The Ren Faire and me: the booth

(This post is part of a series of ruminations on why I’m leaving the New York Ren Faire after 13 years.)

When I got a booth of my own, it marked a watershed in my experience at the Ren Faire.

I don’t know when that booth was constructed. I remember seeing it in my earliest years of working for Sally, so it was probably between 1995-1997. I was told that it was built for someone to do readings, but I remember it as a shop for angel sculpture; it might have been used for both at the same time.

In 2002 and 2003, the booth was used by a reader named Toby. She replaced the roof for the 2003 season. Many patrons would compliment me on the appearance of the booth’s ceilings, with colorful and elaborate stencils. It was Toby who made that happen. The roof was well-made; it kept both the interior and walls of the booth dry even in the heaviest rain. Thanks, Toby!

In 2003, Toby told me that she was thinking of leaving the Faire. I idly inquired if she’d be willing to sell the booth. In the winter of 2003, Toby was kind enough to send me an e-mail; she was not coming back to the Faire, and as far as she was concerned, I could have the booth.

I wrote to the Office Manager of the Faire asking permission to use it, and she agreed. She asked for a name. I only had a couple of days to come up with something, and I chose "Seeker’s Hut", derived from my magical name Faidh which means seeker or diviner.

The booth needed signs. I could make small signs, but I needed something big that could be seen a long way off. My friend O made one for me out of cedar, with mahogany letters that I purchased custom-shaped from a company that specialized in computer-controlled wood-carving. The following year, H painted another sign for me, elaborate and colorful. I think both are beautiful, and when not on my booth they hang on the walls of my apartment.

In the first three years, there were a number of repairs that had to be made to the booth. I knew nothing of carpentry and wood-working. O helped out, along with another friend whom I’ll call K (A’s husband, if you’ve been keeping track of my pseudonyms). Without O and K, I could not have kept that booth solid and safe. Thanks, guys.

The booth was attractive, but it was also dark inside. People could not see inside unless they actually walked into the booth. The obvious solution: candles. In my first year, I think I hung four lanterns, maybe six.

In subsequent years, I put up more and more lanterns. I effectively doubled the number of lanterns by lining the walls with custom-made mirrors. The candlelight didn’t help with the readings; the outside light was always too bright for that. Their only function was to make the booth (and me) more noticeable from the outside.

Later, as I added more pentacles to the outside of my booth, I hung star-shaped lanterns as well. That was my motif: stars and candles.

The booth also came equipped with planters outside each window. I kept them stocked with live plants, usually mums and coleus. In the last couple of years, I planted more coleus at the base of the booth.

Colorful signs, colorful plants, bright candles, clever phrases. I received many compliments on the appearance of the booth. Some of my fellow readers were kind enough to say that I had the most attractive booth on Mystics Way.

Unfortunately, the booth’s appearance did not translate into an increased number of readings. In the midst of the fantasy, there some realities I had to face: I am a man. Most folks prefer to have their readings given by women. And I’m not a young man, nor a slender one. There were a couple of good-looking young male readers on Mystics Way, including Phoenix.

I know I’m a good reader, from the reactions of the patrons who chose me. However, they usually chose me through Hobson’s choice, because all the other readers were busy.

There were some extra expenses associated with keeping up the booth. I had to come to the Ren Faire site at least three times before the start of the season, sometimes five, to get the booth cleaned, painted, planted, and decorated; there was also a clean-up trip after the season ended. Those custom-made mirrors were a one-time expense, but they were a big expense.

The candles? Oy! Every day there up to 32 votive candleholders that had to be cleaned and refilled, and up to 7 tealights that had to be replaced twice a day. In my last year at the Faire, I had to purchase 864 votive candles (at the steepest discount I could find) to keep the lanterns lit in my booths at the Ren Faire and the Forest of Fear.

For the first three seasons, I was kept interested and entertained by the challenges associated with repairing, decorating, and improving the appearance of the booth. After that, my enthusiasm began to wane.

I think the main reason for the change that both the booth and I grew older. It got harder for me to do the physical labor associated with setting up the booth each season. I managed to get some help, and was grateful for it.

The booth’s aging was natural, due to its construction and environment.

Over the years since I started going to the Faire, I’ve perceived the Faire grounds getting gradually wetter, as if the water table were rising. It rains more often during the summer, and takes longer for the water to drain away. In the final year, I hauled up 1.6 tons of gravel and spread it around my booth to fill in the huge puddles around the booth. I did it by myself, throwing out my back in the process. Oy! I’m lucky I had a friend who could arrange for me to get a massage.

The ground around the booth was getting softer. The booth began to lean. Not enough to pose a risk, but it became noticeable and not very attractive. In the final year, I had trouble opening the doors and windows. It was clear that they wouldn’t open at all next year unless I did something. I could also see the walls beginning to wear away near the base of the booth as they soaked up water from the ground; the roof could not prevent that.

I had to face another reality: The booth was never meant to last 13+ years. If it were meant to be a permanent structure, the original builder would have poured a concrete foundation.

What were my alternatives? In order of increasing expense:

   * Do nothing. Bad idea.
   * Cosmetic: sand down the doors and windows so they’d fit. That might buy me a year… or not.
   * "Yank the booth." This idea was originally proposed by K: Put a cable around the booth, attach a couple of come-alongs, and pull it upright. Then install cross-braces to keep the booth from leaning again.
   I was a bit skeptical. If the one of the main support posts cracked instead of shifting, things would get complicated.
   * Dismantle a portion of the booth to remove one of the wall posts, pour in concrete for just that post, then put it back in again. Do this once a year, one post at a time.
   * Dismantle the entire booth, and pour a whole new foundation.
   * Replace the booth entirely.
I knew I could do none of those things by myself. O and K were still around, but their lives had changed over the past five years; I could not expect them to make time for my booth’s repairs anymore. That left what most people do under these circumstances: hire contractors. It was getting involved and expensive.
Apart from all that, there was the issue of getting approval from the management of the Ren Faire for doing any improvements. It’s not that they were unwilling or unhelpful. If I ran the glassblower’s booth, a centrally-located booth that offered demonstrations, I could expect some immediate attention.  But my booth was just one relatively unimportant booth at the Faire, in a relatively low-profit area for them. It’s hard to focus on a reader’s needs when the septic tanks need to be repaired or the water mains have burst.

There was another folly: the yurt.

In an earlier post, I talked about the problems I had with tents at the Forest of Fear. In 2009, I had the chance to work at the FoF for myself, not as the co-manager or employee of someone else. I decided to get a yurt, so I’d be able to keep warm during the cold nights, and have a tent that would not blow over.

Oh, the wonders of hindsight! In retrospect, buying the yurt was a perfectly fine thing to do… if I were to work at the Forest of Fear for another five years. For someone who already felt the distant rumbling that would lead to the thunder of my departure, it was a foolish thing to do.

I think I got the yurt for the same reason anyone gets a toy: You think things will be better if you have something new to play with. Sometimes this works. This time it didn’t.

I set up the yurt at the Forest of Fear just before the first weekend, along with my candles and decorations and signs. It was a disappointment.

I had thought that by filling the yurt with candles, I’d create a "Chinese lantern" effect. My candle-filled booth at the Ren Faire looked glorious after the sun went down. I hoped the same effect at the Forest of Fear.

I’d forgotten that they set up bright, garish lights at the FoF to attract the attention of folks driving by the site. Also, though the manager offered me the choice of the entire grounds on which to set up, I picked a place that turned out to have almost no one going by. The booth went mostly unnoticed.

(There’s another factor: The attendance at the Forest of Fear was very low compared to previous years. I think it was mostly the economy. The attendance at the Ren Faire was only somewhat reduced, because folks went to the Faire instead of going on more expensive vacations. There was no such effect for the FoF; people just didn’t go.)

Thursday before the second weekend of the FoF, I get a phone call from the Faire. The yurt that couldn’t be blown down? Famous last words.

To be fair, Rockland County experienced record-breaking winds that day. Also, I made a subtle mistake in setting up the yurt.

In any case, the yurt now lay in a pile of broken lanterns, wet canvas, and busted fencing.

I was ready to give up, but Vann saw my status update and Facebook and offered to help. Together we got my yurt back up again. Without him, I’d have just piled the mess into my car and driven off. Thanks, Vann! One of many I owe you.

The yurt was back up, but it was not whole. I had some spare fence pieces, and with some creative swapping we managed to get it standing with some broken edges held in place with duct tape. The canvas had lain in dirty water for about a day, and some of the water-proofing was gone. The yurt now leaked when it rained.

I wrote to the guy who sold me the yurt. Even though the damage was clearly not his fault and outside the warranty, he sent me replacement fence pieces at no charge, not even shipping! He also told me how to restore the canvas’ waterproofing. Thanks, Gabe.

As I write these words, the yurt is still not fixed. I’ll have to set it up in dry weather to get it repaired. Maybe this will happen at the Free Spirit Gathering in 2010.

Even with Gabe’s generosity, I had to buy some supplies to repair the yurt, plus cinder blocks and the like so it wouldn’t blow over again. Add that to the cost of the yurt. It’s also not clear to me that, even with repairs, the yurt will be the "same as new" again.

The yurt was folly born of pride, ego, and over-eagerness. It wasn’t the first time I tried to heal a connection through enthusiasm, and it wasn’t the first time that the attempt had failed.

Reason #4 for my leaving the Faire: the issues associated with maintaining a booth, either at the Faire or at the Forest of Fear, became more than I could handle on my own.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. wgseligman

    Sep-2012: When I visited the Faire this season, I learned that my old booth had finally been torn down; it was leaning too much.

    So it goes.

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