Numbers, names and a curious map

What do the US Senate, most American police departments and the Pike Place Market crafts line have in common? They employ a roll call at the start of business and as a basis for their activities.

The crafters’ roll call happens every day the Market is open and its function is much more than recording who is present. It’s how we get our selling space for the day and is why the crafts vendors most likely are not in the same place you last saw them, and why we can’t tell you where we’ll be next time you’re at the Market – we don’t know ourselves until that very morning!

If you’ve been to the Market early-ish and seen a crowd of people at the north end of the North Arcade, milling about expectantly and calling out seemingly random numbers in answer to names, then you’ve seen roll call.

On that north-most wall there’s a large whiteboard with a somewhat inaccurate map of all the Market daystall spaces – how they managed to draw it with century-old building features, such as columns, in completely the wrong locations is an ongoing subject of speculation!

The board

Each space is numbered and there are Second and Third Sections, north of Rachel the Pig and opposite the Chukar Cherries stand respectively, though no First Section is marked. There is the Desimone Bridge, the Dogleg and Slabs. Mario’s is drawn on the map by hand as it’s officially temporary. Also on the map are the Wet Side, Dry Side, Outside Slabs and Circle, and often added by hand in the summer is the Street.

So we assemble each morning, right now at 9.30am every day but Sunday, which is 10am. From April through the rest of the year it will be 9am daily. A hand bell is rung, an innovation in the last couple of years – often invited VIP guests do the ringing – and the Market Master for the day starts with “Anyone calling under 35?”

That’s a seniority number (for an explanation of seniority, see a previous post here) and the most senior have already reserved their usual spot by writing their number into the relevant space on the board. The rest of us have signed next to our names on a clipboard and must wait to be called to choose our space. As they move down the list the Market Master checks off our names, which ensures they’ll record our attendance and that we’ll be billed rent for that day.

Marking the board

“Allen,” says the Market Master. “Four on the bridge,” says Kat, of Symbols in Art. Her answer will soon change to “Two in the circle” because she likes to set up outside when the weather warms up.

The Market Master continues down the list and the board fills with seniority numbers on the spaces. There’s a list of vendors above the board, so you can see which name goes with which number, and their product.

There are some rules to follow, and a lot of etiquette: don’t set up too close to a vendor with the same type of product as you, don’t ‘squeeze’ someone by taking a space next to them if there’s lots of room that day (near-neighbors share a vacant space between them, and extra space means a bigger, better display and potentially better sales). In choosing spaces we also, of course, consider personalities. Who will be a good neighbor? It helps the day go well if you’re next to friends, or at least friendly vendors.

A short while later the Market Master says “Pass up the third sheet,” meaning  the last of the clipboards on which we sign in, and I know my turn is coming. “Roscoe,” says the Market Master. “Calling,” I say, because that day I’m ‘doubling’.

First, second and third sheet

Many vendors do this to make it easier and more economical to run our businesses. It means running two booths next to each other. In my case I trade off a day with my studio partner Lynn of PingiHats each week. I sell for her, she sells for me, which gives us more precious studio time. But under the Market rules I’m not allowed to pick our spaces until her name is called (my seniority number is 156, she’s 167.).

Sometimes as the Market Master gets to the newest vendors on the list the anxiety level rises noticeably and you’ll hear “Will I get in?” Unfortunately there are fewer spaces than crafts vendors. In spring the availability of crafts spaces diminishes as the number of flower vendors in the daystalls flourishes (they get precedence for a large swathe of spots, and each vendor gets double the minimum space we’re allotted).

A high-demand day like Saturday, plus lots of flowers, plus bad weather usually means the indoor crafts spots are oversubscribed, and sometimes a few – sometimes many – crafts vendors end up being shut out. It’s tough having to go home. As the weather improves into summer, and the outside spaces and the street are utilized, even the newest vendors are usually able to get a space.

Second section spaces

Roll call concludes with the Market Master asking if anyone wants to move – and we roll our eyes when that sometimes turns into a domino effect, with one shift leading to another and another. About half an hour after the bell, roll call is officially concluded when the time is written on the board, and we all take off to set up our booths for another day vending at Pike Place Market.

by Emma Roscoe, Red Delicious Bags

I was here the other day looking for you. Where were you?

The Market Master conducts morning roll call for the craftspeople.

When thinking about questions we hear frequently in the daystalls at Pike Place Market, at the top of the list is certainly a variation of “I was here the other day looking for you.  Where were you?”

There are a few possible answers:

1) I was not here; I was at home making product, shipping mail orders, doing bookkeeping, updating my website, blogging, packaging product, ordering supplies, or any number of other tasks necessary to keep my little one-woman show working.

2) I was not here; I took a day off to relax, spend quality time with my husband and cats, visit with friends, go out to eat, go hiking, see a movie, take a vacation, or any number of other activities necessary to keep me working!

3) I was here, but not in this spot.

How does that work, you ask.  Welllll, it’s a little complicated. You see, when one becomes a daystall vendor (or “permit holder” as we are properly called) at Pike Place Market, you are handed a 50+ page document full of rules, regulations, and procedures that govern the operation of the daystalls, which are host to craftspeople as well as farmers.

But wait, I should go back a step – how does one become a craftsperson at the market? First, you must be just that – an artist or craftsperson producing 100% of your work by yourself, by hand. (There are a small number of “grandfathered” vendors who are allowed to sell imported goods as they have been in the market since prior to the handmade rule.) The market master reviews applications and you must stand before a screening committee for approval. Once that hurdle is passed, the market master will pay a visit to your studio/workspace to view and document your process. Then you are given a seniority number.

Your seniority number is very important. Casual conversation between vendors often includes the question, “What number are you?” It is a way of sizing you up, a method of vetting you for old-timer or new-timer status, and an indicator of how good your choice of spots on any given day is likely to be. I am number 150. I started 6 years ago at 209. Movement up the list is faster toward the end of it; more attrition. The fewer people are ahead of you, the more slowly you move up.

The beauty of being a daystall vendor at the market is that we don’t have to be there every day (thus the term “daystall” since we rent the stalls by the day). This allows for activities 1 and 2, above. There are attendance requirements that seem to comprise 30 pages of the aforementioned rules, but I shan’t bother you with them. Because our schedules are mostly at our own whim, the craftspeople attend roll call in the morning to choose spaces before setting up. We sign in on a sheet that lists everybody by name in seniority order. If you are signed in when the market master comes to you, s/he calls your name and you choose an open space. If you’ve ever been in the market before we set up and noticed a large group of people gathered in the north end of the arcade, this is what is going on.

As number 150, I am right on the cusp of having a “good” number. On most weekdays, it is not difficult for me to get a “good” spot as there aren’t many vendors (the definition of “good” varies; we all like different spaces for different reasons – more traffic, less traffic, the neighbors, etc.). You might imagine, on Saturdays, when business is generally better, more vendors choose to come to the market. There might be 100+ crafters picking spaces ahead of me. If the weather is nice and many of them want to go outside, there will be plenty of spaces for me to choose from inside, but perhaps not in an ideal location. If the weather is poor, there may not be a table available inside by the time the market master gets to me.

Why do I endure this uncertainty, not knowing where or even whether I will be selling each day? Because I love what I do. I had  no idea that I would enjoy being a small business owner as much as I do. For me, self-employment is challenging, rewarding, and exciting (and not nearly as frightening as I expected before venturing out on my own). I can work as much or as little as I want. Being in the market gives me the opportunity to bring my products directly to customers from all around the world, as well as allowing me to be part of a community of other artists and craftspeople.

I love using my creativity and skills to build a product line that truly comes from me and delivers to my customers in a way that betters their lives. I love to hear that my lip smoothies “make smooching my wife like ten times better” and that my soaps are “the best I have ever used.” It makes me giddy to know that someone thinks that my skin smoothies are “just the thing for my dry feet.” THAT is why I do this.

Becky Boutch, Seattle Rainwater Soap Co.

P.S. You can always check my website for my schedule of days at the market.

Originally posted on my blog: Soaping in the Rain.