For as much as this past weekend's event in the lobby was branded as the Kwanzaa Artisan Festival, Lorna Johnson looked around and saw so much more.
"I think there's very spaces in the Newark metropolitan area … that are what I call a village," said Johnson, a festival vendor and Newark resident. "This is definitely an urban village."
Several vendors set up shop in this village Friday through Sunday, selling primarily – but not exclusively – African-themed artwork, clothing and jewelry. More than simply providing pre-holiday shopping, though, the weekend provided a cultural exchange including Saturday's free children's festival for several hundred kids.
Kwanzaa, the weeklong holiday celebrating African-American heritage and culture, begins Dec. 26 and ends Jan. 1.
Across the 15 years of the Kwanzaa Artisan Festival, the number of vendors and customers have grown; several buyers and sellers return annually. Lubna Top Shelf, the 14-year owner of Ashea located across Military Park on Broad Street, said she has seen business at her store that sells natural body creams and lotions, increase by "about 20 percent" through the years.
"I've increased my revenue as a business owner," said Top Shelf, a Newark resident who has been a vendor at the past 14 festivals. "And everybody comes back. And they come back year after year because they know we are here to do their shopping. I encourage them to do their shopping here because they get some great gifts at a great price."
While Lubna offered a variety of her creations that attracted several consumers, several colleagues sold a variety of colorful, African-inspired items such as blankets, bongo drums, books and even pillows. Across the lobby, Johnson displayed, among other things, beaded Christmas tree ornaments crafted in several different African counties.
"You can believe that the last weekend before Christmas, people know to come to NJPAC," Johnson said. "People come here to buy and support local artisans, but also to see each other."
Customers filled the lobby of NJPAC throughout the afternoon – some returning, some simply curious as they waited for the start of the 3 p.m. showing of "Sing the Truth" – to pick up last-minute stocking stuffers and presents.
"Cramped is good. I love it," said Top Shelf. "Diversity – bring it on!"