The Lot of the Street Fair Vendor in OB Enchanted Land

by on June 29, 2009 · 4 comments

in Economy, Ocean Beach, Organizing, San Diego

We drove into Ocean Beach for the Street Fair intending to take an outsider’s view.  With the bumper-to-bumper traffic coming in on Sunset Cliffs and then on West Point Loma, with everybody on the sidewalks streaming south, it truly looked like OB was part of a theme park – OB Enchanted Land . Bicycle vendors and trolleys carried the park visitors to the center of the festivities – Newport Ave – the downtown of the modern OB Wonderland. Newport was like that little “Mainstreet” at the front of Disneyland.

By the time Patty and I had reached the noisy but friendly Street Fair on a trolley from Robb Field, it had been 22 minutes – most of that time spent waiting. Not too bad, I thought, as we had seen people who had given up waiting for the bus, still slapping the pavement with their sandals by time we passed them in our trolley-looking vehicle. Hell, Patty had almost given up. Let’s walk, she said. No, I replied, let’s wait another 5 minutes. And in no time after that, the trolley arrived.

The Fair was crowded, no surprise there, as the trolley had been packed. It was after the noon hour, as I checked the time walking by the skate boards. But we were disappointed, – we were too late for the Chili Cook-Off. Damn! I was starving so I immediately headed for the bustling line of vendor booths just up ahead.

We walked the entire line of booths up to Cable Street, thinking that there must be food at the east end of the Fair. But no edibles there. So traveled back down the line on the other side. When you’re at a fair or market such as this, you learn to keep to the sidewalks usually to avoid the crowded, slower people next to the vendors.

Hunger made my step quicker. Finally spied a Greek food stall – hey, a gyros sounded good. And only one person ahead of me. They had several enticing sample dishes spread out before them. But no prices. How much? I asked. The dishes were all close to ten bucks – gulp – more than I wanted to spend at the moment.  Except for the spinach pastries for $6 a piece.  It was excellent slightly heated up on the grill. Patty had one too, and liked it. But it wasn’t enough.

I later came back to this Greek food booth to ask how business was doing. I approached the guy who was doing the cooking on this side of the street, the guy who had served me. In the midst of asking him how business was, he pointed to a youngish woman sitting down next to the neighboring booth. She was speaking Spanish to a girl with her.

After explaining that she is part Greek, part Lebanese, and that she once lived in South America, she told me business was slower than last year.  “By this time of day, last year, I would have had a line.” Customers were consistently coming by but only in ones and twos. There were more street vendors, she said, more competition.  She rented two food booths for a total of $900. “Very reasonable for one day,” she added.

Still hungry, I cruised the line of booths and found a sausage maker, and ordered a juicy Bratwurst, for another $6. No line there.  I piled on the sauerkraut and began taking risky bites – risky because the juice could have dribbled down onto my OB Rag T-shirt and ruined my ‘press’ image. We found a table, and were quickly joined by friends going by. So for $12 I had lunch – too much, Patty and I agreed.

Yet, I wouldn’t let this food thing deter me from my mission. I was on a mission for the blog to find out what the Fair was like from the vendors’ point of view. Lane and I had volunteered to do this (see Lane’s much-more balanced overview post here.)

I was very curious to know how the downturn in the economy was affecting the vendors.  So, after finishing my expensive lunch, I waddled up to a booth that displayed retro mementos, refrigerator magnets and such, and talked to Allen, the owner.

Allen told me there wasn’t as many people as last year’s Fair.  Last year, he and his wife had done only 50% of the business from the year before that. “People were feeling ‘it’ in June 2008,” he said. In 2007, they had done about $1100 in business for one day at the OB Fair.  In 2008, they only did about $800. They would be happy to even do that, his spouse told me. “‘Okay’ is the new ‘good,'” she said.  Allen said that he’s been doing this for 39 years and this year was the worst.

With this glum news, I turned to the very next vendor.  There was a hand-stitched skirt and women’s top booth, with clothes hanging from every possible nook and cranny, but no visitors and only a sad-looking woman sitting down in the middle of the stall.  It was “slower” than last year she said, managing a smile.

Well, I thought, the food vendors must be doing okay. I found the sausage place where I had found lunch. The manager told me there weren’t as many people as last year. And, he added, there are more food booths.  They had customers, but no real lines.

As I was musing over the economics of this perception – more food booths means more money for the OBMA but more competition for those vendors and less business, I came upon the booth of the Cafe on the OB Pier. The couple managing this stall didn’t have any customers. “We weren’t here last year,” the guy said, “so we don’t have any way to compare our business today.”

Moving on, I next entered a shady stall with lots of Reggae shirts, hats and stuff. “Last year was excellent,” the man behind the counter told me, “there were more buyers then.”  Thoughtful for a moment, he added, there’s the same number of people but they have less money. He thought the fees were “kind of high” for a one day thing.

Another jewelry stall later, the owner said this was his first time. “It’s pricey,” he said, “for a one a day fair.”

Getting somewhat depressed with what I was hearing, I tried one more store on the street.  It happened to be another jewelry booth. “There’s more people,” this guy surmised, “but they are more cautious,” he hunted for words, “they’re more discretionary with their money.”

By now I believed I had a sense of what was going on, the risks for the vendors. They had to make their initial investment and then some to make it all worthwhile.  Granted, I had talked to the vendors between 2 and 3 pm, not at the end of the day, not after they had counted their take.  Perhaps there had been a surge in the late afternoon. They were going to be up for another 5 hours or so, which gave them hope.

And granted, my take on everything was obviously not scientific. But to hear every vendor I spoke to who had been at the OB Street Fair in 2008 say things were slower and there weren’t as many people at the Fair was definitely a telling account of the economic side of things. This could have all been predicted, I guess, but to hear it from the vendors’ own mouths was another thing.

One vendor asked me, how I was doing financially compared to last year, as a comparison. We both agreed we had less money to spend. “I don’t go out to movies anymore,” he said, “and don’t eat out as much.” I understood.

These are sad times – sad times for the vendors on the street, sad times for their potential customers who don’t have as much money as they used to.  Yet, no one was crying. It was a street fair, don’t forget. People seemed happy – except for that one woman vendor sitting alone amongst her hand-stitched skirts.  The glow on the faces of those walking by, and the sights and sounds waffling in the air told me I was still in OB Enchanted Land.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Frank Gormlie June 29, 2009 at 3:50 pm

Hey, sorry my post wasn’t more upbeat, and no one wants anyone raining on the parade, but that’s my story and I’m sticking to it!

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avatar annagrace June 29, 2009 at 4:14 pm

Frank, the fragile web of community (and yes, that is what it is ultimately about) has parts that aren’t upbeat. I too was struck and concerned by vendors who sat quietly without much business and hoped that they would ultimately have a good day at the fair. It’s got to be tough sitting there for what- 14 hours?

You brought up an important point. How does the OBMA strike the right balance in a changing (read not so good) economy. You remarked that “more food booths means more money for the OBMA but more competition for those vendors and less business.” That’s certainly one of the sticking points.

But beyond competing purveyors of bratwurst, there were niche vendors who seemed like small islands separated from the great ebb and flow of fair goers. It is risky these days for small business people who have had their access restricted to credit, their credit limits dropped, and their interest rates increased despite good credit ratings.

I’m not a survival of the fittest kind of person. So yeah, it wasn’t all upbeat.

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avatar OB Joe June 29, 2009 at 4:38 pm

Is it all about money? This event is what drives OBMA through the rest of the year. But who decides to keep adding more and more vendors? At some point, there’s a dwindling point of no return.

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avatar Steve Tanzer July 12, 2009 at 7:23 am

My fiancee and I drove down from L.A. for the fair. We had a great time and bought a few artwork items. We noticed more food vendors and less merchandise vendors this year. 4 or 5 of those vendors were selling Tijuana crap items. We budgeted to spend more money for the day, but the original and unique artwork items were lacking.

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