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Lawn fetes are to Western New York what apple pie is to America, said Charles R. Gajewski, the czar of lawn fete supplies. As president and owner of Ray Gay Sales on Genesee Street in Cheektowaga, Gajewski sells everything an organization needs to throw a lawn fete. We’re talking bell-jar tickets, money wheels, bean bag toss – and more prizes than you can carry down any midway. ¶ Gajewski’s business is a family venture that was started six decades ago as a furniture store by his father Raymond. At 57, Gajewski hopes to pass the company on to his children. Two of them work there today as does a sister and his best friend from childhood. ¶ The amusement business changes with the season, Gajewski said, though lawn fetes rule the summer. In autumn the amusement business goes indoors for school carnivals. By winter the Santa Shops are ready to open their doors. In spring, it’s time for turkey and meat raffles.

People Talk: How does a furniture store become lawn fete central?

Charles Gajewski: Part of the furniture business was wall plaques – fruit made of plaster that people hung on their walls back in the ’50s and ’60s. He belonged to Transfiguration Church on the East Side, and at the lawn fete there he had a booth where he raffled the fruit wall plaques. He charged a dime a ticket, and he started making money on the side during the summer. He started seeing more profit in that, and he slowly drifted into plush animals, and blankets and pillows. Eventually, we got rid of the furniture.

PT: How do lawn fetes stay relevant today?

CG: They’re kind of a dying breed, Lawn fetes are unique to Western New York. When I go to trade shows, vendors ask my line of business, and they have no clue what a lawn fete is. So I tell them a church carnival. Most churches held them on the front or back lawn, though most of them are now in parking lots. When a church puts out their lawn fete sign, Western New York knows it’s a party open to everybody.

PT: What makes a successful lawn fete?

CG: There are five legs: beer tent with entertainment; food tent; gambling; rides; and games that kids and adults can play to win prizes. If you take one or two away, you’ll start wobbling.

PT: You’ve cornered the market on lawn fetes.

CG: We supply over 110 churches, organizations and fire halls that run lawn fetes.

PT: Who is the major player?

CG: The largest lawn fete in Western New York is Queen of Heaven in West Seneca, which is the weekend after Fourth of July. Most of the lawn fetes have fallen by the wayside because of the consolidation of churches. There are probably only 20 to 30 lawn fetes running this summer. A lot of the festivals have taken over – Taste of Buffalo, Allentown Art Festival, Buffalo Chicken Wing Festival.

PT: Do you have any competition?

CG: We are the last brick and mortar store in Western New York to survive. And we sell rows of tickets or wrist bands to the festivals. Lawn fetes are down because of the church consolidation and lack of volunteers. In today’s families, the husband and wife are both working and they come home too tired to volunteer.

PT: You must know lawn fetes inside and out.

CG: I’ve probably been to more lawn fetes than anybody in Western New York. I go to every lawn fete we supply to kick them off on Friday. I go over the games with the workers and make sure they are run right. If there are six lawn fetes running that weekend, I will start at 3 p.m. and go until I’m done. And then I check day by day what they need. I consider myself a doctor on call. Saturday and Sunday, I want to talk with them between 8 and 8:15 a.m. to see if they need more plush animals or blankets or pillows.

One year I remember the workers thinking the milk-can game was near impossible, that nobody could get the ball through that little hole. The key is that you have to throw the ball up high enough so it comes straight down into the can. You can’t throw at the can. I showed them how it’s done.

PT: Would you consider yourself a lucky person?

CG: When it comes to raffles and winnings I’ve lost more than I’ve won. In the late ’70s, I won a 12-inch black and white TV at the St. Barnabas lawn fete in Depew. They sold 100 tickets and I bought one. I’ve won bigger things than that, but the TV is what I remember. It’s in the basement of my house.

PT: Does the popularity of prizes vary regionally?

CG: There are probably 30 different themes for booths, and blanket booths for 20 years were in the top three. People played for blankets no matter where they went. One year the blanket manufacturers folded the blankets differently so they looked smaller, and the blankets dropped off and no one has played for them since. That’s got to be 10 years ago.

PT: What is popular now?

CG: Lottery booths – New York State lottery tickets packed in with some kind of merchandise, maybe a plush animal or a household item. Back in the day – the ’70s and ’80s – plush animals were big because the teenage guys would always want to win one for their girlfriends. Today plush is down in popularity because those days have gone by the wayside just like drive-ins. It’s a different world.

PT: Do you play the lottery?

CG: I will. I play the ages of myself, my wife and my three kids. Every year the numbers increase by one, except my wife’s which stays at 39.

PT: How lucrative are lawn fetes?

CG: If a church takes in $100,000, their profit should be $50,000, 50 percent after the expenses from the tents, the Porta Johns, the merchandise, the food. Certain things have a high profit margin like gambling. Carnival rides? They only make 10 or 15 percent on it.

PT: Do you belong to a parish?

CG: I’m a non-parishable. Since our parish closed, we go to church but we haven’t joined another parish because everything has been closing down everywhere I’ve gone since high school. I went to Bishop Ryan High School. It closed. Transfiguration got closed. We got married at St. Luke’s. It closed.

email jkwiatkowski@buffnews.com