There were two reasons I couldn’t help but notice the woman in front of me in line at the market. For starters, she was wearing a real Chanel suit and about a pound of gold jewelry, and secondly, her outfit was topped off with a pink fleece hat with teddy bear ears. Why the hat? I’ll never know, but it was a good conversation starter.
“Okay, where did you get that hat?” I asked her. “Etsy,” she smiled. I’d never heard of it. She had to spell it twice.
But searching Etsy later that day, I found that hat. “Can you make me one in brown?” I asked Laura, the shop owner. “I don’t even know my size.” “Sure,” she wrote back. “All you have to do is take a tape measure and wrap it around your head.”
A few days later the hat arrived with a handwritten thank you note. It fit perfectly. It cost thirteen dollars. I’m wearing it right now.
From that moment forward – February 1, 2008 – I was pretty much sold on Etsy. I still didn’t know exactly what Etsy was, but I figured that any place you can get a custom, crazy handmade item from a woman taking merchandise photos in her bathroom mirror was the kind of place I wanted to know more about.
Since that day, I have purchased 100 items on Etsy. About three quarters of what I bought was given away as gifts – what better way to show someone there was a big, interesting, handmade world out there? And in those early days, when I told someone their gift was from Etsy, I usually had to spell it twice.
I bought a lot of gifts, but I didn’t cheat myself. I bought a few things for myself that were like nothing I had ever seen before. For example, remember those OlliesWoolies necklaces that Catherine Svensson used to make? I have one.
And I bought a Dookie Chain Scarf from Yokoo. She made mine made in black, the same color as Gwen Stefani’s. Yeah, that Gwen Stefani.
I work in education and I have purchased items that help children understand how nature makes things like coal, fossils, and concretions, those amazing natural rock formations that look like prehistoric flying saucers.
One of my best educational purchases was this crystal radio set, custom made by mewoodwork. It has no source of electricity. It doesn’t plug in or use batteries, but you can hear radio stations on it. Where does the power come from? The power is carried in the radio signal itself. It’s a great way to teach young people about the mysteries of energy.
Other favorites? One of the most satisfying things I ever bought is what my sister and I consider to be the single best all-purpose greeting card ever designed.
The most unusual gift? How about this hand crocheted human colon from AnOptimisticCynic? (Sarah, the shop owner, threw in a free pituitary gland!) I bought it for a friend who faced life-altering surgery. He’s fine now – really, he’s fine – and he said the piece actually helped him deal with change and loss.
One hundred of anything is a lot of stuff. So how is buying on Etsy different from plain old mass consumption? I think it’s fundamentally different in several ways, and here are my top three:
- Buying on Etsy directly supports highly skilled, creative, independent, good-hearted individuals in making a living and realizing their dreams.
- Buying on Etsy subsidizes and preserves vital skills that we need now and will need even more in the future. “Re-skilling” – learning and passing on skills connected to making, growing, and repairing things – is an essential part of sustainable living and a foundation for establishing resilient communities and economies in the future.
- Buying on Etsy restores your faith in people – at least it did for me. It’s easy to be cynical nowadays. But the talent, beauty, and sense of fun on Etsy convinced me that most people really are wonderful most of the time. And I have the hand-written notes, surprise extras, and emails full of best wishes and pet photos to prove it.
So what was my 100th purchase on Etsy? It seemed like it was time to give something back, to give something to Etsy.
Sound a little nuts?
I contacted Andie and Jason Moore, two people I have never met but whose work I had seen in dozens of treasuries. The day before I reached out to them, they had just driven from California to their new home in Texas with four kids in the car, towing a trailer, in the midst of their busiest time of the year. Nonetheless, they jumped on my order for handmade organic chocolate-filled candy nuts to get it delivered to Brooklyn in time for this post. I sent them a card to enclose to my editor, Stephanie Madewell. (Yes, she works for Etsy and her name is Madewell). Thank you, Stephanie, and everyone at the blog. And, yes, I am thoroughly nuts.
There is one thing about Etsy that has definitely changed since the early days. Now, when I tell someone about Etsy, I never, never have to spell it.
Have you found that one-in-a-million gift time and time again in an Etsy shop? Share your tales of shopping serendipity and you could be featured in an Etsy video.
Karen Brown is an award-winning designer and creative director of the Center for Ecoliteracy. Her work has been included in the Smithsonian Institution and Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, and featured in The New York Times, Architectural Digest, House Beautiful, and on Today on NBC. She believes that the handmade movement is a fundamental force for transforming society and the economy.