20 years of the winter fair Craft market: Wholesale and retail visitors make it the city's best-attended annual show.


TWO DECADES ago, when the Schaefer administration persuaded the American Craft Council to bring its first winter market to Baltimore, "crafts" connoted inexpensive funky items associated more with the counterculture than with the world of business. But now, business is booming for crafts -- and the genre has expanded as rapidly as prices have risen.

Today, a craft item can be a pricey acquisition, valued as much for its display of imagination and skill as for its handmade, one-of-a-kind allure. To feed the market for quality crafts, the American Craft Council sponsors a number of events around the country. The winter fair in Baltimore has earned the distinction of being the biggest and, as the year's first, often the one at which new trends emerge.

The council originally envisioned the fair as only a wholesale event, but then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer insisted that it be open to the public as well. The result is that craft lovers throughout the region religiously mark their calendars and, when the big weekend rolls around, head for the convention center and open their wallets.

Although some 3,500 businesses are sending buyers to the wholesale portion of this year's fair, organizers also expect as many as 35,000 visitors to browse through the exhibits during the weekend retail days. Last year, wholesale and retail customers combined spent about $21 million, generating an estimated $6 to $7 million for the city.

In years past, the fair has encountered its share of snow storms and other weather-related crises. But that has not dampened the city's love affair with crafts -- or the artisans' attachment to coming to Baltimore each winter. As the fair marks its 20th year this weekend, it can join the city in celebrating a truly enriching partnership.

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