“Massive” one-of-a-kind holiday show draws tens of thousands to Chicago to benefit small businesses

The first year Donzel Gordon exhibited at the One of a Kind Holiday Show, he was worried he wouldn’t make enough to cover the booth rent and turn a profit.

The self-taught wood-turner quickly settled down when a customer offered to buy 11 of his handmade wooden bowls.

The experience was so rewarding that Gordon, who works under Donzell Creative Works, said he returned for a second year.

“You get more leads, just more eyes on your work, and that’s a beautiful thing,” said Gordon, 52, of Avondale. “This will carry me through again until the rest of the art shows start again.”

Shoppers gather around Saturday for the One of a Kind Holiday Show, which features about 500 vendors this weekend at the Merchandise Mart.

The show, now in its 22nd year, opened Thursday and runs through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., at The Merchandise Mart. It features about 500 other artists from around the country — 200 of them new exhibitors — and has become a holiday shopping destination for about 50,000 visitors.

First-time visitors are not quite prepared when the elevators open on the seventh floor and they step into a virtual mini-city of makeshift shops, divided into “districts” and “markets,” with thousands of people milling about under the bright lights.

“It’s huge,” Abby Bissey, 29, said of her as she entered the event.

With friend Claire Bennett, also 29, the pair made several rounds to collect the vendor cards, making notes they wanted to return to.

Both Wicker Park residents said they enjoy supporting entrepreneurs.

“That’s the coolest part,” Bennett said. “I got my boyfriend a canvas bag, so it’s made from recycled canvas. And the best part is that now we have this story [to tell]as the man who founded it was a German sailmaker.

Customers have an array of items to choose from, including jewelry, furniture and greeting cards, clothing at the Fashion District, baked goods at the Gourmet Market, and art at the Fine Art Gallery. The event also features free art-making workshops, live music and cafes and bars. There are also sections for emerging artists and future food entrepreneurs.

The event has become a major source of business for Serious Lip Balm, which is based in downtown Jacksonville and is exhibiting for the second year.

“We had a great time here,” said Khara Koffel, who co-owns the store with Megan Lucky. “People come back and it’s great because you get to see people you recognize from freshman year. People are looking for us.”

The event was so successful for the women that they were able to limit their participation in similar markets to just one more a year.

“It helps us be able to make money for the business … but it also allows us more time with our families so we’re not traveling every weekend,” Koffel said.

Khara Koffel, co-founder of Serious Lip Balm, talks to a customer about skin products on Saturday.

Khara Koffel, co-founder of Serious Lip Balm, talks to a customer about skin products on Saturday.

Show organizer Kathleen Hogan said she was happy to provide a platform for artists during the winter, when there are fewer opportunities for market exposure.

“I think the city really supports these artists and you see that especially this weekend,” Hogan said. “The road has been tough since COVID. Some artists had to change and find other work. I just want to be able to maintain that platform for them and for the city. What I also see is that it has become a tradition for people. It’s now part of their holiday tradition.”

Wooden gnomes by Donzell Gordon, founder of Donzell Creative Works, are for sale Saturday during the One of a Kind holiday show at the Merchandise Mart in River North.

Wooden gnomes by Donzell Gordon, founder of Donzell Creative Works, are for sale on Saturdays.

That’s the case for Amanda Walker, 48, of Atlanta, and her 10-year-old daughter Eliza, who have been attending the event for several years with their family from Springfield.

“There are different things and they are one of a kind and you find new things every time,” said Eliza, who bought lotion, lip balm and putty for herself and for holiday gifts for her friends.

As for her mom’s shopping, “Her favorite place is the Fashion District,” Eliza said.

Patrons can use maps to navigate the event, which can be a lot to digest—even for seasoned vendors like Donzell Gordon.

“Last year I got lost to the toilet,” he said. “I’m like, ‘That’s not my booth.’ … It’s a big event. It’s overwhelming, but wear good shoes and have fun.”

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