The greeting card business was one of those things that everybody wanted to do back in the early 1980s. For years the industry had been dominated by three major companies – Hallmark, American Greeting, and Ambassador. The cards were well-scrubbed, clean, safe, and dripping with “family values.” Boring. But times were a‑changing. Finally the sexual and societal changes that had begun in the 1960s were about to hit the greeting card industry like a freight train.
Enter a Chicago-based company called Recycled Paper Products. They moved the needle on the scale with a line of joke cards that went viral (as far as that was possible at the time). This was the time when the gay movement was finally gaining some traction, and the nation was becoming aware that we (queer) were here and that they were going to have to get used to it. In no place did this sign of a new world, a new “lifestyle,” and a new mindset appear in public almost overnight, as it did in the greeting card industry.
“Alternative” greeting cards had been born. Several small startup card companies around the US had sprung up in 1983‑4. I was relocating to the United States after many years abroad, and was keen to get involved in a project that would celebrate my newfound gayness, as well as my artistic and design background and talents. I encountered alternative greeting cards for the first time in San Francisco in a card shop that was – unbeknownst to them – to become a legend in the card and paper products industry. "Does Your Mother Know?" was located in the city's Castro district, probably the gayest neighborhood in the country at the time.
I met the storeowner and took him to lunch. I learned where he bought his cards, who represented the product as a sales representative, and just about everything else regarding the industry that a retailer could tell me. I took it from there. Within a month I was participating in the alternative greeting card phenomenon. I had joined the five or six other (all gay-owned/operated) companies in the nick of time. The demand for this new daring means of social expression was growing so fast that there was still room for newcomers. I had been publishing the Territorial Enterprise newspaper up in Virginia City, so I already had a staff, accounts with printers, and good credit. One day I announced that the newspaper was going to add a spinoff business – alternative greeting cards. My staff cheered. This was going to be a rollercoaster ride, but, hey – why do people ride those high, fast, and scary contraptions? Because they are fun!
We hired a full-time photographer from San Francisco and a professional writer from New York, and rented a massive warehouse east of Reno. In the years that followed, that proved to be the smartest move of all. Whereas all the other competing companies were in major urban areas like New York, Chicago, LA, and San Francisco ... by putting our operation in the desert, ten miles from Reno, our rent expense was a fraction of what everybody else was paying. On average, the rent that the other companies were paying for office and warehouse space at the time was $1.50 per square foot. We were paying .16 cents. Since all the cards in the stores cost the same – the price set by Hallmark – our overhead was, well, rather better than the rest by far. You do the math. We were profitable instantly. Oh yes, we also stole a manager from one of the other companies who knew the business inside and out. That helped too.
What's new? That is the hue and cry of every industry that sells a product. Innovate or die. Everything from automobiles to potato chips and soft drinks – the general public is always demanding something new and different. We learned immediately that greeting card companies of any size had to produce a minimum of fifty new card designs every six months or go out of business. The race had begun. I loved it. Always one who works best under a deadline – like in the newspaper business – I jumped into the deep end of the pool, and began writing gag lines and organizing the props and models for the ongoing process of card production.
We set up a full-scale professional photo studio with state-of-the-art equipment, cameras, back-drops, and lighting. Off the studio was a prop room that over the years was about to explode with all manner of items that one would need to set the stage for a new card idea on the spur of the moment. A Christmas card idea in March? Quick – get the Santa suit, and the tree from the prop room and let's shoot!
This off-the-cuff creation of a whole new card at the drop of a hat sounds fun – and it was. Having the capability to create a “something out of nothing” at any moment was a wonderful thing. But the actual production, sales, and distribution of greeting cards is much more rigid and organized than that.
When you nip into a local card store to buy a Mother's Day card, you expect to find one at least a month before the day when you put it on the gift that you just bought for Mom. Likewise, you expect to buy a Christmas card beginning in November, and a Valentine card in February. Guess what? Those cards didn't just grow there, springing up overnight in time for the occasion, whether it be Thanksgiving, Graduation, or Halloween. Somebody had to plan and organize a host of tasks and processes to get that card into the wall‑rack or wire spinner at the store, in time for the occasion. It is a carefully defined kind of choreography. But although nerve-wracking at times, it does have its lighter moments.
Although eighty percent of all greeting cards sold in the world are “Birthday,” a company has to have a whole line of occasion and situation cards as well. These only sell when the circumstances demand ... and though they lose money, they have to be part of the whole ensemble collection. “New Baby” and “Get Well Soon” are actually kind of fun to produce. Those are usually created during the rare breather moments in the horserace that is the production of seasonal cards and calendars. If it is January, we are shooting Halloween and Thanksgiving. February and March: brainstorming Christmas. May and June: propping and shooting Christmas. July and August: shrink-wrapping and shipping Christmas, while creating more Birthday, “All Occasion,” and blank cards simultaneously – always on a parallel track. And, of course, after all the Christmas cards and next year's calendars are out the door in August, it is time to take a vacation for a few weeks, as on September 1st ... you guessed it: “Valentine” and “Easter” production begins. It is really a weird annual schedule to be on, but somehow we all managed to get into the spirit of the holiday, albeit, six to nine months ahead of the GP (general public)!
The next time you pick up a card that makes you smile or laugh out loud, remember somebody was thinking up that gag line nine months earlier. Somebody was working out the props; another was photographing it or drawing it six months ago. It was sitting on a pallet in a warehouse somewhere three months ago. Hope you enjoy it! Later, after I had sold the company, I really missed the hubbub of life in the production world. I opened my own card shop – knowing the whole biz. I always felt a warm reward when I would hear customers laugh and show a card to a fellow shopper. Some gag-writer or photographer or model somewhere hit the mark.
But this “run ahead and catch us if you can” world of the creative process is only the fun part of the whole picture. There are the day-to-day tasks of filling orders, billing, accounting, dealing with sales reps from around the country, and haggling with printers and suppliers of stuff like envelopes and shrink wrapping.
We were never big enough to be able to afford a $50,000 card counter, so we always did it the old-fashioned way … by hand. Anybody who could count to twelve could get a casual labor job at Comstock Cards – especially during crunchtime when shipping deadlines were looming. But we did have a real state-of-the-art shrink wrap machine. I made it a policy to stay as far away from that sensitive persnickety recalcitrant contraption as possible. I knew that it didn't like me. Every time I got too close it would throw a fit and start eating the cards, or burning the plastic, or binding the conveyor belt, or anything to mock me. I am a jinx around machinery, so I give wide berth to mechanical objects of any kind whenever possible.
But one of our warehouse guys, John Holloway, loved it like a wayward child. He coaxed it, coddled it, and petted it into submission. I was always impressed. It was his toy, his baby. John could single-handedly shrink wrap 10,000 calendars in less than a week, and still get all the regular orders out as well. Amazing. But one year we had a massive calendar order for a chain of stores back East called Art Explosion. Their order was even more than John could handle alone. I suggested we hire an assistant for him. He resisted. After all, who could possibly do his job as well as he could – with one hand tied behind his back! He recommended we hire a day person to fill the regular orders, and he would go on nights and fill the entire calendar order by himself. I loved it, and it worked! Later I made him a framed “diploma” in shrinkwrapology. He probably still has it :‑)
I hasten to add, however, that the shrink wrapper did annoy him from time to time. One of those sweet-tempered kind of guys, he rarely swore in public. But I guess the warehouse wasn't technically “in public.” He had a particular way of using the common expletive dammit! It sounded like this: Dammmeeeeeaaaamit. When he used that “word,” it always had that same certain ring to it. I could hear him clear up front in my office. I picked up on that and every time he let loose I followed suit... Dammmeeeeeaaaamit! In no time, the secretaries, accountants, and computer geeks in the mid-office area picked up on it too; and not to be left out, the warehouse staff joined in the chorus. In no time, all twenty-five of us would in unison repeat on key after John... Dammmeeeeeaaaamit!
August is not fun in the card biz. Christmas and calendars are all printed and stacked high on pallets, ready to be counted, shrink-wrapped, and shipped. The warehouse is as hot as a pistol. So, while everybody else in town is out at the lake or the seaside, every able-bodied man, woman, and casual day worker (and their dogs) were sweltering away, counting cards and envelopes for days on end. It is tedious and boring (and did I mention hot?). The casual conversation usually ran out by about day two-and-a-half.
One day, when most everybody was too hot and tired even to complain, I could tell that they needed some cheering up. So, I figured that some seasonal music might help. I brought in a cassette album entitled: Perry Como's Christmas Favorites. It was a real hit. (Well, actually kind of like B flat.) We all did perk up a bit until the last song on the album. It was just a total experience in irony. It was so weird to hear it in that stifling warehouse on a hot August day. It goes like this:
Well, the weather outside is frightful. But the fire is so delightful. And as long as we've no place to go … let it snow, let it snow, let it snow! Oh, please let it snow!