The Not-So-Small World of Tom Bishop’s Chicago International Miniatures Show
CHICAGO – Just before 10 a.m., a security guard thanked the crowd for their cooperation.
As the clock struck the hour, it became clear why: the doors of the Marriott Chicago O’Hare Convention Center opened and hundreds of attendees, the majority of whom were over 60, rushed around the booths as fast as they could.
Many had studied the color-coded map with the location of each booth beforehand and came prepared with a shopping plan – a scene that could easily be mistaken for a Black Friday sale. Instead, it was the Chicago International Miniatures Show.
Despite the gathering billing itself as “The World’s No. 1 Dollhouse Miniatures Show,” there aren’t many real dollhouses. Visitors instead search through the thousands of small items that fill these tiny houses: miniature sponges, chocolate fondue fountains, rocking chairs, barbecue sets, Tupperware containers, or fly swatters.
The Tom Bishop Show, as many attendees call it, is considered by its founder, Mr. Bishop, to be the largest dollhouse miniatures event in the world. Figures seem to support that claim. This year, more than 250 suppliers from 21 countries and 35 states traveled.
More than 3,000 people attended, filling three large conference rooms, with overflow in the hallway. The week-long event, from April 24 to April 30, included ticketed workshops with themes such as “Lobsterfest” (focusing on making miniature lobster cookware); scholarships; and three days of shopping with tickets for the public.
Mr. Bishop estimates he’s done over 500 miniature shows around the world, though in recent years he’s slimmed down to just Chicago, which has been a continuous stop for nearly 40 years. Even the hotel itself is personal to Mr. Bishop: it’s where he and his wife, Leni, 77, spent the first night of their honeymoon.
In 1977, the duo moved from Chicago to Margate, Florida, where they opened their dollhouse store, Miniland, before closing it in 1984 to turn their attention to traveling conventions. mr. Bishop, who also worked for American Airlines for 17 years, was inspired to create his own show after attending others that “weren’t run very well,” he said.
“The largest miniature dollhouse convention” may sound like a silly distinction to some, but to the vendors, it’s no joke. For many, the Tom Bishop show is where they hope to make the bulk of their annual sales.
Teri, 77, of Teri’s Mini Workshop, who declined to give her last name, said she wouldn’t have been able to show off her miniature nacho cheese machines, plates of gefilte fish or medical supplies (about $10) if a stand hadn’t broken down last minute . She hoped her soft power would be her low price, unlike some other tables where pieces can go for hundreds of dollars a pop.
If a collector wants something unique, it can sell out on day one, said Becky Evert, 68, a customer who traveled with friends from Denver for the event. “Did I come on a budget? Yes,’ she said. “Did I stay with it? No.” It was the largest crowd she’d ever seen in her seven years of attendance.
Beth Pothen, 42, runs Mountain Creek Miniatures and is a full-time postal worker. A second-generation miniaturist, she creates items such as gothic furniture and Christmas cookie trays (she started at a craft fair for girl scouts). She drove to the convention from Spokane, Washington, hoping to recoup the travel and labor costs, and then some, she said. Individual tables cost $325, and some choose to have two at their booth, according to Mr. Bishop.
While there is value in breadth like Ms. Pothen’s, others stand out with a more niche focus. Kristin Castenschiold, 41, of Heartfelt Canines in Green Village, NJ, made a name for herself selling miniature dogs on Etsy — “I get some hair from a friend who’s a zookeeper,” she said — and has since expanded into all kinds of furry friends, miniature lighted aquariums and trompe l’oeil litter boxes.
Margie Criner, 53, of Itty Bitty Mini Mart in Chicago, creates miniatures as part of her full-time art practice (she is currently featured on the “Small is Beautiful” traveling show), but wanted a way to make her work more accessible. Her small items, including clear Jell-O and teensy plates from the rock band Television, are inspired by items she had growing up.
Mrs. Criner is part of a new generation of miniature makers, following in the footsteps of artists such as Laurie Simmons and bringing the genre from the home to the gallery – with designs more modern and bold than the antiquarian selections that once existed. define the miniature world.
While it can be hard to stand out, everyone described the world of selling and buying miniatures as quite collaborative and fun, and there are many reasons why people have become obsessive collectors and makers.
Anita Hobson, 63, a customer from Belleville, Illinois, said she came to the Tom Bishop convention with her husband to find items to add to the dollhouse her mother started before she died. She became giddy over a working clothespin sold by Maria Fowler of The Little Dollhouse Company in Toronto.
Meanwhile, Morgan Cressey, 30, was one of the youngest adult attendees at the convention. Mrs. Cressey, who works as a nanny and server, had traveled alone from Spokane that weekend to stock up on her collection, a pastime she became fascinated with through her mother’s childhood miniatures.
The sense of community is a great draw for people. Veronica Morales of Vero’s Miniatures said the show was her big opportunity to show in the United States, which has a more robust miniature market than Mexico City, where she is based. For Tom Bishop, this year Mrs. Morales sold miniatures – which she makes with her whole family – of, among other things, an ofrenda, an altar for deceased relatives and piñatas.
The current state of the miniature scene is encouraging, according to Barbara Davis, 76, a retired principal who is now director of the school for the International Guild of Miniature Artisans, where many of the convention’s creators have either taken courses or taught.
“There’s a surge of people making such a variety of creative miniatures,” said Ms. Davis, who attributed the change to younger and more diverse creators entering the industry today. She added that last year IGMA, in Castine, Maine, had the largest enrollment in the school’s more than four decades of existence.
Mr. Bishop said he had already signed a two-year deal with the Marriott Chicago O’Hare. But it remains up in the air whether his kids — Rachel, 48, and Rebecca, 51, neither of whom currently work professionally in miniatures — will want to take the reins once Mr. Bishop, 82, is no longer the showman.
Meanwhile, Mr. Bishop is agitated by the current state of affairs. As he prepared for this year’s convention, he recalled telling his wife that he “doesn’t know nearly all of the attendees anymore. They’re all new,” he said. “It’s growing again.” One small item at a time.