It’s Friday May 5th , and I’m looking out the window at a constant, cold rain, with a forecast for two more solid days of rain to come, and I am feeling grateful that I am no longer doing outdoor antique shows. It’s a younger person’s game. Here in Ontario there is an outdoor antique show occurring almost every weekend from now through the end of July, then only a couple of shows in the heat of summer, and again almost every weekend through the fall until the beginning of October. We used to do a lot of them, and in every contract you would read the phrase “show will take place rain or shine”. Of course this is a necessity for the promoters because the venues must be paid for well in advance, and all the promotion has gone out, and rescheduling is just not an option. It is understandable, but can be a dilemma for the dealers if the forecast is for rain. If you don’t show you are out your contract money and you will not be looked upon favorably by the promoters who rely on dealers to turn up so as not to disillusion the clients whatever the circumstance. Besides, a bit of rain does not discourage the more serious collectors from getting out so you can have a pretty decent show in any case. Not always.
I remember the Odessa (near Kingston, Ont.) show in the early eighties where I first encountered a gentleman selling a 10’ x 20’ tent made up of metal poles and corner fittings and a big blue tarp that you bungeed tightly over the frame. It was selling for about $300. There was nothing much available otherwise except smaller garden tents at Canadian tire, and I had already experienced a few days of standing in the pouring rain at shows so I went for it. This was before shows offered tent rentals, which for a price will be set up and ready for you when you arrive. Even when these rentals became available the price was somewhat prohibitive. My new tent took about a half hour to set up and required quite a lot of swearing and pinched fingers before it stood ready for use, but it was worth it not only for the shelter from potential rain, but just as importantly for the shade it provided on a hot, sunny day. It was the half hour taking it down at the end of a long day which sometimes wore thin, but overall it was worth the effort.
These makeshift tents worked quite well against sun and gentle rain, but became a real menace on wilder, windy days. One memorable occasion occurred in the late eighties at a show held in a conservation area near Collinwood, Ontario. I had arrived Friday afternoon because it was a four hour drive from my home and the show was Saturday only. The forecast was for heavy winds and rain, and I was doing it alone and on the cheap in case of poor sales due to the weather, so I decided to sleep in my van to save the cost of the motel. I felt uneasy as I arrived late in the afternoon because I could feel that something big was coming. The pressure had dropped and the wind was already picking up so I decided to play it safe and not set up that evening. Most dealers who had arrived were all set up and doing a little preshow business so it was hard to not join in. I took out the tent and a few large pieces of furniture so I would have room to sleep in the van. I tied the furniture together and secured a tarp over the pile before calling it a day and having a few beers with some friends to pass the time and make sleeping a bit easier. It became very humid about 1 a.m. and I had a restless, too hot, intermittent sleep until about 4 a.m. when all hell broke loose. The wind came in like a locomotive and amid the crashes of thunder, and flashes of lightening I could hear the occasional thumps of furniture hitting the ground, and crashes as tables of glass and china, flipped and sometimes flew a few feet away from their original resting place. You could hear some people shouting and see their flash lights flashing around as they tried to save their set up. I just hunkered down and did my best to rest until sunrise.
When I woke up with the sun the worst of the high winds had passed but the steady rain which would last the entirety of the day was upon us. I put on my raincoat and ventured out the back door of my van. It looked like a war zone. Many tents that had been set up and tarped, had been forced loose from the ropes staking them down, and had flown like kites for several feet before landing in a pile of tarp and metal that looked like some kind of abstract metal sculpture or bomb site. There were big cupboards being lifted off the ground with smashed doors and trim. There were tables upturned over piles of broken smalls. There were paintings obviously soaked beyond repair. It was devastating. Some people were just standing there crying. Others were struggling to accept what had happened and doing their best to undo the damage. It was truly heartbreaking. Many dealers live fairly close to the bone and for some the loss was substantial.
I helped a few people set their cupboards back upright and extended my sympathies to many, and then cleaned myself up in the washroom, got myself a large coffee, and went back to my van to assess the situation. I was happy that I played it safe and had waited, but now I was faced with the decision to either set up my tent and display in the pouring rain, and hope that a few brave souls would face the elements and maybe buy a few things, or perhaps it was just better to accept the loss, pack it in and head home. Either way it looked likely the show was going to be a wash and I would lose my investment in the rent and transportation. But I had signed a contract, and I was already there so I decided on a compromise and set up a smaller version of the tent which allowed me to bring the tarp down over the sides. I brought out some sturdy, country furniture which would not be harmed by rain, and a few smalls that would not blow away, and left the more delicate things packed. Attendance was way down of course, but from the couple of hundred people who showed up, I managed to connect with a few keen collectors who bought regularly from me, and was quite happy when five o’clock closing rolled around, to have sold enough to cover my costs and have a couple of bucks to take home.
Sometimes I think people look at dealers at an outdoor antique show and think “that looks easy”, but let me tell you that is not the case. Aside from the enormous amount of work it takes to prepare, set-up, sell, and then tear down a display on a pleasant day , it’s nothing compared to the hardship you might endure in the times when the weather decides to rear up and do a number on you.