Making a list? Checking it twice? Looking for something local and nice? It may be ideal to hunt down all the best locally made treasures on a leisurely Saturday walk through Vineyard Haven’s eclectic boutiques, but busy elves at this time of year often begin their search snuggled on the couch, glass of Cabernet in one hand, Internet search engine in the other. Six Vineyard artisans prove that reaching a global market is a very local business, and the sales of their summer season are extending into the winter via Etsy.com, the international online platform for handmade products.
Sonne Kent-Holmesof BadAppleMV has been creating one-of-a kind textile accessories from fabric with history, repurposing “old clothes salvaged from the Dumptique, thrift stores, and friends’ hand-me-downs,” Kent-Holmes told the Times. “I harvest every usable piece of each garment, including pockets, zippers, buttons and denim seams, and when I’m finished, my waste is very little.” Having success selling her beautiful boho-chic wearable art at Citrine in Vineyard Haven and Shindig in Edgartown, as well as during the holiday season at the Vineyard Haven Holiday Gift Shop, Christmas in Edgartown, and the Chilmark Flea Market Christmas Show, Kent-Holmes opened her Etsy store in September to expand her burgeoning business.
“The Vineyard’s economy is seasonal,” explained Kent-Holmes, “and for artists, that season is even shorter. There’s summer, and a few weekends in the fall, and the holidays, and that’s pretty much it. Etsy and other online marketplaces allow artists to continue making an income during the Vineyard’s off-season.” While investing the time to create and stock a shop on Etsy “is significant,” HoImes said, already she has had orders from as far as Rincón, Puerto Rico.
Etsy has a purported 1 million sellers and 30 million consumers, generating more than 1 billion dollars in transactions in 2013. An e-commerce platform created in 2005 by four entrepreneurs who wanted to directly connect artisans with online consumers, Etsy has successfully enabled isolated communities such as ours to reach a far wider public than ever before.
Kent-Holmes agreed: “It widens an artist’s exposure by reaching people all over the country and the world.” She explained that Etsy encourages sellers to join marketing guilds within the platform to help gain wider exposure: “There is great networking among artists,” she said, “with [marketing] teams and forums where ideas, challenges, and suggestions can be shared.”
“You just gotta do it, man,” said Kathleen Cowley of New Moon Magick Chocolate in Oak Bluffs. Cowley also endorses Etsy to augment her locally rooted business: “This allows me to reach out to the rest of the world and not depend on someone walking down the street to find me –– especially in January, February, and March. It’s pretty cool that wherever people live, they can buy something that is made on Martha’s Vineyard.”
From Cowley’s intimate shop full of sparkle and sweets on the edge of Washington Park, vintage jewelry and gourmet chocolate are shipped all over the world: “I’ve sent to Australia, Japan, all over the United States. It’s kinda fun to wake up and check my email and see what’s been sold while I was busy doing something else.” Her clientele, like the other Vineyard artisans interviewed, are a nearly even mix of summer Island visitors who use the online shop to buy more, and new clients who find the items through keyword searches.
Cowley fell into social media marketing like many, dragging her feet behind the tsunami of inevitability. “I started with my website, then joined Facebook, then Etsy, then created my own blog, then Pinterest, then Amazon, then Twitter. It’s sort of a necessary evil, but now,” she concluded, “I simply can’t afford not to do it.” Cowley recently traced a tweet she posted from the West Tisbury Farmers Market on her peppermint chocolate bark. “In one swoop, I reached nearly 7,000 followers. Those numbers are just staggering, and how else but on the Internet could I do that?”
Kent-Holmes said that it was after seeing fellow Vineyard creatives expand their local business through Etsy that she decided to open her own online shop. “Payment processing through PayPal is easy and fast, and Etsy’s system allows sellers to print receipts, gift receipts, and shipping labels, which makes it easy to keep things organized and efficient.”
Opening a shop on Etsy is free, but the company charges 20 cents per posting and reaps 3.5% of the sale price for each listing sold. For each item, our interviewees report spending an average of 15 minutes to post the photos, upload a description, and create the tags, or keywords, used by Etsy shoppers to find an item. “If I can keep my [Etsy] shop up to about 70 items, I seem to generate a lot more sales,” explained Cowley.
Vineyard sellers also agreed that business increases in proportion to the frequency of posting new listings. Kent-Holmes, Cowley, and Marie Meyer-Barton of Leather Treasures reported that time spent on developing and updating your shop equals higher dividends. Meyer-Barton said that “if you pay attention to your site and update and renew listings, along with adding new items, you’ll move up quickly.” Cowley also aspires to spend more time this winter cultivating her Etsy shop. “If I were good,” she told The Times, “I’d be listing an item a day.”
Holly Bellebuono, herbalist, educator, grower, and creator of Vineyard Herbs, said, “The initial setup of the [Etsy] store is time-consuming, but the subsequent maintenance is not out of the ordinary.” Bellebuono shadows merchandise on her own website with her Etsy shop, and therefore uses the same photography and description to post her uniquely local herbal blends to both outlets: “I update my store whenever I get reminder messages from Etsy that a product is expiring.”
After 20 years as a successful vendor in 30 retail locations, the Vineyard herbalist opened her Etsy shop in February of this year to bring her products “to a larger audience, especially an audience that appreciates handcrafted items such as mine. I also tried Ebay and Amazon, but these proved too anonymous and not the right market for something so finely crafted. The most effective site I sell on, in addition to Etsy, is Local Harvest, which allows people to shop by geographic region. I get customers from all over.”
Success at multiple venues yields its own challenges, says Bellebuono, who sells at the West Tisbury Farmer’s Market on Saturdays along with multiple on-Island outlets: “Sometimes I’ll sell out of a product, but I forget that the product is still listed on Etsy. Someone will order it, and I’ll either have to hurry to make a fresh batch or let them know that it’s sold out and refund their payment.”
Local artist Leslie Freeman has had overwhelming success in two separate Etsy shops: one for her sensual stoneware pottery, and one for delicately manipulated metal, stone, and glass jewelry. The impetus for Freeman to move online came after the economic downturn, she told The Times. “The rug was pulled out from under me, so to speak. I knew I needed to expand my horizons … for many years I was able to sell enough of my work to make my living at the artisan shows. I would take orders for dinnerware sets in the summer and get enough work to keep busy for most of the winter making them.”
Now Freeman has constant custom orders from Etsy, even after forgoing the Artisan Festival this summer. She said, “I am receiving orders every day, and because of Etsy my pottery has been used in famous chefs’ cookbooks, restaurants have purchased sets, and I am receiving orders from all over the world. It’s become more than a full-time job.”
Having a strong presence on the Internet does not replace the value of showing and selling work locally for any of the Vineyard artists interviewed — perhaps no one more than Marie Meyer-Barton. As the co-organizer of the Vineyard Holiday Gift Shop in Vineyard Haven, representing 24 Vineyard artisans, Meyer-Barton actively supports the ethos of “shop local.”
Meyer-Barton fashions moccasins and preciously adorned accessories in her cozy basement studio off Lambert’s Cove, but by adding her perfected buttery leatherworks to an international Etsy shop, she can diversify her handcrafted business. She said of combining on-Island opportunities while also using the online vehicle, “This will be enough for me; it expands my strong customer base from the Island, and will generate plenty of work through custom orders.”
Kent-Holmes also reflected on the ever-evolving journey of making and selling art: “I’ve gone from smalltime consignment and selling jewelry at a picnic table outside a bar on Vieques to a respectable small business with a return customer base, wholesale accounts, multiple consignment locations and a small social media following. If the business continues to grow as it has been, I am hoping to be able to segue out of the restaurant industry and become fully self-employed within the year.”
For most creative Islanders, making art is usually just one part of a complex cocktail of earning a sustainable living. Yet rather than working three jobs to survive, these local artisans are using social media and online marketing to diversify their artistic business ambitions and thrive during the austerity of winter commerce on the Island.
As Cowley commented, as with the art itself, “this technology takes time and energy. It’s about cultivation and the fostering of relationships. But it’s worth it.”
You can’t taste a chocolate, smell a tea, feel a fabric, or hold a mug online. To learn more about these artisans and their work, visit local stores: Citrine and the Holiday Gift Shop, both in Vineyard Haven; the West Tisbury Farmers Market, and the Thanksgiving Artisan Festival; then, for off-Island family or midnight elves, you can always visit them online, at their Etsy shops:etsy.com.