Bizarre Bazaar, Whistler's Christmas artisan fair, turns 25 

Around 100 craftspeople and artists, and Bratz Biz kids, get set to sell their work at the Whistler Conference Centre

click to enlarge PHOTO SUBMITTED - Looking good at 25 Whistler's popular artisan craft market takes place at the Whistler Conference Centre on Nov. 30 and Dec. 1.
  • Photo submitted
  • Looking good at 25 Whistler's popular artisan craft market takes place at the Whistler Conference Centre on Nov. 30 and Dec. 1.

When Joan Richoz recalls the first Bizarre Bazaar in 1987, she mostly remembers the snow and the fun.

That part has not changed even as the event turns 25 this year, though the fair is bigger with more on offer for guests and residents alike.

A former chair of the Whistler Arts Council, Richoz says organizers in year one borrowed tables from the Delta Hotel, carrying them over snowbanks to their venue at Myrtle Philip Community School, which at the time was in the middle of Whistler Village, where the Cascade Lodge now sits.

"The very first year it had snowed hard all day before. There were some no shows and vendors wanted to leave earlier so they could get home. I was talking to the original coordinator recently, Gail Rybar, and she told me that she was home at 11:30 p.m. that day, having started at 7:30 a.m.," says Richoz.

"We were very ambitious in those days. Not only did we set everything up for the artisans, we also made chilli so people could have their dinner there, and a bunch of (Whistler Arts Council) board members made homemade vinegar to sell. We were at Gail's house packaging it."

Sure there were glitches, she says. One year the Santa suit for their Mr. Claus didn't arrive.

"But like today, you would go there and you knew you would see many people you knew. You're not going to get around very quickly because you are going to stop and talk to them all. That's part of the fun," says Richoz.

"In those days, most of the artists were from Whistler and Pemberton and there were a variety of goods. It has certainly evolved over the years. The original intent remains the same, though, as an opportunity for local artisans and artists to sell their wares."

Since then it has found a firm place at the Whistler Conference Centre and always takes place on American Thanksgiving. Around 5,000 people will come through the doors over the weekend.

"When you travel there is nothing you like better than to pick up a unique, locally made craft," says Richoz.

"We've done a lot of surveying, and consistently people come in for Bizarre Bazaar and they continue shopping. It's really good for village merchants as well."

The current executive director of the Whistler Arts Council, Doti Niedermayer, echoes this.

"When I started with the arts council 11 years ago, Bizarre Bazaar was already in full swing. It was one of the programs we had that I inherited that was well established, very professionally organized and delivered," Niedermayer recalls.

"I was very impressed with the work of the volunteers... I think it has pretty much stayed the same since."

Niedermayer noted that the quality stays high because the artisans' work is juried before they are accepted.

Susan Shrimpton runs the children's artisan market Bratz Biz, which paired up with Bizarre Bazaar two years ago.

The mission for herself and the other volunteers of Bratz Biz, now in its eighth year, is to let the public know it isn't a kiddy craft fair and that the young artisans taking part had been judged for excellence in order to take part, she says.

"People are surprised by the quality of what the kids are producing. They expect it to be more like a school craft and a lot of the kids are producing a lot of high-quality products," she adds.

Bratz Biz brings more to the youngsters than sales. The organizers have run workshop sessions for them on marketing strategies and customer service, the essentials of running a small business.

Norm Strim of Nonna Pia's Gourmet Sauces Ltd. said they got their start at Bizarre Bazaar six years ago and are now selling retail from 500 stores across Canada.

"Bizarre Bazaar was where we launched. The very first thing that needs to happen with a business is you've got to test it and see if people like it. If they don't you know it's not going to fly as an idea," he says.

"When we look at our evolution, we started working on a retail prototype to get in stores, but we needed to test it. With Bizarre Bazaar, we knew people liked it after the weekend. It was easier to get it into our first two stores, Nesters and IGA."

Whistler painter Vanessa Stark has sold cards, prints and other artwork at Bizarre Bazaar for the last eight years.

"It's such a great event. It's really important, like the Whistler Farmers' Market, it's one of the main places I sell," Stark says. "I've often had commissions come out of it over the years or later sales. And I've had shops approach me afterwards to carry my cards."

Squamish woodworker Graham Cofell is taking part for the first time this year after visiting over the years with his sister. He will be selling his cutting boards, spatulas, candleholders and other smaller wood projects.

"We're into handmade things and buying local things and so I've gone every year I lived here. I've been woodworking as a hobby for a few years and this year I decided to try a handful of markets. I thought Bizarre Bazaar would be a wonderful venue," he says.

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