some leverage against huge markdowns and other retailers," Mr. Stokan told the group of artisans and buyers.

"You are not mass merchandisers; you cater to the individual," he said.


Crafts people seemed invigorated by Mr. Stokan's comments, but many are nevertheless bracing themselves for slow times.

"I've made a few more less-expensive pieces this year because of the slowdown in the economy, and I have taken a gamble on a few high

pieces because I hear real expensive work is still selling," said Renee Margolin, who makes stoneware inlaid with white, red and black designs.

Aside from making items less expensive by using less costly materials or creating smaller versions of popular lines, some artisans said yesterday that they are making fewer similar pieces.

"Up to six months ago, the people with lots of money still had lots of money. I was selling lots of my $400 baskets but hardly any of my $40 baskets," said Cindy Luna, a basket weaver from Ohio.

"But with the start of the war, my buyers are telling me that they have stopped selling my larger baskets as well. It seems the war has affected all," she said.