Local Artists Fill the Stalls for Telegraph Holiday Street Fair

By Lydia Gans
Thursday December 17, 2009 - 08:47:00 AM
Holiday shoppers braved soggy weather last weekend for the first of a series of three street fairs along Telegraph Avenue.
Lydia Gans
Holiday shoppers braved soggy weather last weekend for the first of a series of three street fairs along Telegraph Avenue.

If you love browsing the booths along Telegraph Avenue from the campus down to Dwight Way, the Telegraph Holiday Street Fair offers all that and much more. Held for the last three weekends in December, the entire street along those four blocks is closed to traffic and filled with about 100 craftspeople offering the most amazing variety of their creations for sale. 

Along with some of the regular local vendors, many craftspeople from out of town bring in their wares for the fair. It started at Christmastime 26 years ago when they reaized that the sidewalks didn’t provide enough space for all the vendors who wanted to set up, especially for the holidays.  

“We appealed to the city for permission to open it up for vendors (who) are not licensed to sell on the streets of Berkeley,” recalls Janet Klein, one of organizers. “They granted us that wish. So we have a mix, locals and out of towners.” A requirement was that everything had to be made by hand. 

Over the years different vendors have taken on the task of organizing the fair. Janet and Yolanda Castillo, who have both been vendors and volunteers for many years, have been running the fair for the past six years. Yolanda, who does beadwork, has been a vendor there for 30 years. 

Except for setting up the barricades at the ends of the streets and providing a small stipend, the City of Berkeley is not involved nor does the fair have any major sponsors. Janet and Yolanda run the fair with the help of volunteers and a few employees, but it’s more like a community activity. There is a tremendous amount of work involved which occupies them for many months but it’s basically a “labor of love” as much as a business. 

Of the 100 or so artists who participate, about half are regular local vendors and half are craftspeople from cities other than Berkeley. They all sell only handmade articles. Janet and Yolanda make sure that all the rules are followed and the proper paperwork is done. “We keep impeccable files,” Janet says. “We require three photographs of their work, a copy of their California sellers permit, and they have to fill out an application.” Though the fair happens for only three weekends, it takes much of the year to take care of the many details. They have created a website, telegraphfair.com, and made a large banner to advertise the fair. Ideally the banner would hang across Telegraph Avenue but, wouldn’t you know, the insurance company objected—the banner might fall on someone and they’d sue the city. So the banner hangs on the building at Haste and Telegraph. 

We can easily fill up the rest of this page and then some by simply listing the many exotic and wonderful things at the fair. Certainly nothing you’ll ever find at Macy’s.  

There is a craftsman who uses slices of agate decorated with strips of wood to make night lights that are works of art. Another has created marvelous stuffed toys, creatures that with a squeeze and a punch metamorphose from one shape to another—a frog turns into a salamander, a sleeping dragon becomes fierce. A Tibetan artist makes pendants shaped into symbols of Buddhism and other belief systems, including the peace symbol—this is Berkeley after all, he reminds us. You can find objects made of leather, wood, clay, rock, glass, rope, metal, feathers, even yak bone. A vendor makes old typewriter keys into jewelry, another turns CDs into coasters and old LPs into clocks, yet another has taken wine bottles, laid them flat and melted them to be used as trays or hung up for decoration—with the labels left on. There is a booth with stuff for dogs and another that has only things that glow in the dark, T-shirts and jewelry and such. Even some of the food for sale is unusual. 

There are other street fairs around but surely this is unique for the diversity of the artists and the crafts they offer in such a compact space. This past weekend the sun barely showed, but the periodic drizzle didn’t keep people away. It’s a sign that Berkeley appreciates the dedicated artists and organizers who keep this 26 year tradition alive.