Joel and Nancy Aronie reprise unusual tissue dispenser

Joel and Nancy Aronie and the playful, practical invention that almost made them rich. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

We see a pedestrian product transformed into an arresting, functional form and think, “Wow, that’s really cool,” and, possibly, “Why didn’t I think of that?”

Often they are simple, things that we just like better than the perfectly good alternatives. Imagine life without refrigerator magnets, Velcro, or remote controls. All better than the alternative. More fun. Got to have it.

Chilmarkers Nancy and Joel Aronie are seeing that happen with their retro Ball-O-Tissue (BOT), now back after a 25-year hiatus. In the late ’70s, the Aronies transformed the humble tissue box into a home and bath icon of sorts. A spherical, plastic tissue holder, a BOT dispenses one tissue at a time with a playful, sort of tipsy wobble, and then comes back to attention, thanks to a centering weight in its “bottom.” It threatens to roll off the surface it’s on, but it won’t. It came in a riot of colors and sold for $10. Some 350,000 of them were snapped up in BOTs’ first five-year run, from 1979 to 1984.

The BOT is a friendly little rascal, looks like a smiling Pac-man. The millennium BOT still comes in a riot of colors, including fluorescent, and still sells for ten bucks. You still have to refill the tissues, and people still “get” them at first glance.

“The BOT smiles at people and they smile back,” Ms. Aronie said. “We were showing them to a retailer last week. Retailers aren’t buying anything this time of year, but a customer in the store saw it and wanted one — right now. The store bought 36.” On the Island, Off Main in Vineyard Haven, Alley’s, and the Menemsha Cafe, run by the Aronies’ son Josh, are the retail outlets right now, and it’s on Joel Aronie’s website. A portion of every BOT sale will go to the Vineyard Nursing Association, a valued resource for the family during the extended illness of their son Dan, who died in January 2010.

Although the BOT was only a five-year phenomenon in the 20-year life of Aronie Galleries, as their manufacturing company was called, its reprise is a tale full of the magic of youth and the lessons of maturity. As it turned out, the BOT story may also be leavened with a dab of paying forward.

“I had seen a concept like the BOT and did a design, made a mold, and began manufacturing it in 1979,” Joel Aronie recalled last week. His approach might traumatize MBA research wonks today, but back in the day, people just…did things.

“We didn’t know anything about business when we started in 1968,” Ms. Aronie said at the their home last week. “We were kids. I was teaching in Hartford, Conn., and he was a nuclear engineer with Pratt and Whitney, working with this fascinating new material called plexiglass or Lucite.

“Joel made a 16- by 16-inch end table as a kind of consolation prize for a friend who’d just lost a mayoral election in Hartford. The guy called us a couple of weeks later and said everyone who saw it wanted one.”

The Aronies became small-time table makers at home, then became big-time bath and boudoir accessory manufacturers, adding lamps, and a full line of Lucite home accessories.

“We cold-called Bloomingdale’s lamp buyer,” Ms. Aronie said. While a gatekeeper was brushing them off, the lamp buyer walked by, saw their lamp and ordered a dozen.

In the fashion business, if Bloomie’s buys it, other retailers always line up, so the business and its product line grew until one day a major retail store buyer — known as “big pencils” in the biz — said he had a million dollar order for them but could he see their factory first?

“That was a problem,” Ms. Aronie said. “We didn’t have a factory. But a friend let us use an empty building. Somehow we pulled it off and we did well for a while.” During the gravy days of the 70s and early ’80s, the Aronies were not stingy. They ran a family business and their 125 employees were the family. There were good salaries and benefits, Christmas bonuses, parties during the year with bands and food and puppets and clowns for the kids.

Then the moguls experienced another fact of business life: the elevator can go down faster than it went up.

“Really, three things happened: knock-offs (products exactly like yours but made overseas with huge economies of scale), the oil crisis raised our costs, and crack cocaine came to Hartford,” Ms. Aronie said. “The crack epidemic was the worst part. It just decimated our workforce.”

“We were lucky,” Ms Aronie said. “We went down gracefully. We paid everyone and didn’t have to go bankrupt. We never made much money, but it funded this cottage in Chilmark,” she said, gesturing around their small and decidedly rustic home.

Then, three or four months ago, Ms. Aronie began thinking about the BOT. “I still had one in captivity,” she said. “We discussed doing it again, but we needed the mold. I found Alan Chapman, who bought the company from us. He had sold it to somebody else. Somehow, he found the mold, nearly 20 years later, in a warehouse in New Jersey, and just gave it to us. Alan Chapman, God bless him.”

So BOTS are the same, but life is different. These days Mr. Aronie and his brother are still inventing stuff, like Quikpoint tools for craftsmen to use on the restoration of old buildings. Ms. Aronie is still teaching, this time it’s creative writing workshops in her Chilmark studio.

The Aronies will go to the national gift show in New York in January with the BOT, but they have no expectations.

Still, one can hope. “I loved being rich for those eight or ten early years,” Ms. Aronie said. “Joel, on the other hand, has really good values. He doesn’t care about money that much. I’d love to have a lap pool here, but if not, that’s okay. I’ll go swim somewhere else.”