May Fair reflects Collingswood's revival

Clowning around at Collingswood's May Fair with juggler/balloon artist Benjamin Lipman is Gerard "Jerry" Chambers (right), chairman of the fair.
Clowning around at Collingswood's May Fair with juggler/balloon artist Benjamin Lipman is Gerard "Jerry" Chambers (right), chairman of the fair. (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 27, 2013

Emergency, emergency: The wind was kicking up and blowing the tablecloths off the tables in the booths at Saturday's May Fair in Collingswood.

Why someone called Gerard "Jerry" Chambers, 62, with this problem is unknown - he likes to joke that even though he's the chairman of the festival, Mayor James Maley heads the weather committee.

Still, Chambers specializes in problem-solving, with a particular talent for the mundane.

"Tell them to roll up duct tape and just put the tablecloth on the tape," Chambers advised.

Thirty-four years ago, the May Fair consisted of artwork by local artists, clipped to one clothesline, strung between two poles in front of an art store on Haddon Avenue.

Now, it stretches for nearly 13 blocks along the avenue. On one end is the Kids Zone, with face-painting, pony rides, and games. On the other end, more than 130 antique and tricked-out cars are parked, angled out from the curb for better viewing.

In the middle, 200 crafters sell baby clothes, candles, paintings, honey, and homemade pies, sharing space with food stands selling sausage sandwiches, jerk chicken, and funnel cake. Musicians play the blues, jazz, or rock at three stages.

Despite Saturday's chill, people crowded onto Haddon Avenue, which was closed to traffic. For many, May Fair is a Memorial Day weekend family tradition.

Claire Enten, 52, of Cherry Hill, walked up Haddon Avenue, carrying her little dog Charlie Edna, who was adopted from a shelter just down the street.

Her husband's family grew up in Collingswood, and May Fair begins a day that ends with a family barbecue for 10 to 20 at a relative's home, just a few blocks away. "We have a wonderful time," she said.

Gordon Payton, 53, who grew up in Collingswood, exhibited his 1970 red Opel GT, which he decorated with a Red Baron theme.

"It's a German car," he said. Alas, poor Snoopy. Done in by Payton and the Red Baron, the stuffed Snoopy dog lay on Haddon Avenue, just behind the child-size red model biplane that Payton built.

"This is my little gift to my hometown," he said. "This is the greatest of all the town fairs, because it's a wonderful, crazy little town."

For the people who come to May Fair, the day begins at 10 a.m. Chambers is there by 5:30. "Before anyone shows up, I get the coffee going," he said. Caffeine, doughnuts, and hoagies - all donated - fuel more than 100 volunteers who handle everything from crowd control to cleanup over the course of the day.

"Someone called me the Energizer Bunny," said Chambers, who spends the morning organizing the setup. "I think I'm the poster child for Geritol."

In many ways, the growth of the festival reflects the resurgence of Collingswood, a Camden County borough of about 14,000 residents.

Chambers, director of The Ballroom & Theater in Collingswood, grew up in the borough. He once operated a jewelry store on Haddon Avenue and remembers when Collingswood was a friendly small town with a solid business district.

Then, "the downtown started to deteriorate when the malls came," he said. "At one point, we had some thrift stores, and that was about it."

People were leaving for more spacious suburbs, and Collingswood's largest houses were being broken up into illegal duplexes, operated by out-of-town landlords. "Nobody cared," he said.

Well, not nobody. Because sometime in the mid-1990s, Chambers, the mayor, and many others decided to stop the turf wars that separated the business community from the government officials. Soon, there were groups who went down Haddon Avenue and revitalized storefronts, scraping, painting, and scrubbing - and doing the work for free.

"We made it look more interesting," Chambers said.

Over time, the spruced-up street attracted more businesses, he said, then more residents, which led to more businesses - and each year, an ever-larger May Fair.

"Everything that goes on in May Fair, Jerry is connected with," said his friend Paul Kerth, who heads the car show committee for the May Fair and chairs November's holiday parade.

"The secret is that he's very likable. He's always there to help, no matter what's going on," Kerth said. "If there's something that has to be done, he'll do it. He's a workhorse."

As Chambers walked along Haddon Avenue on Saturday, he seemed to know everyone, measured by a hug-per-block ratio of three per block. When three women grabbed him for a group hug at the corner of Haddon and Collings Avenues, it skewed the average.


Contact Jane Von Bergen

at 215-854-2769 or jvonbergen@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @JaneVonBergen. Read

her workplace blog at www.philly.com/jobbing.

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