FARGO - Danny Bruckbauer looks excited and nervous. Ten minutes before the 42nd Annual Downtown Fargo Street Fair opens on Thursday, his booth is set up and ready to go. He has two long tables to display his pottery, a small table for transactions and notes, even a stack of paper bags for purchases.
Now the only question is will anyone come.
Danny is from Fargo and attends St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn. This is his first year with a booth and his art.
"Ever since I was younger, I heard about the street fair, people selling all the art they make," he says. "People doing what they want to do and selling what they want to make."
He's been making pottery for four years, starting in high school, and his plan is to make this a career.
"We'll see how this weekend goes, I guess," he says. "I've been working on pots all summer and now I'm just trying to get it out there."
He has a variety of wood-fired and gas-fired pottery. Mugs and pots and vases and bowls. I know nothing about pottery, but it's all very pretty, smooth and comfortable to touch. And there is something compelling about the story of a young artist taking a step into the world.
When I ask about his work, the stories come easily. "The wood-fired is a little more rugged," he says, "but I've been making softer, smoother forms. For the gas-fired kiln, especially, I've been making more angular work, breaking up the form a lot of times with texture."
"I'm excited to see who comes along and to see if people like my stuff," he says.
He has no need to worry. Somewhere between 100,000 and 140,000 people attend the Fargo Street Fair, walk by the booths and wonder if they need a wooden sign carved with their family name, a dramatic photograph of a big wave hitting the Grand Marais lighthouse, organic and handmade soap, steel flowers, hairbands, jewelry, pictures of Princess Leia. There are roughly 250 vendors.
A time for sharing
Street fairs are ancient, older than medieval times and Renaissance festivals, older than imperial Rome.
They exist in the night markets of Hong Kong and Cairo. They exist in Montmartre in Paris and in Christchurch, New Zealand. In their core, they are celebrations, community gatherings, a time to get outside, all of us together, and celebrate our work and our hobbies, our talents and our desires. They are a time for looking, for sharing, for exploring what we do not know inspires our friends and colleagues.
They are a time for telling stories, too. And, for me, that's the magic. To hear people talk about their work.
Dave Huebner has been offering a booth for 42 years, one of the two vendors who have been at the street fair since the beginning, though he did miss one year when his wife died.
Dave has a fast laugh, likes to make fun of himself, and, like Danny, is a potter. He's been a potter since 1972.
"Actually," he says, "long before that. When I was in the Army, they caught me making mud pies in my foxhole, so they took away my gun and sent me to Hawaii to make maps. While I was in Hawaii I picked up pottery. I had taken a pottery class at South Dakota State, but I flunked."
'A lot of routers'
Up the street a bit, Ralph Fiskness and his wife Jewel are the other old-timers at the fair, selling wood-carved signs at the Fargo Street Fair since the beginning 42 years ago.
"We were starting to make a few items and we heard about the street fair and we thought, 'Hey, let's see if we can sell some of these things,'" Ralph says. "I have no idea if I made a dollar or twenty dollars that year, or even made a sale." That was his first street fair.
"The Fargo Street Fair, every year, is our best show," he says.
"As a youngster," he says, "I showed dairy animals at the Minnesota State Fair. I would stay down at the fair and I watched a wood carver. It just intrigued me. So at age 22 I bought a router and I started practicing. It caught on, I guess. I've been through a lot of routers."
Ralph taught sixth grade in Moorhead until he retired. Now he and Jewel do 15 to 20 shows a year. It's a full-time job in the summer.
"The high point of the show is when former students come by and say hi," he says.
Then I meet Becky Goltz from Hendrum, Minn. She's been coming to the street fair for six years, selling honey at a booth called The Little Apiary.
"The Little Apiary started when my husband semi-retired," she says. "He used to be a commercial beekeeper. When he retired, he said he'd still like to have a couple hives. It was supposed to be hobby. But we have about 50 hives now and we do about 20 shows a year. And we never ever use any chemicals in our hives. We extract without heat and we don't haul our hives anywhere. These are truly local bees."
I ask about the different colors of honey.
"Good eye," she says. "Honey can vary greatly depending on the floral source." She gives me a taste of light honey from clover. "Very mild," she says, "what a lot of people associate with the honey taste."
Then a taste of darker honey from fall wildflowers - goldenrod, sunflower and thistle.
Oh lord, I think. It's a good thing I don't have any secrets. One taste of this and I'd give them all up gladly. The taste is that extraordinary. "If your hives are near buckwheat," she tells me, "you get honey that's dark and creamy and almost like molasses."
Perhaps this is the magic of a street fair, the siren that calls us to each tent. These things are small, acts of an honest love, if not hope. And they are fleeting. What we buy at a street fair has little to do with what we need. It has everything to do with what stories they have to offer.
I have only one question to ask and start to wander back where I started. On the way, I pass Ralph again. His booth is full.
"Downtown is just vibrant," he calls. "It's a three-day social event!"
And then I get to Danny's booth. "Have you sold anything yet?" I ask.
"Yes I did!" he says. I swear the guy is beaming.