The man in my booth is serenading his Real Doll. It’s hard to hear him over the music from the dance floor/strip show next to us, but I can make out the lyrics to “Something Good“. He strokes the doll’s cheek, and his voice falters with emotion. I’m smiling as politely as I can. When he looks up at me at the end of the song, I can see he recognizes my discomfort. I get the feeling he’s used to this: people disturbed by the affection he shows an inanimate object.
“Thank you,” he tells me, and then he gingerly maneuvers the wheelchair his doll rests in out of the booth. I want to tell him that I get it; that I understand passions that aren’t mainstream. I come from science fiction fandom and I know the isolation that singular interests can bring. But my feet ache from seven hours standing on a concrete floor. And my kindness has withered under the disappointment of only twenty-eight dollars in sales. It is 11:45 PM Friday night at Exxxotica, a three-day “adult” event, and I’m six hours into the realization that I made a big mistake.
A week ago I got a text from Steve, asking if I was interested in a booth at an event the following weekend. I’d met Steve back in March at Fan Fest, where he had said my custom corsetry work would be popular at Exxxotica. I had been non-committal, he had taken my card, and I had completely forgotten about him. After the Fan Fest fiasco, I was leery of committing to another event I had no experience with, so I did some research before calling him.
According to Wikipedia, the events had been running since 2006 and the first Chicago show drew 26,500 attendees. So, not a brand new show, and seemingly good attendance. On the phone I asked Steve how many attendees they expected and he said twenty thousand was their average. Even if I did less than the fifty cents per attendee that I can usually expect from shows, it would be a good chunk of change. Steve also offered to charge me $400 for the booth rather than the usual $1000 for a small vendor booth. He was willing to cut me a deal, he said, since he knew I was a small, commission-based seamstress. “By the way,” he added once I had agreed, “don’t tell the other vendors what you paid. It’s a special deal for you and they’d be upset for paying full price.”
Friday morning Stephan dropped me off at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center to set up. We’d decided he would take the day off to stay with the kids. Unwilling to pay for a baby-sitter and unable to get help* I’d be working this event alone. I whittled the booth accouterments to a bare minimum. I had a rack of bustles, some bags and chainmail jewelry. The main thrust of the booth, however, was going to be Mildred and Alphonse modelling corsets.
Never having attended an “adult” convention, I had no idea what to expect in terms of other vendors. Some met my, admittedly limited, imaginings: sex toy booths, lingerie, a couple of other corset vendors. Some were surprising but understandable: vape vendors, a cigar booth, several destination vacation booths. And some of the vendors were confusing: a scented candle booth, a tent selling shoe inserts, an artist selling glass blown vases.
The floor had a flea market feel. My neighbors were a gay couple selling vintage porn (which included several boxes of VHS tapes with hand-written labels). Across the way was a booth for a gentleman’s club as well as the performer RubberDoll. During set up I listened to a playlist I had put together for the event. I was a bit keyed up, a bit stressed by being out and about and alone in a completely unfamiliar environment. On the other side of me they tested the sound system for the stage, which involved cranking the volume on the music to eleven every thirty seconds.
By the time Mr. Serenade makes his impromptu performance, I have hit full-blown disappointment mode. The traffic all night has been underwhelming, nowhere near the crush I would expect for an event that draws more than twenty thousand visitors. This is supposed to be the busiest time, as well, since Friday night is “Ladies Get In Free”.
By then I’ve gotten used to the sight of nipple-less breasts**. My throat hurt from shouting over the music. A drunk woman grabbed my phone, got onto Facebook and sent herself a friend request from me. I quickly cancelled the request once she had left the booth. I headed home at 12:30 AM, exhausted, in pain and near tears. Jerk Brain was having a field day letting me know what a horrible mistake I had made. My usual tactic of dealing with it wasn’t working. It hammered on and on about all the ways I was stupid and lazy and inadequate.
I may have given up if I hadn’t come home to find that Stephan and set out a glass of wine and chocolate for me. I hadn’t texted him all day, not wanting to dump my disappointment on him, but somehow he knew and he had done what he could for me. I told myself that Saturday would be better and went to bed.
If Friday had been a tragedy, Saturday was a comedy of errors. Forty-five minutes after opening, one of the A.C. units caught fire, sending us out of the building. Standing in the roundabout, I watched the crowd, about a couple hundred strong, most of them vendors, talent and event workers. The talent, women in costume, had taken to posing for pictures. Vloggers walked around with cellphones on selfie-sticks, video cameras, even laptops, taking video of the crowd and reporting. The rest of us sweated in the muggy heat. Eventually we were let back in.
Saturday traffic was even slower than the night before. I broke out my cross-stitch and answered questions from passersby like “Where is the bathroom?” and “Do you know where Ron Jeremy is?” An hour after coming back in the roof sprung a leak, sending a cascade of rain water into my booth and the neighbors. All of my work escaped unshowered, the vintage porn was not so lucky.
Steve stopped by to check in on me. “There is no way there are twenty thousand people here,” I said in an uncharacteristic moment of confrontation. “Well, that’s over three days …” Steve launched into a meandering list of excuses why attendance might be down, including:
- The fire alarm scaring people off
- the rain
- all the other events going on that weekend
- that the twenty thousand number always includes vendors and talent
What he never once mentioned, and what I wouldn’t find out until Sunday, was the main reason for the lack of people: the event had been moved up a month. Eventually he wound down and finished with “I can’t make people buy things.”
“You sure as hell can’t when there aren’t any people around to begin with.” (I have no idea where this new found ability to call people out on their shit to their face, but it was scary and awesome at once.)
“Well, I don’t know what we could do, maybe offer you a free booth for next year.” I think I actually laughed at him at this point. I did tell him that I wouldn’t be coming back based on my experience this year. He left then, never to be seen again, at least by me. At this point I felt comfortable enough asking what the other vendors paid for their space. Every single one of them had the same answer: $400, a special deal for them that wasn’t offered to anyone else.
The vendors and attendees who had been at previous years all said the same thing: this was the smallest, sparsest Exxxotica any of them had seen. Most of the vendors admitted they’d be lucky if they broke even. Driving home Jerk Brain wasn’t content with the fact that everyone was having a horrible convention. I should have known that something was up when Steve offered me such a deal on the booth so close to the show date. Once again I had taken a chance and I had failed.
Sunday dawned overcast and humid. I got more work done on my cross-stitch. A guy yelled at me to “Smile” and I imagined turning him into a corset. I talked to more vendors where I learned about the date change. To save money on the event space they had moved Exxxotica from July to June. When the move was done, I don’t know, but clearly it had a negative effect on the entire show. If I had known about the date change I would not have gotten a booth. In the end I made back half of my costs. It’s better than nothing, but it feels like failure and Jerk Brain is now working overtime.
I was planning on Wizard World Chicago, but after Fan Fest and after talking to other vendors, I don’t think it would be a good event for me. Which means I am done for 2015. I will start looking at 2016 now. Perhaps C2E2 or ACEN will answer e-mails if I contact them. Maybe I’ll apply for an artist booth at GenCon. And there’s always Midwinter. That’s for next week, though. This week is recovery, cleaning up the workshop, and resisting the temptation to eat all the Pop Tarts in the house.
*I had a couple of friends who considered helping, but eventually couldn’t because they were worried about pictures being posted online. Another friend was okay with that, but I ended up telling him I’d do it on my own because I didn’t feel comfortable exposing him to the risk. I don’t care what pictures of me are out there, and I understand that others have different levels of comfort for where their image shows up, so I was prepared to be on my own this time.
**The irony that nipples have to be covered at the adult show is only eclipsed by the fact that guys could walk around nipples out all weekend long. Some women had fancy, glittery pasties. Others used bandages or even flesh colored coverings which brought to mind mastectomy scars. By the end of the weekend I was boobed out.