Virtual shelves, real sales

on September 2 | in Web Only | by

Jessica Manack ’02, M.A. ’03 and Erin Wommack ’02, have been selling their witty buttons and magnets on etsy.com for six years.

Students spend their years at Hollins honing creative muscles. They paint the rock. They paint recycling bins. They design elaborate Tinker Day costumes. They take writing classes. They take dance classes. They dye their hair every color of the rainbow. They draw chalk rainbows on the sidewalk in front of Main. It only makes sense, then, that Hollins alumnae continue flexing those muscles after graduation.

 

Thankfully, the modern age makes it easier than ever for Hollins artists to show off their work. By now most folks—save the ones living in Internet-free communes—know Etsy.com as a hipper cousin to eBay, where instead of bidding on 1970s National Geographic magazines, shoppers can buy an endless variety of handmade goods. Hollins alumnae are well represented on the site. “It’s nice to have a creative outlet you can share with everyone you know with a few clicks,” said Austin Bouffard ’04, who sells jewelry on her Etsy shop named AvenueBelle.

Early Etsy adopters

Erin Wommack ’02 and Jessica Manack ’02, M.A. ’03 first made buttons combining vintage images with cheeky sayings as roommates at Hollins. They called their enterprise Miss Chief Productions.

After graduation, the pair found themselves living in different states and busy with new careers, but that didn’t temper their passion for making things. Manack was peddling Miss Chief wares at a craft show in 2005 when she heard buzz about a Web site for artists and crafters getting ready to launch. Manack and Wommack immediately recognized the potential. Etsy launched on June 18, 2005. Miss Chief Productions had a shop on the site within the month. “In the beginning we only got a couple of sales here and there,” said Manack, who now lives in Pittsburgh, where she works as a communications specialist. “People were learning about it. It took a while for it to build and grow.”

Today, Manack and Wommack ship Miss Chief products—expanded to include magnets, stationery, and bottle openers—to shoppers in every state and twelve countries. “Etsy really is a global marketplace,” Manack said. “So many times I wake up in the morning and I have orders from Australia.”

Wommack, who lives in Roanoke and works as a marketing and public relations coordinator for the O. Winston Link museum, sounds downright evangelistic when discussing the democratic nature of the Web site. “The wonderful thing about Etsy is if you have a computer and a digital camera, you can get online,” said Wommack.

Manack pointed out that lots of artists lack the know-how to create their own Web sites or the money to pay other people to make them. It takes twenty cents and about five minutes to post, for instance, a listing for a crocheted corn dog. Wommack designed her own site for Miss Chief Productions back in the pre-Etsy era, but she got sick of updating the site every time an item sold. Etsy updates automatically. “It simplified all that,” Wommack said.

Make it work

Jenny Boully ’98, M.A. ’99 juggles her Etsy store, Woolly Boully, with raising an infant, writing poetry, and working as assistant professor and director of the M.F.A. program in nonfiction at Columbia College Chicago. She’s able to squeeze in time to sell her hand-dyed sock yarns and patterns for amigurumi (cute crocheted or knitted animals or dolls) on Etsy because she can check her listings and sales at any hour of the night or day, whenever she can take a break. It’s that flexibility that Boully thinks makes Etsy appealing to modern, multitasking women. “There are so many women on Etsy who are doing it to supplement their income if they’re working, or they’re doing it so they can stay at home and raise their family,” she said.

“Sometimes I’m doing it at midnight,” agreed Mindy Herron Bizzell ’01, owner of an Etsy shop called Indie Bambino and a busy mom. Bizzell began creating natural toys and teething rings because she wanted those things for her own children. “I think it was something I learned from being a Hollins student,” she said. “If you have a necessity, you make it happen yourself.”

Edy Pickens Levin ’97 also found necessity to be the mother of invention when she broke her ankle in 2009. Levin’s injury was so severe she had to go on disability from her position as an art teacher at the Brentwood School in Los Angeles. To supplement her income, Levin, known for her rich paintings, started making colorful note cards and selling them on her new Etsy shop called Edymade—both activities she could do from the comfort of a sofa. “When I broke my ankle, I opened a new creative door, because I couldn’t really stand up and paint,” she explained.

Anna Copplestone ’06 followed the footsteps of her two sisters by creating a shop on Etsy. “More than anything,” Copplestone said, “I started it as a creative outlet.” On her Etsy profile, Copplestone explains that her Hollins education paved the way for crafting success. “I have a toolbox commonly known as a liberal arts degree,” Copplestone wrote. “I love that Etsy has given me a chance to dig around in that toolbox and pull out my more creative tools.”

Levin hopes to capitalize on the number of Hollins alumnae who have shops on Etsy by making it easier to network. She recently created an Etsy ‘team’ called Levavi Oculos that’s open to anyone with an Etsy shop and a Hollins connection. “There are many ways we can collaborate and support each other in our creative ventures,” Levin said of the team.

Expectations, great and small

Austin Bouffard inspired her former classmate Page Rast ’04 to start an Etsy store. “She sells earrings and they’re beautiful,” Rast said of Bouffard’s shop. “I asked her about Etsy and she gave me some info.”

Rast, who lives in Atlanta, hasn’t had a sale since she launched her store, Bellejoi, which features glass jars of bath salt in May, but she’s not discouraged. “I’ve just ordered some new supplies and plan to add some new products to my site, so hopefully things will pick up,” she said. “I really just started it so I could be creative and maybe make some extra money.”

Michie Lee Blevins ’05, who lives in Asheville, North Carolina, has sold about thirty-five quilts at her Etsy shop, Dreams of Sewing Machines. Most are baby quilts that run about $100. “They’re big purchases,” Blevins said of the quilts. “Selling that many is amazing for me.”

Amanda Coody Swennes ’04 felt certain her beaded jewelry would fly off the (virtual) shelves when she launched her Etsy store, Weebit, in January of 2009. That didn’t happen.

With some experience under her belt, Swennes, who works as an editor in Massachusetts, now knows that the success of an Etsy shop depends on how much energy a seller invests. When Swennes has the luxury of taking her time writing descriptions and figuring out the perfect light for photographing the glimmer of the beads on a crystal necklace, she makes more sales. “When I go through a period when I’m not active, it neglects me right back,” she says.

Copplestone was less optimistic than Swennes when she launched Coppleshop in February. “I didn’t have high expectations,” Copplestone said, “so every time I make a sale, I’m surprised.”
Bouffard also takes a laid-back approach to Etsy sales. “Whether or not my earrings sell doesn’t really matter,” she said. “I mean, if they don’t, I get more earrings. There’s no downside.”

Manack too seemed more motivated by the idea of creating beauty than making the big dollars. “I think I would feel so sad if I didn’t make these things with my hands,” she said. “I just really can’t get over the fact that things I make with my hands are all over the world making people smile. That’s what keeps it exciting.”

Never-ending loyalty

Quilt-maker Blevins also loves shopping at Etsy. “People are really inspired by what they do,” she said. “It’s really awesome to be able to support them and then have a piece of art for my house that somebody really took their time to make.”

Many alumnae find Etsy shopping even more thrilling when they know they have a connection to the artisan who made the piece. “If I know somebody,” Swennes said, “if there’s some sort of personal connection, I’ll look in those places first.”

Hollins alumnae who want to shop exclusively at Etsy shops with Hollins connections can do a search for Levavi Oculos on Etsy. The team site offers links to the individual shops. Ginny Frazier ’98 recently purchased one of Boully’s amigurumi patterns off Etsy. Frazier was touched to find her former classmate sent a written note with the shipped pattern. “She was very invested in the pattern and offered to help in any way she could, which was really appreciated,” Frazier said. “I think it’s great to find out what we are doing now that we are ‘grown up’ and help each other out the same way we did when we were students. I guess the loyalty never ends.”

Read more about enterprising alumnae »

Beth Jones ’98 recently received a master’s of social work degree from Radford University and is a social worker for the Roanoke County Department of Social Services.

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