FORT KENT, Maine — With apologies upfront to the shopaholics out there, I am going to come right out and say the one place you will never find me is in a pre-dawn line queuing up outside a big-box retail store.
Instead, on the first shopping weekend after Thanksgiving, I gladly stood in a quickly moving line and paid $1 for a ticket into the annual Fort Kent Art and Craft Fair.
For me, it’s the kickoff for holiday shopping, the precursor for Christmas and the social event of the season all rolled into one.
And judging by media reports from around the nation, a heck of a lot safer and saner.
I am perfectly aware that holiday shopping is the high-octane fuel that keeps the end-of-the-year capitalism machine running, but there were more than just a few backfires this year.
By now most everyone has heard about the woman in Los Angeles, so desperate to be first at the sales, she pepper sprayed her fellow shoppers at a Walmart claiming she was “competitive shopping.”
A story carried in the Atlantic Wire online news magazine, dated Nov. 25, provided a list of Black Friday mayhem including:
• Two shoppers at a Rome, N.Y., Walmart ended up in the hospital after a fistfight and ministampede in front of a cellphone display.
• Shoppers tired of waiting in line broke into a Hollister Store in the SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan.
• A shopper at a Kissimmee, Fla., Walmart (what is it about Walmart?) was charged with resisting arrest after police arrived to break up a fight he was having with another shopper at the jewelry counter.
• Several instances of shoppers getting mugged, shot and robbed as they left stores around the country with holiday purchases.
But among my all-time favorite gift-buying-gone-awry stories is one from right here in Maine that goes back to the year the must-have item was Tickle-Me Elmo, quite possibly the most annoying toy ever conceived.
The family of a friend of mine owns a popular eatery downstate where that year one of the waitresses had brokered a deal with a fellow waitress involving the battery-powered, falsetto giggling plush toy.
While waitress No. 1 was at work, waitress No. 2 was to brave the holiday mall crowds on her day off to secure the elusive toy for her co-worker.
Trouble was, when the Elmo doll was bought and paid for, No. 2 reneged on the deal and refused to turn it over to No. 1.
Unfortunately, this holiday saga played out in the middle of the yuletide-decorated dining room of my friend’s restaurant, where it took several staff members to break up the ensuing knockdown, drag-out fight.
Nothing quite says Christmas like hot cider, mistletoe and public brawling, does it?
Which is why, for me, the Fort Kent Art and Craft Fair is the place to shop.
Like so many community-based events held around Maine on the weekends leading up to Christmas, the fair here in Fort Kent is as much about the people as it is about the selling or buying.
Hundreds of vendors were selling a dizzying variety of items including hats knit from hand-carded wool, silver jewelry, rustic wooden furniture, paintings, baked goods, holiday decorations, maple syrup, fresh honey, metalwork, soap, candles and fresh balsam wreaths.
Where else, my college roommate Ellen reminded me, could a person find earrings fashioned from moose droppings?
In some cases there were several tables selling similar items, allowing for some price and quality comparisons.
As luck would have it, among the duplicate items was chocolate fudge.
Being the dedicated reporter that I am, it was important to test each of the offered fudge samples for overall taste, consistency and fudginess.
I am happy to report that in each case the homemade fudge ranked a solid 10 out of 10.
Groupings and lines in front of tables laden with handcrafted goods were not fuel for pushing or shoving matches.
Rather, it was in case after case a situation of the more, the merrier.
Up every aisle, in front of every table there was a constant stream of impromptu family and friend reunions that weekend.
“I see people here every year that I only see here,” Lisa Bosse of St. Agatha said from her booth of original holiday decorations. “I love coming here.”
While Bosse has been a fixture at the fair for years, this marked the first year Lindy Howe and Kevin Quist of Heywood Kennels in Stockholm participated.
“There is no comparison in the energy of standing in a mile-long line to get into Walmart in the middle of the night, to getting some holiday shopping done at a local craft fair,” Howe said. “Our choice was to spend the weekend as a vendor at the [Fort Kent] craft fair with a hundred other crafters.”
What really struck Howe was the reasonable price tags she saw on many of the items for sale.
“I asked a few of them how they could do it,” she said. “They said because they love what they do so much, they don’t add labor into the price [and] they were proud to pass great savings on to the customer.”
Howe and Quist, who have both competed in numerous Can Am Crown sled dog races, were at the fair selling handcrafted, one-dog “kick sleds,” but noted the event also provided the numerous “meet and greet” opportunities.
“We were able to draw the many volunteers of the Can Am race to our booth [and] thank them from the bottom of our hearts,” Howe said. “These kinds of interactions bring a community together [where] the feeling of closeness is woven in.”
That’s a feeling I’ll take any day over the risk of getting pepper sprayed in the face over this year’s version of Tickle-Me Elmo.
Julia Bayly of Fort Kent is an award-winning writer and photographer who frequently submits articles to the Bangor Daily News. Her column appears here every other Friday. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.