Bag Lady: Part One

My {Made in China} Gap tote--age seven-months--looks exhausted. The silver metallic-coated fabric, which once attracted compliments ("Oh, I love that purse! I need one like that. Where'd you find it?") has worn down to un-shimmery threads; as if I'd dragged it along an asphalt road instead of hoisting over my shoulder. Last fall my sister Joni gave it to me for my birthday. It's rarely had a day off since. Like the overworked, underpaid factory workers who assembled it and thousands of other purses in China, it's pooped. Enough already.

And so I set out to find a new tote. Key specifications: chic, affordable, made in the USA. How tough could that be? I began at Target, followed by Macy's, Nordstrom's, JC Penney's. On and on I went, schlepping from store to store, peeking inside adorable, tempting handbags--some cheap, some expensive, some canvas, some leather, all in fresh-looking spring colors--searching for some sign of America. None was found. Each time I discovered yet another Made in China tag, I looked like this.

Back home to re-group--oh, how I needed a tall stack o' Girl Scouts Thin Mint cookies--I checked the same stores online. On target.com, I entered "made in usa handbags" in the search window. No purses, but in one of those ironic moments that just makes you laugh, target.com suggested I buy a book called: Made in the USA: Global Greed, Bad Tax Laws and the Exportation of America's Future. Definitely need to order that one. Moving along to nordstrom.com, I found pricey, chic USA-made Reese Li diaper bags (will tell daughter Stephanie about those) and some high-end designer bags by Be & D. But $765 didn't exactly match my price range. If the California Lottery comes calling, I'll take the leopard print shoulder bag.

On a whim, I checked gap.com. I know, silly of me. Ever the optimist, I entered "made in usa purses and handbags." Lo and behold, Gap sells a canvas tote called {inescapable irony alert} Feed USA. Yes, the sturdy-looking tote is Made in the USA. It sells for $29.50. Of that, Gap will donate $5 toward improving "school food and nutrition education in America." Gee, thanks, Gap. How 'bout you bring all your manufacturing back to the United States instead?

Macy.com had nothing to offer, and jcpenney.com just plain teased me. I put in the usual "made in usa handbags," and up popped a page of Liz Claiborne purses. "Hey, these are nice," I said to no one but me. Still, the description didn't say "Made in USA." In fact it said nothing about "imported" or anything. I contacted the Consumer Relations Department in NYC. The person I spoke with chuckled and said, "Well, none of our purses are made here, I can tell you that. Components are bought all over the world." Undaunted, I pressed on. Were they assembled here, by chance? "No. Everything's done elsewhere. They're imported back into the country." Of course they are. Duh.

I stared at my blank keyboard for a few panic-stricken moments. I sure as heck didn't want a Gap "Feed America" bag. What was left? As I stared, trancelike, at the Google-blue background of my Gmail account, I remembered that my friend / media advisor, Kristen, had emailed me months ago about an e-commerce website she liked called Etsy. Its home page states: "Our mission is to enable people to make a living making things, and to reconnect makers with buyers. Our vision is to build a new economy and present a better choice: Buy, Sell, and Live Handmade."

Handmade? I pictured the kind of projects tackled by kids at summer camp: tie-dyed t-shirts, draw-string purses, maybe a lanyard keychain or woven potholder thrown in for good measure. Belted hip pouch, anyone? According to wikipedia.org, Etsy sells: "art, photography, clothing, jewelry, edibles, bath & beauty products, quilts, knick-knacks and toys…beads, wire, jewelry-making tools and much more." It also sells "vintage" items (products must be at least 20 years old). I'm pretty sure Don / Richie C would say the vintage stuff belongs in a box up in the garage rafters, but to each his/her own, right?

Etsy's craft-based, "new economy" vision is the brainchild of Rob Kalin, 30, the company's passionate, quirky (or brilliant, depending on your point of view) creator. According to a new profile by Max Chafkin for Inc magazine, Kalin spent his Bostonian youth "rebelling in ways large and small." With a 1.7 GPA, he "barely graduated from high school" and "essentially conned his way into a college education" at NYU.

In 2005, with "no money, no connections, and no knowledge of computer programming," former classics major Kalin and two computer-savvy friends, Haim Schoppik and Chris Maguire, founded Etsy. The trio had originally teamed-up to complete a freelance design project for GetCrafty.com. "While working on GetCrafty," writes Chafkin, "Kalin noticed two things: first, that there were a lot of crafters on the Internet, and, second, that many of them hated eBay. Over the years, the auction giant had raised prices substantially, making small-scale selling economically unfeasible."

The three friends set out to create a viable, user-friendly alternative to eBay. Kalin designed, Schoppik and Maguire wrote computer code. Two months later, Chafkin writes, they'd "built a modest e-commerce tool…Each merchant would get a free online storefront and would pay just 10 cents for a four-month listing, plus a 3.5 percent commission. (Today, the listing fee is 20 cents.)" Compare that to eBay, where listing a $25 item, for example, "costs 50 cents plus a commission of 8 percent to 15 percent, and maintaining the most basic storefront costs $16 a month."

As Etsy's online traffic grew, a third partner, Jared Tarbell, joined. Venture capital followed. In 2008, according to Chafkin, Etsy accepted a $27 million investment by Jim Breyer "who sits on the boards of Facebook, Dell, and, to the consternation of the Etsy faithful, Walmart." Kalin responded to critics: "'This means that we now have the resources…to enable so many more people to make a living making things. Our goal is for Etsy to be an independent, publicly traded company, focused on all things handmade.'"

Clearly, despite those Walmart ties, Etsy's become the go-to place for big-box weary consumers in search of handmade products. The site boasts five million visitors each month. According to Chafkin, the company currently has 165 employees and "roughly $40 million" in revenue. In 2010, Etsy's 400,000 "tiny companies" (aka crafter-sellers) "moved $314 million worth of merchandise…$785 per seller after commissions--and before taxes." Chafkin found this 2009 posting by one of Etsy's top sellers: "Your odds of making $10,000 per year [on Etsy] are better than winning $10,000 through the Powerball, but not by much."

By the way, those two computer-savvy friends that worked with Kalin to create the company and get it off the ground? Gone. In 2008, writes Chafkin, "Etsy had grown so large that Kalin's creativity was straining his relationship with the rest of the company. As Maguire and Schoppik worked day and night trying to keep the website from crashing, Kalin was spending his time dreaming up new features…Working at Etsy, [Maguire] says, 'was like being in an abusive relationship.'" Ouch. Those creative-genius collaborations can be difficult. Witness the latest Bill Gates-Paul Allen kerfuffle. Or Steve Jobs and just about anybody. Or Mark Zuckerberg and the Winklevoss twins.

Although at times organizationally chaotic, the company apparently continues to thrive. It draws new buyers each day. It's a place where sellers can affordably showcase their wares, launch their products. If they attract huge followings (as some have), they can hire others to make their products, increase productivity, and hit the big time. Problem is, if they do so they have to leave Etsy. Company policy clearly states that each buyer must, in fact, personally create his / her product.

But what about my own Etsy experience, as a buyer? Did I find a purse to replace my beloved Gap bag? Preferably one that didn't look like I'd bought fabric and glue-gunned the thing together myself? More to come.