What makes church bazaars so special?

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Holiday bazaars, an annual tradition for many churches, are popping up everywhere in The Berkshires as people get into the holiday spirit and look to buy craft items, homemade gifts and baked goods.

A bazaar traditionally is organized and run by church members and other volunteers, and features homemade items — baked goods, food and craft items — in addition to having silent auctions, raffles, games of chance for children, "white elephant" tables filled with tag sale items and may feature a lunch for a nominal fee. All of the proceeds go to the church for its upkeep or special projects. In contrast, a craft fair is usually sponsored by an organization, which rent spaces to vendors for a fee. The vendors keep all the profits they make selling their goods.

Jen Anderson, chairwoman of the Harvest Fair at the First Baptist Church of North Adams (which was held Nov. 4) believes a great bazaar requires great volunteers and lots of variety.

"Over the years, the idea of a church fair or bazaar has changed. It used to be lots of handmade items, done by the women of the church and baked goods," Anderson said. "Today, we try to think of other ideas, since the handmade (knitted, crochet, sewn items) are not the largest money-making items anymore. We host a lunch with Santa and a Fish Bowl mainly for the kids and families. We create beautiful baskets and get gift certificates for our Chinese auction, canned goods are quite popular now, and baked goods are still a staple. Attic treasures or tag sale items bring out a lot of people looking for a good deal or a steal."

Parishioner Fred Bona of Clarksburg was manning the canned goods booth at the bazaar, which was chockful of pickles, jams, jellies, relishes and more, all made by Bona and fellow parishioner Peter Arigoni of North Adams. "We had 40 jars of zucchini relish," he said proudly. "They sold out in an hour."

In a small alcove off the main room, a group of children sat with piles of folded colored paper, unfolding each one and then discarding it quickly. Abby Anderson, 9, took time out to explain the Fish Bowl raffle works.

"You pay your money [50 cents] and get a bag of these papers," she said gesturing to her large pile. "If you find one with a mark, you win a prize. I've won 10."

Susan Clark of North Adams was looking at the various "attic treasures." "I do as many bazaars as I can," she confided, adding she was planning on visiting the bazaar at St. Elizabeth of Hungary Parish next. "The First Baptist bazaar is my favorite. The items are really affordable and the lunch is delicious. You can have lunch with your children and they can visit with Santa. I also come for the bake sale. They have so many good bakers and the quality is amazing."

At the baked goods table, parishioners Peter and Barbara Arigoni were busy waiting on customers and tallying sales. One customer walked away with a large box filled to the brim with an assortment of baked goods.

"Jen Anderson's famous cranberry and nut scones were gone in an hour. It was like a rampage. You have to try one," Peter said, offering one from his hidden stash. He added he had made six large Tuscan breads for First Baptist bazaar (and some for his sister to bring to the St. Elizabeth bazaar) and they, too, had sold out fast — as had all the strawberry-rhubarb pies.

"I do 90 percent of the bazaars in the area," Tina Rotolo of North Adams said. "Although, it's hard if they're all on the same day. ... I like supporting local businesses and crafters, getting good food and seeing good friends at them."

Volunteer Sue Wood of Clarksburg was busy at the attic treasures table. She said it was her first year of working at the bazaar, but not the first year she had donated items. She reported that sales were "very brisk and we had people waiting at the door when we opened."

All that browsing and buying can make a shopper hungry, and Nancy Lorge and her kitchen crew were ready to solve that problem. The menu featured three soups (including an Italian Wedding Soup that Barbara Arigoni had made 328 mini meatballs for) and four types of sandwiches, served with chips and a dessert. "We served 100 people last year, and we hope to do it again this year," Lorge said.

Anderson said planning the bazaar begins in February, with the committee meeting monthly through the summer, then bi-weekly as it gets closer to the fair date.

"We'd love to build up our handmade section with more home decor, baby and doll clothes, and unique items. It's hard, because those items don't sell as easily as Chinese Auction tickets or baked goods, but there are still people looking for something nice like that," she said. "Many people craft, but getting donations to sell can be difficult as the crafters are making items for their own businesses or family. We also need to find some more volunteers for planning and set up. Setting up takes us all week, particularly in the attic treasures area and fish bowl. Pricing items also takes a lot of time, not only in the actually tagging, but deciding on prices themselves."

Things were a bit slower at the White Oaks Congregational Church bazaar in Williamstown, but then again, it's a much smaller church with only about 25 parishioners. Nonetheless, there was plenty to look at and buy, including a Chinese auction, silent auction, 50/50 raffle, a basket raffle (each basket was valued at $25 and above), tag sale, and a baked good and food table.

Rita Beaudry of Williamstown and Jean Hewson of Pownal, Vt., were in charge of the basket raffle. "We've sold a lot of tickets for the 12 baskets," Beaudry said, adding the drawing would take place at the end of the bazaar.

Five people were busily putting tickets into the buckets on the Chinese auction table. "We're from Connecticut and are visiting the Berkshires in the season when it isn't too crowded," one of the men explained. "We saw the sign at the end of the road and decided to come. Lunch looks pretty good, too," he said, nodding his head at the now almost-filled dining area.

The Rev. Susan Stewart, pastor of the church and chairwoman of the bazaar for the last six years, took time out to sit down and eat lunch and talk. Lunch featured a large bowl of chicken stew, accompanied by a large homemade biscuit with butter and a beverage, all for only $6, or two stuffed finger rolls and a beverage for $5. "My good friend, Darlene Ellis [manager of the kitchen at the Berkshire Food Project] made all of the food off-site and brought it in," Stewart said.

The White Oaks bazaar is hosted by the church's Mary and Martha Society, Stewart said, and while she is the chairwoman, she has a committee of five who help her with the planning and running of the bazaar. "We also have gracious people, who aren't members, volunteer," she said.

Stewart said the bazaar helps remind the community the church is there and invites people into the building, while at the same time raising funds for the church. The bazaar raises between $1,000 to $2,000 each year. "Traffic has been steady, but slow this year."

Sue Duncan of Adams, who has worked at the bazaar for 10 years agreed with Stewart. "There is a wonderful sense of community, both with the workers and the attendees."


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