Tracy Eshelman remembers going to some of the first Juneau Public Markets during the 1980s, first as a youth, then as a young mother and now as a vendor with the young-at-heart inspiration of crafting holiday-themed gnomes she started making to lift people’s spirits during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s definitely bigger because it wasn’t three buildings back then,” she said. “But it’s got the same feel, the same community spirit.”
This year’s Juneau Public Market, celebrating its 40th year during the three-day weekend after Thanksgiving, features about 160 vendors at Centennial Hall and the neighboring Juneau Arts & Culture Center, about 55 of whom are first-timers such as Eshelman. In addition, the Indigenous Artists & Vendors Holiday Market is back after a four-year hiatus at Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall.
Eshelman — who grew up in Juneau and Skagway, and now lives in Virginia — said she came back to her childhood home this year to visit her mother who still lives here and the long-ago memories of the market convinced her to bring her gnomes as well. Among the enticing moments of years past – perhaps too enticing – was shopping for Winter Song soaps with her then her toddler-age daughter.
“Two years in a row I found teeth marks in them because they smelled so good,” she said.
This year Eshelman’s shopping plans at the market includes actual edibles for family members.
“I know I’ve got to hit the butcher shop and get some reindeer sausage and some smoked salmon for my husband,” she said.
Vendors generally reported steady and strong sales of everything from new crafts to items such as calendars by photographer Mark Kelley that have been an institution for decades. In addition to new and longtime sellers, they also range from a wide collection of local residents to craftspeople from a wide range of places in Alaska and beyond.
“It’s busier this year,” said Meg Kelly, an Anchorage resident selling handcrafted handbags and hats for her second year. “There’s just more engagement. People are curious.”
Like most other sellers, she also had time be a buyer — in her case for something she struggles to find of good quality further north.
“I bought all of the leather I could find at the Salvation Army,” Kelly said, from which she plans to make gloves, jackets and other crafts.
Knitting yarn rapidly near the Centennial Hall entrance was Rebecca Hsieh, who moved to Juneau four years ago from Boston and was at her first public market as vendor. An assortment of huggably soft items ranging from doll-sized sweaters hanging on a miniature tree to potted cacti were on the table in front of her.
“I was selling out a lot yesterday, so that’s a good problem,” she said.
Hsieh said her most popular item are pillowy softball-sized “cuterus” (hint: they’re a “female empowerment” inspiration). As for her shopping, as of midday Saturday she’d bought a book a tarot readings from a nearby table, a ceramic ornament from a local crafter, and “I always buy something from MK,” she said, nodding toward the older woman sharing her space a few feet away.
Her vendormate, MK MacNaughton, is a friend who convinced Hsieh to sell her wares at the market for the first time. MacNaughton said she started doing so during the early 1990s and — much like the market — there’s a lot that the same and a lot that’s different in her participation compared to the early days.
“I’m more organized than I used to be,” she said. “I’ve grown as an artist.”
This year MacNaughton is selling painted items ranging from shirts to greeting cards, while crafts in past years have ranged from knitted items to “lamps made of broken appliances.” She said in addition to chatting with a lot of familiar faces being one of the highlights of her year, there’s also a favorite set of vendors she visits for her shopping.
“I love the edibles,” she said. “I know I’m going to Barnacle Foods for some of their hot sauce and I know I’m going to Chef Stef.”
Buying a cactus from Hsieh was Alex Li, who moved to Juneau from California two months ago. He said as a first-time shopper at the public market he was planning to get what are some rather common gifts for intrigued family and friends in the Lower 48.
“I think I’m going to buy some jam for my friends and maybe some earrings for my mom,” he said.
Another person busy making items as shoppers bought them was Cheryl Himmel, a resident of Brown City, Michigan, whose son has lived in Juneau for many years. This year since she’s visiting him during the Thanksgiving holiday she brought the crafts she sells at numerous events in the Midwest, with a big seller being small baskets she makes literally from everyday scraps.
“I cut them up into one-inch strips,” she said, while weaving some of the fabric strands together.
Himmel was also quite busy shopping during the three-day market.
“I bought body oils, lotions, jams. I bought a few little Christmas ornaments. I bought stuff from the lady over there, some of her artwork,” she said, gesturing across one of the small side rooms at Centennial Hall her table was in.
In addition to vendors, a row of food stalls and a scattering of events are part of the market that is scheduled to be open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday (moon to 5 p.m. at the Indigenous Artists & Vendors Holiday Market). Among the latter is a series of prize drawings in the JAHC building, with names being drawn out of a box Saturday by Angus Andrews, 13, who said he’s been working at the public market since the age of 5.
“I was helping Santa give away presents,” he said. (Santa’s elves are scheduled to hand out treats and presents throughout the day Sunday this year.)
Andrews said his time for shopping has been limited, so “I have not bought anything yet except for some delicious tamales.” But he said there’s definitely more energy this year than during some recent less festive times.
“I think there’s a lot of new vendors since COVID happened,” he said. “There’s a lot of new faces.”