14 Questions with Serra Ferguson – Conducted by Ben Goren
Serra Ferguson is a handmade crafter and the founder of Indie South Fair, a travelling market for independent vendors to showcase their homemade goods. After travelling the country selling her handmade goods at various festivals, Ms. Ferguson opened a handmade goods store, Remnant, the precursor to what would later be the brick-and-mortar version of her Indie South Fair project, opened in 2016. Now a mother and an adopted Athens resident, Ms. Ferguson chatted with me over the phone to talk the history and future of the handmade goods movement, the economy compared to big business, and the efforts we can take to be more sustainable in Athens and in our daily lives.
Could you tell me a little bit about yourself and about Indie South Fair?
Indie South started out as a handmade market about ten years ago. I was a maker myself and had been travelling the country doing a lot of shows, selling my stuff and realized Athens really didn’t have a venue for anything like that so I decided to start it up. Last year, we opened a brick and mortar location in Normaltown. We focus on small batch, independently made items, mostly from the southeast. Most of our makers are from Georgia, Alabama, the Carolinas, Tennessee. We definitely do like to have an emphasis on things that are sustainably made and things that are using recycled goods however that can be, and things that just don’t have a lot of waste too in the process and that are made by individuals.
So since you’ve started it here in Athens have you noticed there’s been more crafters in the business?
Oh yeah for sure. I was kind of at the forefront of the modern handmade movement so when I first started making stuff it was way back in the early 2000’s, and I opened a little store that’s not unlike the store I have now but much less tinier called Remnant. From 2002 to 2004 I was doing that and so I closed that down and in 2006 I started Indie South after travelling around. [The handmade crafts movement] is a nationwide movement that has been really gaining traction and momentum for the past decade or so. A lot of people are just tired of big-box stores and mass production.
What can you tell me about the movement, is that why you think it’s been happening?
Well I think it’s a combination of things, I mean, being creative and making stuff with your hands is, to me, a very intrinsically human trait. It’s something that people have always done. There’s been several, I guess you can call them craft revivals. In the 20’s and 30’s there was a revival for handmade stuff and again in the 70’s. I feel like it kind of comes back around every so often but of course each time it does the context is different. So I feel like people in Athens are just like people in other places that are interested in making things with their hands. A part of it is just about being able to design something that you want exactly the way you want it, but also being part of a bigger movement is definitely influential.
How do you think it compares to be in the handmade craft movement today versus those previous revivals or back when everything was homemade?
It’s a lot harder and it’s a lot different. I’m 40 now so I was born in ‘77 and throughout my life you just got used to buying mass-produced goods. But even as a small child I was really drawn to old things. Vintage is my other passion, and so I feel like there’s an appeal there that you can’t get anywhere else. The way things are now, it’s just become ubiquitous. Everybody buys everything at Walmart and Kroger and places where there’s just hundreds of them, so now it feels like even more urgent and special for people to participate in and try to support [handmade goods] because they realize it’s slipping away.
Down the road, do you think we’ll be gravitating more towards handmade goods or is the rise of big-business going to continue as craft becomes even more niche?
It’s funny because – and this is something that some of my colleagues and I have joked about – you know that the handmade movement is reaching critical mass when you see target trying to imitate it. What we’re seeing now is big-box retailers trying to sort of create that vibe. You see Chick-Fil-A doing food trucks, you see Amazon has their own handmade platform for artisans. So yeah I don’t see it going away; I think it’s going to change and evolve especially through the technology that we have. That’s been instrumental. I feel like social media has been really instrumental in connecting these artists with each other and with retailers and with events where they can market their work.
So you’d say that this is a good thing if you’re seeing big businesses trying to replicate what you do?
Yes and no. You want people to realize what goes into something. The biggest challenge I think for artisans trying to compete in this market is price point. Hopefully there will come a time where things get to the point where the true cost of labor is added into every product and you’re not buying things that were made by a person in terrible conditions for pennies a day. That is the really big challenge, but at the same time, raising that awareness and getting that esthetic in front of people so that they say, “this is cool, this is hip, this is trendy, this is what’s happening culturally.” It definitely benefits even a smaller artist. People can think to themselves, “it’s just marketing,” but in their minds it’s like, “I want to have that, too,” and “I love this look” because they see it everywhere. I think it is helpful.
On a more local level here in Athens, why is it important to support the small businesses in our community?
The biggest reason again is economic. I’ve got a little card somewhere, I picked it up at the Decatur Chamber of Commerce. It basically says how you can take a dollar and break down how much of that stays in your community when you spend it at different places. Almost all of it stays in the community obviously when you’re shopping at an independent business, whether it’s a restaurant or a retailer like myself or a salon. But if you spend that money at a chain, maybe something around 60 to 70 cents of it actually stays in the community, so a lot of that’s going out to the big corporate headquarters, the overhead and the things that keep the operation running on a larger level. And then when you spend that money online, none of it stays in the community. I’m an online shopper so I know there are compromises to be made, but the main thing is when you spend your money at a store like mine, especially at the markets that I do, that money stays in the community. Then those people go and they buy their house or they pay their rent in Athens, they spend their money on the restaurant, the entertainment, the shows, all that stuff. It just cycles through the community and it really elevates everybody.
So besides the economic level, how would you say Indie South Fair makes an impact in the community?
The biggest thing beside the economic impact is definitely the community aspect. I went into this without a plan, but it was quickly apparent after doing one or two events that a big part of it was just the community bringing people together. People bonding in a marketplace setting is very old and very traditional. When you think about how cities and communities and towns spring up, they had a fairgrounds where every week everybody came together. They bought their produce, dry goods, whatever, at a place where you socialize and you connect. You catch up with people but you also meet new people or maybe realize you have this thing in common with this person that you didn’t know, maybe based on what they do, or maybe based on something that they’re wearing. I feel like the community aspect and just connecting a really diverse cross-section of people is the biggest benefit for Indie South, maybe even beyond the economic benefit.
Athens is definitely a great place to do that, whether it’s Indie South or farmer’s markets or anything else we have. Now for just some of the more environmental questions, how would you say Indie South Fair is environmentally sustainable?
Well we’re definitely a low-impact business (laughs). I’ve been pretty much running everything myself for many years. I’ve had to do everything on a really tight budget and I always just try and make things as efficient as possible and as low-waste as possible. We do have the food trucks but I try make them use sustainable materials when they’re serving people. We recycle as much as we can for any kind of waste that comes along with the fairs. In general, we just keep it pretty basic and pretty simple. Simple is always better in mind, so that generates a lot less waste.
Speaking about that, is there anything that makes a vendor right or wrong for Indie South Fair? What do you look for in a vendor to work with you?
The main things that I look for are just an overall strong brand and a consistent brand. I also look for quality of materials that they’re using, the originality, and definitely the sustainability is part of it. I don’t have any super strict standards – “if you use these types of materials in your work you’re disqualified,” or anything like that – but I love it when I see people using things that they’re repurposing or are recycled somehow.
So just highlighting what you are seeing that is good and supporting that, making them a part of it.
And I think just because of the types of people that are drawn to this culture and everything that’s surrounding it, I think they tend to just be really conscious of what they’re doing and what they’re using and trying to be low-impact, even outside the materials. If these people are sitting in their house and they’re handmaking stuff, that’s still just leagues better than a big factory that is inevitably going to have waste.
Are there any setbacks to Indie South Fair being more sustainable? Or do you think, as far as what you control, you’re running it as much as you can to be eco-friendly?
Packaging is really the biggest challenge we have to sustainability. That’s something that I’m really conscious of in my personal life and definitely something that I’m also conscious of in my business. Luckily, what I have noticed in my brick-and-mortar start is so many people are like me. If I offer them a bag, which I only use paper, a lot of people will just say they don’t need that. I think a lot of people are becoming a lot more aware. Every time you use plastic bags they don’t go anywhere. They end up in the ocean and in these giant whirlpools and it’s really sad and scary and kind of gross. So I feel like packaging is my biggest obstacle because there are still times where I do have to use a bag. We’re about to launch a webstore so I’m looking into ways to be sustainable. That’s also something that I look at with my vendors who have to ship me things to carry in the store. I don’t want to see a lot of styrofoam peanuts, I don’t want to see plastic bubble wrap around everything. I want people to use as much sustainable packaging as they can, but that would be the biggest challenge in my opinion.
Now that you’re living in Athens, what are you seeing is the biggest setback to Athens being more environmentally sustainable?
I think we need to get over our car addiction. And again this is a challenge you can extrapolate to lots of different places and cities. Atlanta is so car-centric because of the sprawl. Even though this town is really walkable and bikeable the challenge that I see in Athens is to make everything slow down. I think the road diets are a great idea. Businesses are afraid that if you don’t have the parking or the four-lane road that that’s going to somehow really hurt them. I think that can be the case but I think that we’re going to have to make the leap over that because what’s really going to sustain small businesses – and this is what I’m finding in Normaltown and what I want to see in Normaltown – is more pedestrian traffic. You want more foot traffic. You want people walking places because then they tend to linger. They’re out there interacting with and engaging with their environment on a much more personal level. Whereas if everyone’s speeding past each other, you’re going to go to your destination and then you’re going to jump back in your car and leave.
The other side of that is we just need a lot better public transportation. The city buses are pretty inefficient, it’s very difficult to know if they are running on time. When I didn’t have a car, and I didn’t for about five years, my oldest daughter and I just walked everywhere. I remember somebody giving me a bus pass and I thought, I’d rather spend 30 minutes walking than spend 15 minutes waiting on a bus then another 20 minutes riding around to every stop. We need to really invest in more public transportation options, bike lanes, and just discouraging people from driving everywhere as much as they can.
I was going to follow up with what you think people in Athens could do to be more sustainable, but would you say that really is to just drive your car less?
Driving your car less, recycling, and just being overall conscious about the things that you are supporting with your money, because that’s really the power the individual has. I know that we’re all trying- I’ve ordered stuff from Amazon, I have shopped at Walmart, I am not the perfect person, and I hope people don’t see it as a black-and-white thing. The main way for people to be more sustainable is to just realize every little bit counts. Even if you’re just doing this one helpful thing but you sometimes do these other things that you know aren’t the best for the environment or the best for your local creative economy, that’s okay. Just keep trying to work it into your life bit by pit, piece by piece. It all goes to help, it all makes a difference.
Visit Serra Ferguson at her brick-and-mortar store at 1337 Prince Ave. or online at theindiesouth.com.