By Paul Ruggiero

Herds of mad-eyed shoppers scrabbling through monolithic piles of mass-manufactured gewgaws made who knows where, bleary-eyed store employees trying to stock shelves without getting trampled, and this year, Thanksgiving dinner still cooling on the table back at home. Sound familiar? Still need to find great gifts, but got a bad case of the Big Box blues?

Handmade Arcade is here for you.

Southwestern Pennsylvania hosts plenty of craft fairs, but only Handmade Arcade features purses that used to be books, knitted sea-monster hoods, and clocks made from old video game cartridges. Before the fair’s 2004 debut, supported by a Sprout Seed Award, Pittsburgh had no center of gravity for do-it-yourself, or DIY, crafters and artists. But every year since, Handmade Arcade has been the place for makers to hang their shingles and for shoppers to find off-the-wall, never-at-the-mall treasures.

This year’s Handmade Arcade is on Saturday, December 8, from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. And, like every year, it’ll be bigger than ever. More than 150 vendors will fill the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in downtown Pittsburgh with handmade jewelry, clothing, artwork, bath and body products, toys, and more.

It’s a carefully curated collection of quirk. More than 300 vendors applied for this year’s fair, and a local jury from the arts community spent an entire day sifting for quality, innovation, and creativity. They made sure there were items costing from a few bucks to a few hundred. They also balanced the kinds of merchandise available. In addition to the annual stalwarts like posters and prints, housewares, and paper craft, this year’s Arcade features the new kids from 2011’s fair: geekery (think superhero-themed socks) and music, zines, and multimedia.

More than half of the vendors are from our region, says Jennifer Baron, an organizing committee member of Handmade Arcade. The rest come from more than fifteen states as far as California. “I think it’s a great reflection of the quality of the event, the success of the event in the past, and the reputation that we’ve built up nationally,” says Baron.

As the Arcade’s reputation has grown, so have the number of attendees. The first fair drew about a thousand people; last year’s pulled six times that. Baron says it’s a diverse crowd, and many of them count on the event for their holiday shopping. “Which is great to hear,” Baron says, “because it puts money back into the local economy, into the micro-economy of local artisans.”

Baron thinks shoppers suffering from Black Friday burnout can also benefit from the Handmade juju. “It’s not just about consumerism,” she says, “because when you come to Handmade Arcade and you select something, either for yourself or as a gift, it’s a creative act, because you’re purchasing something that, in a lot of cases, is one-of-a-kind.” The makers are right there to talk to you about their work and inspiration—good luck getting that at Wal-Mart.

It’s that kind of personal interaction that makes Handmade Arcade as much a social event as a commercial one. Attendees get to know the artists, and the artists get to meet, exchange tips, and make connections. And everyone gets to jam to live DJ mixes and, for the first time, a live band: local indie rockers Instead of Sleeping.

Handmade Arcade is about more than buying, selling, and even connecting. A section of the floor will house Hands-on Handmade, where area arts organizations will lead shoppers in a variety of make-it-yourself craft projects, performances, and an audience participation game. “It’s not an anonymous, generic shopping experience, where you’re a walking zombie being barraged with sale gimmicks looking at items that were mass produced around the world, and possibly under unethical conditions,” says Baron. “Handmade Arcade is a creative experience you can really participate in.”

Handmade Arcade is sponsored by the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, Yelp, Sock Dreams, The Sprout Fund, the Port Authority of Allegheny County, Steel Town Etsy, Wildcard, and Pop City Media. And  this year, small businesses can support the fair with a Thimble Sponsorship of $50. Shoppers get in free, but they can directly support the event by purchasing a Handmade Arcade tote bag, designed this year by longtime vendor and local artist Allison Glancey. They can also pay $15 for an Early Birdie pass that gets them in at 10 a.m., an hour before the doors open to anyone else, a goodie bag, and a raffle ticket. Early Birdie passes are available at www.handmadearcade.com and Wildcard, a Lawrenceville shop for artists and crafters.

Downtown Pittsburgh Parking Authority garages are free December 8 and every Saturday through the 22nd, though the Convention Center , the first green building of its kind in the world, is accessible by bus, bike, or your own two feet. Directions, music schedule, vendor information, and even gift-buying guides for kiddos and menfolk are available at www.handmadearcade.com and the Handmade Arcade Facebook page.

However you get to the fair, Baron says you’ll find a multidisciplinary bazaar of crafts and their makers—and maybe even a truly rewarding experience amidst an increasingly anonymous holiday shopping season.

“People need — and I think these days they crave — that personal, live interaction with the artists, and with others from the community at the event” she says. “When you select and buy objects at Handmade Arcade, you’re becoming a curator of these objects. It’s not a generic kind of experience, but rather a highly personal one.”