Vendors return in droves to Market Square

| Friday, Nov. 22, 2013, 8:57 p.m.

Few places do Christmas better than Germany, home of “O Tannenbaum,” wooden nutcrackers and vast holiday markets in every town square.

And, yet, Bavaria resident Mario Hausdoerfer, 41, will mark a 10th straight year an ocean away from the crackle of a Yule log in his own home fire.

That's because the maker of hand-blown glass Christmas ornaments will be in America, where his wares are more rare and buyers are willing to pay a premium for artisan crafts. He is among a half-dozen foreign vendors relocating to Pittsburgh for the next month to participate in the Peoples Gas Holiday Market in Market Square.

The market, which opens at 10 a.m. Nov. 23, has grown 250 percent larger since its inaugural season last year and features fresh Christmas trees for the first time, more vendors and Santa, of course. Every vendor from last year returned.

Hausdoerfer has put a lot on the line to be here: He and his wife, who traveled to the United States with him, will miss spending the holidays with their children, a daughter, 20, and son, 11.

But if he has to be away from home, he welcomed the idea of returning to Pittsburgh.

“I like the city, and I like the people,” he says. “So, that makes it easy to come back. The city was very friendly to me.”

The Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, which organizes the market, landed one of its major tenants, Käthe Wohlfahrt, a mammoth purveyor of 72,000 mostly hand-crafted products, when company officials visited the city last December and fell in love with the local Christmas spirit.

“Anyone who walks through our city can see just how much we enjoy the holidays,” says Jeremy Waldrup, the Downtown partnership's CEO. “And these things have been going on for decades. There's this legacy that is very authentic, and you can't manufacture that.”

Based in Rothenburg, Germany, Käthe Wohlfahrt has a year-round store in Stillwater, Minn., and participates in six other holiday markets in Chicago, Vancouver, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Arlington, Texas, and Bethlehem, Pa. The company plans to have more than 12,000 different items on sale in Pittsburgh.

The company's North American Vice President Steve Thoreson visited the city last winter and picked up on Pittsburghers' strong family ties, the city's European feel and the overall Christmas spirit.

“Market Square had a really good vibe to it, just a good feeling,” he says. “It felt like there are a lot of interesting things happening. If you're from that region, that is a strong reason to go Downtown and support the Downtown area.”

Daniel Korger, 21, visited Pittsburgh for the first time Nov. 21 to set up his stand selling European honeys, and says he immediately connected with the location. His family cultivates honey in Augsburg, Germany, and sells it in the United States at the holidays. His mother is working at a stand in Chicago this year.

Local vendors Jeannine and Drew Hine say they feel Downtown's holiday spirit, too. They make glass ornaments and decorative items out of their Vessel Studio on the South Side. They supply to retailers such as Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue and export to the world.

Last year, they rented a full-time kiosk at South Hills Village Mall and spent four days a week at Market Square. This year, they are abandoning the mall to focus on Downtown.

Part of the allure, Drew says, is that they can walk from their home on 16th Street to Market Square. Plus, they enjoyed the festive environment of being in the city.

“I really love what they've done with Market Square now,” Jeannine says. “It's so much more active and just beautiful. They did a great job decorating for the holidays.”

Hausdoerfer can only envy the Hines' proximity. For 10 years, he traveled to Akron, Ohio, to sell his ornaments. This year, like last, he will split his time between there and Pittsburgh. His wife has run another Christmas kiosk in Denver since 2009.

For his effort, Hausdoerfer hardly filled his sacks full with gold. Counting the booth fee, airplane tickets and shipping fees, he says he barely broke even last Christmas. He will save some money this year by staying with a Deutschtown woman he met online rather than booking a hotel room. The bigger holiday market, he hopes, will mean a more profitable season.

He and his wife plan to stay in the country two days past Christmas before returning home to Germany.

“Every year, it's hard, but what can I do?” he says. “I cannot go back early.”

Andrew Conte is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7835 or

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