Today the Handmade market is a Canberra institution which easily fills out one of the capital’s largest event venues, Exhibition Park, with 260 stalls every quarterly market.
But 15 years ago when founder Julie Nichols singlehandedly pulled together the very first Handmade market it had just 36 stalls which fit neatly inside Yarralumla’s Albert Hall.
“Oh yeah, that’s a really good idea,” Julie remembers people telling her before the 2008 market, “and a lot of people do have a lot of good ideas but not everybody pulls them off.”
A milliner by trade, Julie had returned to school later in life to take a business studies course with the single goal of establishing a handmade market in Canberra.
“I knew, as somebody who did create their own product, that it was really hard then to sell in competition against an imported product,” she says.
“I felt there weren’t really enough places to support those people to sell their products.”
A simple goal but no small task. Today it takes a team of five staff a full three months to prepare each market for the more than 20,000 visitors who come to browse and buy.
But in 2008, Julie was a one-woman-show. She worked out of her spare bedroom and held down a day job, all while studying, handling all the marketing and booking and invoicing stallholders.
“Social media didn’t exist [and] we didn’t have a website then,” she says. “It was a really different landscape but … we did a lot of talking and a lot of printing and just made sure we got the word out.”
One of the early ideas Julie had to push back against was the misconception that Handmade was a craft market, rather than a design market for small Australian businesses with quality products.
But all of Julie’s hard work paid off and the first market was a success.
“We hired Albert Hall and we filled that out with stallholders and it was just packed with customers,” she remembers.
“It was something that we knew we wanted to continue but because everybody was making everything themselves, it was something that we always planned to do quarterly.”
Handmade has continued to grow in the intervening years, winning several awards and outgrowing several venues, until the market found its permanent home at the larger EPIC venue.
The market has also since joined forces with the Australian Made Campaign and welcomed all Australian-made products, expanding its member base to more than 600 registered small businesses.
“You become really good friends with the stallholders and it’s like a bit of a family reunion each time,” Julie says.
“You hear all these amazing stories, how people are growing their businesses and supporting their families and then they attribute it to the opportunities that they’ve had through Handmade and that’s just amazing. It just makes you feel fantastic. I just love hearing those stories.”
Julie describes helping these small business owners as one of Handmade’s “biggest achievements” and reveals the market has also played no small part in expanding her personal earring collection.
“Things are looking stronger than they ever have,” she says (referring to the market, not her earring collection).
“We’re growing our membership base all the time and it’s looking quite good.”
Julie says the market has grown as large as Canberra’s venues will allow – at least for now – flagging the potential redevelopment of EPIC as an opportunity to expand in the future.
“There are a few exciting plans that we’ve got on the horizon that we’re looking at,” she says. “We have been able to do some exciting partnerships, like the Deco hotel room.”
But Julie says two things about the market have and always will remain the same. Never charging an entrance fee and “always keeping it in Canberra”.
The next Handmade market will run on 29 and 30 July, from 10 am to 4 pm at Exhibition Park, corner of Northbourne Ave and Flemington Rd in Canberra. The market will also act as a collection point for donations of warm clothes, blankets, sleeping bags and toiletries for the annual Handmade Blanket Drive in partnership with The Salvation Army Canberra. To find out more about the blanket drive or Handmade market, please visit Handmade’s website.