Posts filed in: January 2006

Oh, to Be in England!

comments: 27

Loop3 The not-so-secret Anglophile, me. All my life I have wished I were English. I have even told people I was (don't panic -- I was 11). I really can't even pinpoint why; my family is not even a percentage point English, I didn't know any particularly English people (and still don't), and I didn't get to travel there until I was 22. I stayed in London for six weeks and aside from the crippling food poisoning (this came from Paris) and the fact that my luggage didn't arrive until I was almost ready to leave, and the fact that I had to take a bath every night (with Crabtree & Evelyn cherry soap, sadly discontinued) just to get warm, I was in heaven. I loved every single thing about it.

I was a horse-crazy girl, so I guess the images that rooted in my imagination were fed by that equestrian context, as well as the blinding passion I felt for everything at the time in general. The things I imagined I liked most were quintessentially English: mossy stone walls; bright red doors; creamy cotton ruffles; huddled, window-boxed villages; ponies bobbing through green dales; purple clouds moving quickly through gray skies. I wrote my senior thesis on a children's-book illustrator named Arthur Rackham when I was in college. His calico-ed field mice and fairies who used pots and pans had been staples within the imagery of my childhood reading. I had been researching, too, the Pre-Raphaelites and John William Waterhouse (who was really only sort of a Pre-Raphaelite, I guess), who managed to blend magic and the mundane in such a strangely accessible way. That's how England has always seemed to me, really: deeply magical and prosaically domestic, all at once. It still seems that way, and I am still under its spell.

Loop1_1 Not surprisingly, I also have serious farm fantasies. Dilettante farm, not real farm. Like the kind of farm in the movie Babe: thatched-roofed, tiny, and with talking animals. When I learned to knit six years ago, I became obsessed with Rowan Knitting and Crochet Magazine and its aesthetic, that tattered-city-girl-with-mummy's-pearls-in exile-at-the-country-house thing. I discovered Debbie Bliss and wanted to knit near her. I discovered Nancy Mitford and wanted to have met her. I discovered Raffaella Barker and wanted to have a house like hers. I discovered Cath Kidston and wanted to buy everything in her store. I discovered Nigella Lawson and just wanted to be invited over to her kitchen and have a fairy cake. Alas, all I really have is most of their books, Country Living (British Edition) magazine, evil gruesome chilblains on my fingers, and severe adult-onset fear of flying. If someone says, "Did you already go to lunch?" I will occasionally but automatically answer, "I did do." I know. You don't have to tell me.

Loop2_2 Still , I became nearly apoplectic with excitement the other afternoon when Susan from Loop, a gorgeously beautiful yarn shop (as you can see from these, their photos), called -- called -- to ask if she could carry my crochet patterns in her store. She said, "I'm calling from London," and I sputtered, "London? Like,  London, ENGLAND?!?" No one has ever called me from London before. I got so excited I started babbling nervously about how much I love England. Loop, aside from being a darling yarn shop, also has a beautiful web site. You can spend an afternoon just browsing through their "designers" section, which features talents like Donna Wilson, Claire Montgomerie, and Catherine Tough, artists whose products Susan carries at Loop.

I'm so excited to have my crochet patterns (the one part of my product line I do sell wholesale) there, in actual London. I'll be sending a sample or two, as well, so if you are a Londoner, stop by Loop in a week or two and it should all be there in real life.

Take-Out Valentines

comments: 14

Poppygroup6_1 Why yes, I do love pink! I'm also in the beginning stages of admitting that I like fake flowers better than the real ones. I know that's sacrilege, or something. But it always makes me feel so sad to throw a real bouquet that someone's given me away once it's spent -- they fade so quickly (and go through such torturous processes)! And the real ones in the garden -- as soon as I see flowers come up, I start feeling a strange longing for their return -- next year. I love the excited anticipation of their arrival, and those first few days of unfurling, and then I start getting anxious about their imminent departure.

But paper, while lasting not quite forever, lasts longer, travels better, and comes in gingham and polka dots. Also, it's cheaper. These are the special Valentine's Edition of the Poppyboxes I do at Posie all year long. Pink hangs around all year in general, for me, but at V-Day I really let it loose.

Wholesale, Retail, and Selling Your Handmades to Shops, Part 2

comments: 71

Shop1 Oooooh, it's cold and rainy. Sometimes I think having a shop in a warm, indoor mall would be the best idea here in Oregon. . . . Even I, today, would happily sip an Orange Julius and trade $5 for ten pairs of earrings at Claire's if I could park under a roof and leave my coat in the car.

Alas, here, just to the left of this picture, sit I, hoping our "charming" stone wall doesn't start leaking, the way it usually does after a few too many days of drops. I'll look up and see silver trickles down the length of it, falling from somewhere fourteen feet up. So far so good, but if I suddenly stop typing this, you will know I've leapt up to find some buckets. . . .

Now, where were we. This is Part 2 of my post from last week about how to sell handmade things in shops, at least from my perspective as both a small-boutique owner and a handmade-product designer. Thank you to everyone who commented, and to everyone who wrote to me privately to discuss some of the information in that post. I was a little bit nervous about it -- I really don't fancy myself much of an advice giver, and obviously there are lots of ways to do things in the world. But it was interesting how many other small-boutique buyers wrote to me privately and expressed much the same opinions.

The truth about this half of the discussion is this: There is really no "magic" formula for successfully selling stuff, and there is no one way to do it. There is only, as with all of life, the act of arming yourself with information, the practice of doing things to the best of your ability, and the effort to find an equation of give and take that you can live with, and that makes it worth it to sell things you've made in the first place. In my experience, the process of making it all work never really ends, and is constantly changing. My businesses have gone through many permutations in the past six years since I started them; I'm always looking for the right balance, and oftentimes mistakes have only helped me to define my priorities.

At the heart of the businesses is always my life, and the handwork itself, and the appreciation that people have shown for what I do. Those are the things I care about the most, the parts that I love. I like the quiet calmness of my creating days, the way the piles of fabric turn into animals, the way the yarn feels in my hands. These things move me profoundly; more than, say, managing a bunch of seamstresses would move me. More than going to a bank to get a loan to expand would move me. More than selling my own things in stores all over the country would move me. So, I don't sell my work wholesale anymore. I don't have other people help me with it unless they are better than I am and I am overwhelmed. I have a tiny, low-budget boutique that runs on love and elbow grease more than anything else. And this works, most of the time, for me. You will figure out what works for you, but there won't be any easy way to get there. You will try things and have a bad feeling in your stomach. You will take advice that will go against your better judgment. You will do the wrong thing by someone. You will make lots of mistakes. But then you'll try to fix them. What else can you do? Do good work -- do the best possible work-- and believe in what you've done; then just enjoy the adventure. Make friends along the way. Don't burn bridges. Remember the Golden Rule. Keep the faith. And if something's not working, try another way. Work with good people -- choose to work with good people. You spend a long time and put a lot of love into your creations; it only makes sense to put that same kind of attention and care into the business part of things. This is your life, after all. These things are an extension of you. You send them out into the world, filled with spirit. This is what "handmade" means to me. It's not the "look" or the "trend" or the "uniqueness" of the thing; it's the spirit behind it, the life that is nourished by its creation. I started Posie in 2000 during my recovery from a terrible accident. Doing handwork is what saved my life then, and saves it now. It matters to me, and I know that for your own reasons it matters to you. Other than that, I'm making it up as I go along, and you will, too.

Now. Wasn't that pretty. Many days are not! Many days are yucky. I act badly. People are mean to me. I wonder if it's worth it at all. I am mean to people. I threaten to find a nice office to work in again. I want a regular paycheck. I don't want to make another thing, ever. I'm okay with all this. These days are not everyday. These days happen, and they are also a part of the experience. When they start tipping the scale, however, I will take heed.

If you make handmade things, you might want to sell them to stores. You might not. Stores are neat. Lots of people will suggest that you should have your things in stores. (Usually they won't know exactly what that means or how things get to stores, but you should, now that you've read Part 1; don't try to set them straight. They are trying to give you a compliment, not business advice. They are trying to say, "Gosh, your handpainted toothbrushes are so beautiful they should be at Saks, not the church bazaar!" You can say "Thanks!" and leave it at that, then decide for yourself if this is for you.) There is a certain amount of cache attached to having your work in stores, and even more cache attached to having your work in lots of stores. But, as discussed in Part 1, it's important to understand what may be required of you as a manufacturer if you do decide to pursue a wholesale relationship with retailers.

You know that selling "wholesale" basically means you will be selling things at 50% of what the store will sell them for. (When I first started selling my products wholesale, several years ago, I was really shocked by this percentage, but now of course I understand it. Retailers have commercial rent, advertising, fancy packaging, credit card fees, employee wages, commercial utilities, special events, insurance, all sorts of overhead. They are also talking about you and your products to people every day, and occasionally getting editorial coverage for the lines they carry, which benefits both of you. Good stores earn their 50%, and the reward for both of you is their re-order, meaning they're making their profit and you're selling more stuff.) I won't go into a lot of pricing theory here; a quick perusal of the shelves at my local bookstore last week revealed at least a half-dozen books devoted to selling handmade things, and all of them discuss pricing (as well as the logistical stuff, like invoicing, shipping, etc.) at length. It's good to read these things. Barbara Brabec has written several books on selling handmade goods, and I think they are must-haves for your bookshelf. (Of course, I think it would be lovely if you got them at your local, independent bookseller.)

I will say that the reality of today's retail market is that there hasn't really been a paradigm shift in the traditional wholesale relationship that accommodates the handmade-product manufacturer very well. You, as a manufacturer, are competing with companies that mass-produce their goods at very low prices. The retailer is always going to try to get your prices as low as possible because that is what their customers demand; customers who are choosing not to be at Wal-Mart in the first place are already fewer and far-er between than we'd like. Unless you are able to target very high-end markets who can ask very high-end prices, you will be pressed to find a way to meet the demands of the general public, who are, for the most part, buying happy meals that are cheaper than they were ten years ago. In a slow-ish economy, everything's a tough sell if it's not on super-sale. What people do and what they wish they did when they shopped can be very different things; I think that, theoretically, people would love to support us indie designers. In reality, Urban Outfitters knocks off the deconstructed-seam-allowance look much more cheaply than we can, and it serves many people who appreciate the handmade aesthetic but can't afford the real thing.

That said, do not underprice your products. Price them fairly for yourself, and what you believe to be fairly for the marketplace. Believe that you are offering something special and stick to it. Increase the perception of the thing's value through style, quality, packaging, and originality. Know exactly how much you need to get for it, and stand firm. Don't feel the need to justify this to anyone else; don't make excuses for it. It is what it is. If you are consistently being told that your price is too high or if you find that no one is buying, rethink things. But don't start out at the lowest possible place. It's hard to raise prices when you feel like you're doing too much work for too little. It's easy to drop them. Alternately, you could consider consignment, or doing craft shows or art fairs, or selling your things in on-line handmade marketplaces, like the phenomenal, that take a lower percentage than a traditional retailer and offer you many more potential customers than you would be able to "get" on your own.

But let's say that after all this dirty realism, you are still thinking Shops! By all means, shops! You've got your product, your prices, your wholesale price list, and your sales policies. Most people start by pounding local pavement, and, as I've discussed in Part 1, it's best to research locations before you start approaching buyers. Once you've come up with a list of places you feel would be appropriate, start at the top. Pick the best one, your favorite one, the one you really love, even if it seems a little bit beyond your scope. If you get rejected, work your way down the list. But don't start at the bottom. Start at the top. So, now you've got your list.

This is where it gets tricky, and also, I'm sure what you've all been waiting for: How do you get an appointment with a buyer to show your stuff and write an order successfully?

The answer is, I don't really know. You just gotta try.

I know you didn't want to hear it, and I've been worried about telling you, I really have. But it's true. It's hard to say exactly what will work. It depends on the buyer. It depends on what kind of mood she's in. It depends on how much inventory the store already has. It depends if she likes handpainted toothbrushes. It depends on so many things. All you can do is try. How's that for wishy-washyness. Here's what I'd do. I'd call the place. I'd ask for the buyer's name. I'd write a little letter, introducing myself and what I do, with my name, address, contact info, and web site clearly indicated. I'd include a "line sheet," or a piece of paper with a list of my products and their descriptions. I'd include a price list and my wholesale policies. I'd send it over, with a sample if I could spare it, knowing full well I may never get it back, let alone a response. I'd package everything up so that it looked really cool and made the recipient feel like I actually cared about what I was doing. I'd time it so that it got there on a Tuesday. (I don't know why this is, but Tuesday seems like the day when people in general are most receptive to anything; Friday is the worst day; Monday's are too busy with engine revving and regret that the weekend's over.) I'd give a call soon after to check in. I'd ask for an appointment to stop by in person.

Alternately, you could do all of this over email; email seems more convenient and at the same time easier to ignore. As a buyer, I receive both snail-mail inquiries and email. As a manufacturer, I sent both. I can't say what worked better. As a buyer, I receive dozens of emails; I used to try to respond to all of them, but if I know immediately the products aren't a good fit, as they say, I don't always have time to respond to every unsolicited inquiry. I've also approached manufacturers whose work is entirely appropriate and who have responded enthusiastically, and then I've cruelly not placed an order, not because I didn't like the stuff or think it would be a good idea, but because, I don't know, I spaced out, or something else came up, or I didn't feel like ordering that day, or I changed my mind, or who in the hell and the hootenanny knows. Information overload. I love my manufacturers. I am grateful that they do what they do and sell it to me so that I can sell it to someone else. I love what they make and I try my best to show it off in the way it deserves. But the reality is that there are a lot of good products out there and wonderful people behind them that I'm sure I've blown off because the timing hasn't been right, or I haven't had the money, or I just plain forgot. All this is to say, Don't let the turkeys get you down. Move on to the next one. It's my (her, their) loss. You're great.

The reality is that if you really want to sell wholesale, you'll probably only have to do this particular, thankless brand of courtship yourself a few times. You'll do it a few times and it you'll quickly decide that a) you don't want to sell wholesale after all or b) you need a rep. Sales reps, either individuals or groups, haul samples of your stuff around their territories and sell it to buyers and boutiques for you. They pick the shops, they take a commission, and you wait for the faxes to come in. The catch-22 is that in order to get a rep, you usually have to show that you are willing to pay your dues, and are in a few stores already. Usually. Reps can be good, and they can be not that good. If you find a good one, treat her well. How to find a "good" one? It's a relative term. As my sister says, one person's dream rep is another person's nightmare -- you have to find the right fit for you. Nevertheless, some manufacturers can be sort of cagey about telling other manufacturers who their reps are; in doing so they are almost recommending you, and they just might not want to get into that. That is their prerogative; it will be yours, too, someday, and then you'll know what I'm talking about. And while we're on the subject, I will say that no one else finds their sources, materials, reps, or whatever it is that you don't know how to find easily. These things can be worth their weight in gold once found, and it is no wonder at all that people can be pissy when expected to just give information away to every random person who asks; and they do ask. Weigh your requests carefully and use them wisely. Respect the hard work and hard-earned experience that have gone into your colleagues' businesses and be careful in your demands.

Buyers have sort of a love-hate relationship with reps. Some won't work with them at all. Some have favorites. If you make friends with a buyer, she might tell you who her favorite reps are. If you can get a buyer's recommendation, that's not a bad place to start doing research. Always do some research, of course. Some manufacturers list their rep groups on their web sites. If you live in a big enough city, you may have a wholesale gift center. Call them and see how you can get in and have a look around (they are usually open to buyers on certain days of the week). Introduce yourself to the reps in showrooms that carry products similar to yours, or have an aesthetic that jives with what you're about. Get a feel for who they are; they will be representing your work, after all. You want them to be professional, respectful, conscientious, and likeable; you should try to be the same. You want to feel that they will handle your hard work with care. Presentation counts, and if a buyer doesn't like your rep, it is unlikely that she will want to suffer her company for long. Talk to reps and inquire about whether they would be willing to consider taking on new lines; ask their policies and prices. Present your products to them much as you would present them to a buyer. They need to believe they can sell what you're offering, since they get paid when they sell something.

Mostly, believe in yourself. Once those orders start coming in, it's a whole new world. Grow at your own pace. Trust your own instincts and advice. Enjoy the uncomfortableness of starting something new. Be willing to discover. Remember how it felt to be a freshman, and then what it felt like to be a sophomore; soon you'll be a sophomore and you'll know everything. Just take a deep breath and proceed. You'll be fine, I just know it.

Best of luck,

A Picture For Stephanie

comments: 11

ForstephanieStephanie has the prettiest pictures on her blog right now for Corners of My Home. They made me think of this one, which is not my home, but Country Home -- March 2005. This picture is stuck in my memory -- I knew exactly where to look to find it (a miracle). I can never seem to make my walls look elegant and spare instead of just unfinished and bare, but Stephanie and CH clearly have the touch. It's so inspiring to think that less can be so much more evocative and lovely than more.

Also, Miss Kraf-o-la Karen invited me to elaborate on some of my other inspirations recently. I'm always very flattered and a little embarrassed to be asked, but I loved her questions. Thank you for including me, Karen.

Is anyone else as busy and behind in things as I am? I can't seem to get it together lately. Maybe it's because I keep waking up at 2 a.m. unable to sleep. By 8:30 a.m. I'm like, "My God, what's for lunch?" And then by 6:30 p.m. I'm actually wondering if I'll make it through the second Judge Judy without doing a faceplant into the couch. Tonight I'm staying up until 10, no matter what.

Calling All Crocheters

comments: 10

Teasetall2_3 If you were hanging around here yesterday, you might have caught the frenzied 11:00 a.m.-scramble to claim cagelets. It so very quickly went from "Oh, pretty birds!" to The Birds as I, Tippy Hedren-like, flailed around and tried to stay in control of the situation. If you read the blow-by-blow as recorded in the comments, it's even funnier when you look at the times attached to each one. Of course, Amy P.'s comment, later that afternoon, is my favorite -- just imagining the sweet curly-haired, pink-loving Amy uttering any profanity, let alone the "worst possible curse word imaginable" when she was too late to get a cagelet, is enough to make me love her, but knowing that I was the one talking her ear off on the telephone on Monday, while the advanced notice was just hanging out there unread, means I will have to make you a special one, dear little Amy. And in the meantime, the rest of you can coo over the adorable itty-bitty elephant creamer that I bought ever so long ago from Amy's adorable web site, Inspire Company.

Teasetsome_1 Anyway, I am so sorry everyone -- I didn't know things would happen so quickly, and will try not to put you through that in the future. I would be lying if I said I wasn't entirely puffed with pride all day, however. Thank you for that enthusiastic reception! Oh, and if you didn't get one yesterday, I would be a fool to not be doing more, and quick, right? So, probably Sunday, again, will be cagelet-making day, and I'll let you know when they're all photographed and ready to fly away.

The other day I got an email from Vickie Howell's (of Knitty Gritty on the DIY network) assistant asking for submissions for Vickie's new crochet book, Catwalk Crochet. Apparently, this will be a compilation of 40 patterns from Vickie and other new and veteran designers inspired by the fashion runway (Ginger says "think Betsey Johnson, Marc Jacobs, Anna Sui") using luxury yarns. Sketches are due on February 7, which is coming right up. If you are inspired to participate, please read more about this opportunity on Vickie's blog (scroll down to the entry for January 18 where she will give you all the details) and give it a go. I'm going to try and get a sketch and a swatch in, but it's a pretty tight deadline right now, what with trying to get my own spring stuff going. This is always the way it is, though. Can one wear teacups? 'Cause those are done. Betsey Johnson-inspired teacup bra? Probably not. Dang/Worst Possible Curse Word Imaginable.

Cagelet Sale To-day

comments: 54

Mrsnantucket_2 Rarely, rarely do I make things that I have trouble letting go of. I don't know why this is -- I can't count how many different products have come and gone from my line without ceremony, or even a sample left for me. But again, on Sunday, I found myself under the spell of the cagelets, and liked each new one just a wee bit more than the one I had just finished. I can only assume, once again, that it is just a bit of birdie magic. See what you think. This one (above) is Mrs. Nantucket.

Misspinkiesweet_1Miss Pinkiesweet

Mrsplum_1 Mrs. Plummy

Mrsredrose_1Mrs. Redrose

Missmelody_1Miss Melody

Misslemonella_1Miss Lemonella

If you'd like to have one of these live at your house, leave a comment with the name of the bird you would like, and I'll contact you directly. They are $36 each plus $6 shipping. Thank you!

Cagelets Coming Tomorrow!

comments: 5

Mrsplumsmall A heads-up for bird-lovers: More cagelets are coming tomorrow, at 11 a.m. PST. There are several more for you, and they won't go onto the Posie web site until you, bloggy people, have had a look. If you'd like one, please leave me a comment tomorrow and I'll email you directly; they are $36 plus postage, and they'll just go first-come, first-served. The first five from last week have already been sold, and no two are alike.

Unfortunately, I don't take custom orders for anything, but I hope you'll like what I've done.

Tweet tweet!

Wholesale, Retail, and Beginning to Sell Your Handmades to Shops, Part 1

comments: 94

Ellaposieshop Ah, Saturday morning here at the shop. Hot coffee, a little Pavement to get the brain going, and a survey of our offerings here at Ella Posie. Lately, people have been dropping in to sell us things right and left, and I wanted to write a bit about how to sell your stuff to boutiques, in my opinion.

My position on this topic is a little unique, I guess -- I both own a small boutique where I buy products from designers, and I create a line of original handmade things myself. I won't go into how I got here (I only bore famous Pulitzer-Prize-winning authors with my life story, after all) but I will say that I have been on both sides of the handmade-stuff-selling-and-buying relationship, so I've had occasion to make lots of mistakes in both arenas. It took me a long time to learn these things, and I never really knew where to look to find the answers, so hopefully I can save you some of that confusion here.

I'm assuming that most of you reading this blog are crafty-types, not unused to being asked to sell something that you've made, not unused to having your friends and family tell you that you are so talented you should be selling your things to stores. You are and you should! The world needs you! We are all fighting the war against the corporatization of American retail! (One of my favorite subjects, but more on this another time.)

Let's say you are singularly obsessed with making handpainted . . . toothbrushes. You've given them to all your family, all your friends, all your co-workers, and sold them at the cool indie holiday bazaar down the street. Everyone loves them, everyone agrees they are unique and wonderfully made, everyone says they've never seen anything like them anywhere else. A ha! think you. I'll start my own toothbrush-selling business!

If you really are serious about starting a business, there are good reasons, even in the global/web-site-lush world of commerce, to sell your products to shops, the most obvious being the exponentially increased exposure you will gain. When you first start thinking in this way, it's helpful to familiarize yourself with the basic wholesale/retail structure that most little shops will expect you to understand. To that end, a little vocabulary:
     Product: What you've made, and what you will sell
     Product line: The entire range of things offered by a designer or manufacturer
     Manufacturer: Not a romantic term, but let's face it: If you're going to sell things to stores, this is what you'll be called. There is very little about this relationship that is romantic, anyway, I promise.
     Buyer: The person at a shop who makes the decision about what to purchase for its shelves
     Wholesale price: This is the price that you will sell your handpainted toothbrushes to shops for. Generally, it's 50% of the retail price.
     Retail price: This is the price that the customer who ultimately buys your toothbrush from a shop will pay, sometimes also called the "price point." It is generally double the wholesale price that the buyer has paid, and can be marked up to include shipping costs, neighborhood cache, etc.
   Consignment: The practice of "giving" your toothbrushes to a buyer without getting any money for them up front. The shop will sell them for you, and pay you a percentage of the retail price regularly when/if they sell.

Products come to our attention in a couple of ways. We find them;  a rep stops by and shows us a bunch of product lines that she represents for the manufacturers; or they find us. For the purposes of this post, I'm going to assume that you, toothbrush painter, are interested in finding us to see if we want to buy what you have to sell.

Products make it to our shelves in one of two ways: We have either purchased them at a wholesale price from a manufacturer, or we have accepted them on consignment from a (usually local, but not necessarily) designer. When we purchase outright, the product is ours to sell, and ours to keep if it doesn't sell. It's always a gamble that we take, so we try to think carefully about the purchases we make, and that thinking involves many things: What do our customers want? What can we offer that will surprise them? What is unique to our location? Is the price point right for our customers? Do we have room to display it? Do we have other things like it? Do we love it? Many of our stores exist quite precariously in this economy and retail culture to begin with so we try to be quite careful in what we buy, much as you are careful with your own purchases. We may like and want lots of things, but we are limited by some of the above criteria. You shouldn't take it personally when a store says no to carrying your products. You should also learn to edit the advice you receive quite carefully. Success involves both flexibility in the marketplace and integrity; don't automatically sacrifice either when someone rejects you or tells you to change. All of us must, in the end, find our own way, and no one has a crystal ball.

But when you approach a store with the intention of selling us your toothbrushes, it's important to think like a buyer, and recognize that the above questions are paramount in that buyer's mind whenever they are considering carrying a product. We really aren't thinking about you and how long it took you to make that thing. We aren't thinking about how much it cost you (financially, emotionally, physically), how many bills you have to pay, or your hopes and dreams at all. We are thinking almost exclusively about ourselves, and whether we're going to be able to sell your product at the price point you are suggesting. I hate to be mean about it, and I'm not being: But understanding what is going through the mind of the buyer considering your product will help you have more success with the transaction and ultimately more success with your business, I think.

Nevertheless, there are certain things you can do before the buyer even sees your product that will help you curry favor. Here's one: Research. When people start out selling their handmade things, they usually start with local stores in their city or town. If you're not a big shopper and you aren't familiar with your local shops, take a day off and get out there. Look at what they carry, how it's displayed, what the general aesthetic and price point is. Take a business card. Buy something, and get a feel for the climate of the retail staff, how they package things, what's emphasized among the product lines they carry. Don't introduce yourself as a local artist looking to sell your toothbrushes! Nothing, and I mean nothing, will result in an icier reception. I can't say exactly why this happens, but it happens. Resist the temptation to introduce yourself. Pretend you're Veronica Mars and just spy. You're doing research here, remember? You're trying to save yourself the ultimate pain of approaching stores that are completely inappropriate for you and having them bitchily say, "Lady, do you know what we sell here?" (I of course never say this, I hope, but I do think it, and bitchily, too.)

I have great compassion for people who muster up the courage to pound the pavement. Trust me when I tell you that no one who loves sitting alone in their studio painting toothbrushes can possibly have the same Myers-Briggs personality type as someone who loves selling . . . anything. You are not alone in not wanting to do this. I promise you. But this is how people start out. And there are certain ways not to do it. I can't tell you how many people we've never seen before come into the shop with a bag full of stuff and expect us to drop whatever we're doing to consider their offerings. They may be out there, but I don't know of a single buyer who appreciates this. Please don't make this mistake -- it is the surest way to make a buyer think you are unprofessional. Unless you've got some cupcakes for us in that bag, too, we will talk about you behind your back and think you're dumb if you do this. On principal, we never buy things from these folks, and I can't think of any book on business I've ever read that suggests it as a tactic. It is an inconsiderate and amateurish approach, and sends up warning flags to your potential buyer that you will be inconsiderate and amateurish to work with in general. I'm vehement about it because it happens so often, amazingly.

Instead, try this. Research the stores you think would be potential candidates to carry your products. Make sure they are in different neighborhoods, or that they aren't in direct competition with each other; stores want to be unique, and they don't want their customers to feel like they can get the same stuff on every corner. If the store has a web site, go to it and read it. Discover whether or not they are strictly brick-and-mortar or if they also might sell your things on line; be prepared to have an answer if they ask you where else you sell your things, or whether you make them available  on-line.

Know your pricing. Don't expect your potential buyer to figure this out for you. Pricing is a complicated topic for another post, perhaps, but I will say this about it: You need to look hard at your toothbrush and think about what's gone into it: How much time have you spent painting it? How much money have you spent on its materials? How many miles have you put on your car driving around looking at shops? You need to think hard about what its perceived value is in the marketplace: How much are people willing to pay for a toothbrush, no matter how cool? Can you live with receiving half of that for every one you make? How will you feel if someone orders 100 of them?

If you intend to sell your toothbrushes to many stores, and also sell them off of your own web site, and also at craft shows, you should know that the retail price at all of these venues should be the same. I know you will tell me that this isn't fair/true/necessary, but I will insist that it is, if only because it will make your life exponentially easier if you start out pricing your products in this way. If you have different prices for different people or different places, or you try to sell your toothbrushes on-line at a price that undercuts the retail price your stores are selling them at, you will run into problems. I urge you to be realistic about your pricing, but to also value everything that you've brought to your product, and set a wholesale price that you are very comfortable living with. If you can't let it go for 50% of the retail price, you might consider working out a different percentage (60% to you, 40% to the shop, or even 70/30) especially if you are willing to place things on consignment, but it's fairly uncommon for a standard retail store to accomodate this. More on this, and consignment, another time, perhaps.

In addition to your wholesale/suggested retail prices, this is what else your buyer will want to know: Where else are you selling your stuff? What is your turnaround time? What are your terms (i.e.: how and when do you accept payment)? What is your minimum opening order amount (i.e.: how much do we have to spend to make it worth your while at all)? What is your reorder amount? If you're just starting out, I think it makes sense to set your minimums fairly low -- around $100. This gives a store more incentive to take a chance on you, and reorder when/if things sell without risking a bigger investment. It is lovely if you take the time to think about these things before you make contact with a buyer; it's even lovelier if you've typed it all up along with your contact information and some really good pictures of your products.

When you've done all this, I'll bet you'll be more than ready to make your informed, confident approach, which will hopefully result in the buyer setting up an appointment to see your things. But I'll talk about that next time because, really, how much free advice can one girl be expected to give away in one sitting.

Here's Part 2.

Oh, I Said "Thank You" Alright

comments: 15

My sincerest intentions together with my sophisticated pretensions resulted in a deadly cocktail of emotionally explosive gibberish, as well as an enormous lump in my throat as we all stood uncomfortably and silently and I blubbered, "The . . . book. . . ." I held it out for her to sign with a bright orange pen (which thankfully didn't have any Hello Kittys on it, further reducing me).

"Thank you," I said, then: "BAM!" That was the sound of my head exploding a la Andrae of Project Runway as I disintegrated into a fit of unintelligible gibberish/sobbing life-story, not very unlike the time I was benched during my 7th-grade presentation on Cuban ballerina Alicia Alonso, the first word of which (naturally, "Alicia") launched me into a geyser-force torrent of nervous giggles that at first were funny and then just embarrassing and then full-on loonified, as my teacher admonished me to "breathe," "breathe," and "look at the clock." Shamefully, I took my seat and continued to shudder with my head down on the desk. Well, this was much like that (in my opinion, though I've been assured by my witness that I am, as usual, exaggerating).

It is a frustrating though countless-times-proven fact that when something is important to me, I will, with remarkable consistency, hurl myself into such a frenzy of nerves and longing that the encounter itself results in a borderline medical emergency, as I have an emotional and public seizure at the moment of contact. Andy looked on in horror as I told Marilynne Robinson my life story in the four seconds of awkward silence following the "thank you," ending with the "I loved college!" to which she could only reply kindly, "Uh huh!" Strangely, I don't think she was flattered by the part where I shakily announced that she had inspired me to not be a writer. That was when she started looking around the room. And I had thought all this time that she understood me!

Oh my God. Chalk me up another night of shame and mortification. How did I not see this coming. I can't even put a photo on this one; thank goodness the evidence is only burned into my brain (though I did spend a sleepness night shaving off the corners as I replayed events enough times as to render them smooth and bland, sighing at 2 a.m. with a final, "Oh, who cares anyway." Of course.) Andy reassured me that a sanitized, composed encounter wouldn't have been . . . memorable . . . at all to M.R. in the same way that my head spinning around might be, and said with his usual wisdom, "Look, hon, I'm sure she's seen worse. You can't write a book like that and expect it not to be an emotional experience for people." So, in true Alicia fashion, I've utterly bought into his version of me and my behavior, and move forward from this point on in contented resignation, however deluded. The reception was full of much older, very-well-dressed people, and then frizzy me, clutching my tattered paperback. I was shocked not to see anyone else carrying a book, as well as to see M.R. standing almost alone at the edge of the room. I could say I just wanted her to know that someone cared. . . .

Oh yeah, and the lecture itself. Speaking to a full house, she was engaging and philosophical and challenging in every way. We had patron seats (yes, we know people), in the first row, and could see her rubbing her foot against the back of her leg every time she got to a part in her text that was particularly abstract/intense. It was an amazing, provoking, and inspiring evening, and I hope I don't ever forget it.

I just read this aloud to Andy and he said, "Why don't you put a picture from The Exorcist up there?"

Marilynne Robinson

comments: 27

Housekeeping_1 "I was afraid of everything. I was afraid of needles. I was afraid of an inchworm. I was afraid of other people. I thought other people were treacherous, particularly in elementary school, which I thought was a dangerous time in life. I remember sudden, inexplicable shifts in friendship; you'd go home for one day with a cold, come back, and everything would be different. I also tend to be now -- and apparently was then -- a governed person. I never understood what the rules were, but I lived in terror of breaking them. Reading seemed like a pretty safe activity, compared to the horror of the rest of it."
     -- Sue Grafton, from When I Was a Girl (Pocket Books, 2003)

As I've mentioned, if I consider myself anything, it's a reader. My father was one too, and it was not uncommon for us both to be at the dinner table with our left hands holding down books, our rights forking in peas, the conversation of others swirling past and beyond us. My sisters and mother don't share this obsession, but their tolerance for it was barely even remarked upon -- for years and years we ate dinner like this and it never seemed weird to me until I got older and felt strangely bored eating over at other people's houses with nothing to read. For this particular genetic inheritance (reading in general, not the reading-while-eating skill, though it's handy to have) I am grateful.

Tomorrow night I'm going to see Marilynne Robinson, the author of one of my favorite -- probably my very favorite -- novels,  Housekeeping. I always think of it as the novel that made it possible for me to be something other than a writer, and I'm intensely grateful for that, too. I felt a preternatural affinity for this story when I first read it, and I still feel that; telling my own story exhausted and eluded me, and seemed like something I would never be able to get right. Housekeeping was the first book I'd read that gave a strange kind of substance to my own strange, melancholy childhood, though its plot was nothing like my own -- but its essence, the unraveling and re-knitting of its ideas and images, rang so familiar and clear that I finished it with huge relief, and quietly started making plans to do other things.

First published in 1981, it has been in and out of print since then; back in, of course, now that she's won the Pulitzer for Gilead, her second novel, written 23 years later. If you're not familiar with the book Housekeeping, you may have heard of the movie, which is lovely itself, and patiently captures the tension and mercury-glass mood in its perfectly wrought details and subtle performances, especially those of the young actors playing the the two sisters (Christine Lahti plays their aunt, and she's very good, too). But even viewing the film is far enhanced by reading the book, which reveals itself in the smallest and most delicate of ways, and before you know it you're knee-deep in the most lacy of metaphors, trembling. It's hard for me to really talk about it, because I feel clunky and heavy-handed no matter what I say. When you read the book, you even feel like you should hold it carefully.

When I went to graduate school in creative writing at the University of Montana in 1994, Marilynne Robinson was discussed by the writers around town in hushed tones. She had been a visiting professor there, I think, before my time -- I could never quite get exactly what she'd done at U of M -- but she was originally from Idaho and had some connections with the Missoula crowd. I remember walking to the bar one night after class with one of our teachers and she said that Marilynne was known for being kind of cagey about the book, and didn't like talking about it -- I think my teacher said that she'd felt she'd said all she had to say in the book itself and was impatient discussing its implications or origins.

I remember being utterly in concert with this idea, and also the notion that someone might just have one great novel in them. Housekeeping had always seemed to me like a book she'd needed to write, not because she was trying to be a famous "writer" but because the story compelled her to tell it -- I had no idea if this was true, but it felt true. My colleagues were much savvier about the "business" of writing than I; they openly admitted to being there to make connections and find publishers (and did -- many are quite successful now, and I get to see them at Powell's when they come through on book tours). I was completely ignorant in this -- I even felt, in my naivete, that there was something a little obscene about it, and the idea of having to court publishers the way one might rush a sorority filled me with dread and panic. It seemed that Marilynne Robinson could not be swayed by the machinery of the industry, and yet her book was the best; it seemed that she'd written it, and walked away. It reminds me now of something our niece said when she was about four or five. She'd been bandaging up a big stuffed whale (more on why we would have a life-size stuffed killer whale around here later) with first-aid tape and band-aids. I watched her for a while as she diligently taped every fin. I said, "Oh, my, what a good doctor you are!" She ignored me. "Should we call you 'Dr. Arden' now?" She ignored me, bending closer to her whale's injured fin, hoping I would shut up. "Oh, Dr. Arden, your juice is ready!" I sang out. But she'd had enough, and turned to me with a withering stare (I'd never seen a "withering stare" until this one, though I'd read of them many times) and said: "I don't care what you call me, I just care about the work."

Well. Out of the mouths of babes.

Of course, Marilynne Robinson didn't literally write the book and walk away, but in a sense she did, and at 24 this seemed to me an incredible act of independence and confidence. I clung to it as a possibility during those feverish, confusing years at school where I couldn't hide my limitations, and bared the backs of my knees to the workshop while they pummeled those soft white hollows with their little sticks. There is something still so inherently reassuring to me about the book and the way she delivered it, as someone who makes things and puts them out in front of the world for all to see, and buy, and say something about. Housekeeping seems almost holy in this respect, like a prayer. It is an entirely noncommercial novel, and yet it has managed to find a passionate, grateful audience because it is so beautiful.

I've not kept up with Marilynne Robinson's career, or the world of literary fiction the way I used to, though I do know that she teaches at the Iowa Writing Workshop, which is sort of the ultimate destination in MFA programs. I looked up Housekeeping on and was shocked to see that there is only one copy of something called Reading Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping which is all of 70 pages and selling for $197.48. I've picked up Gilead countless times but have never read it, afraid I wouldn't feel the same infatuation for a 76-year-old Congregationalist preacher-man as I did for Ruthie and Lucille. I wouldn't read any of the countless on-line reviews, and I don't want a new copy of the book, and I'm sort of nervous about going to the lecture. So many people have discovered her while I've been off the scene. For so long I'd felt like Housekeeping was my book, somehow -- a secret I shared only with those I trusted completely, and I would offer it up to them two-handed, with an earnest, twitching hopefulness: Love this (and me), please.

But I bet that Marilynne will be just like I think she will be -- beyond all of this nutterbutter. And all I'll say when I meet her is Thank you. Thank you so much.

About Alicia Paulson


My name is Alicia Paulson
and I love to make things. I live with my husband and daughter in Portland, Oregon, and design sewing, embroidery, knitting, and crochet patterns. See more about me at