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The epicenter of the DIY movement is Etsy. com, a massive, easy-to-use clearinghouse for handmade goods. Launched in 2005, Etsy bears some resemblance to eBay, but with an active community component. It also looks cooler, and the goods are nearly all small-batch or one of a kind. The 2.8 million items currently listed for sale are fully searchable, and sellers are easy to contact so you can grill them about which vegetables are used in the dyes for their pinafores. The site did $166,000 in sales its first year, $87 million by 2008.
Reached on his mobile phone while browsing in a Salvation Army store, Etsy’s vice president of communications, Matt Stinchcomb, says: “At the end of the day, we’re a company. We’re in the business of capitalism. It’s more about conscientious consumption or consuming better. There’s no doubt about it that it’s capitalism, but that’s OK. It’s a better kind.” The Etsy enthusiasts won’t bother Wal-Mart if Wal-Mart doesn’t bother them. “As a culture, we’re hungry for alternatives, which is part of our notion of abundance,” says Dougherty. “It’s not so much that Wal-Mart’s wrong,” but there’s room for this too.
Leibovitz and her partner, Michael Secore, sell the work of dozens of home-based toymakers, mostly individuals and small family or community groups. “What we sell tends to include a lot of home-based activity,” Leibovitz says. “A retired grandfather supplementing his Social Security income making pine trucks.…A lot of young mothers too. There are small shops where they’ve got a handful of people. Sewing rooms or wood shops with six to eight people.” Yet Leibovitz and Secore have more in common with telecommuting information workers than they do with the archetypal grandmother selling doilies at a church bazaar. When their son Liam was born, Secore thought, “Wow, I want to stay here with this little guy.” And so they figured out a way to do that and still make money.
That’s another characteristic of the DIYers: They’re breeders. (At one craft fair, I spotted a maternity T-shirt for sale that read, “I’m so crafty, I make people.”) A visit to Etsy reveals that you can get just about anything printed on a onesie, and that the current generation of stay-at-home moms is an entrepreneurial group. A significant percentage of the products sold on Etsy are for kids, making home producers all the more shocked to have “for the children” rhetoric turned against their livelihood.
The link between technology culture and DIY crafters is not accidental. Make’s Dale Dougherty claims to be the developer of the very first commercial website, and he is a co-founder of the big-think Web firm O’Reilly Media. At the dawn of the Internet age, in 1992, Dougherty helped Tim Berners-Lee (the guy who really invented the World Wide Web) and author Ed Krol write a book about this exciting new world. That book, The Whole Internet User’s Guide and Catalog, was, Dougherty says, “almost an homage” to the Whole Earth Catalog, Stewart Brand’s 1968 classic about welding kits, synthesizers, Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes, and accounting. Brand’s hippie capitalism itself emanated from Menlo Park, in the heart of the Silicon Valley—the same place that saw the first garage meeting of the Homebrew Computer Club in 1975, which eventually bred such counterculture-referencing industry powerhouses as Apple. In a 2005 Stanford commencement speech, Apple’s Steve Jobs called the Whole Earth Catalog “Google in paperback form, 35 years before Google came along,” adding, “It was idealistic and overflowing with neat tools and great notions.”
What Make and Craft take from Brand, Dougherty says, is a sunny outlook. “Where do we get this optimism about technology?” he asks. “I don’t think the ’50s had that feeling. Industrialization was just this large thing. It was going to overtake you, and you had to go along with it.” Dougherty points out that the first Arts and Crafts movement was an adversarial response to Victorian-era industrialization. He says he initially modeled his magazines after early editions of Popular Mechanics, filled with careful instructions for projects like “How to Build Your Own Glider Plane” and a can-do confidence that Americans could be trusted to do things like build and fly homemade planes.
Until the toy testing law hit, entrepreneurial crafters had avoided close encounters of the regulatory kind. The dream for many DIY producers is to have their own shop someday. But this bitter first taste of battle with regulators may keep Etsy sellers and their kin confined for a while longer to the Internet, where they can continue to indulge in the kind of countercultural capitalism that would make their Menlo Park forefathers proud.
‘We Are Not Trying to Advance a Nefarious Political Agenda’
When the lead scandal hit, crafters would have been justified in indulging in I-told-you-sos, but they were ready and eager to do more than criticize. Domestic alternatives to cheap Chinese toys abounded, and they were scaling up quickly—something that’s easy to do when your business lives online. But the new federal rules yanked the hand-loomed rug out from under the crafters’ plans for expansion. As the Handmade Toy Alliance points out on its homepage, “If this law had been applied to the food industry, every farmers market in the country would be forced to close while Kraft and Dole prospered.”
In December, when word finally started to get out about the possible ramifications of the law, crafters rallied at websites such as Facebook, CPSIA-Central, and Etsy’s discussion boards. Toymakers had hoped that it was somehow just a misunderstanding, but in the end all they got was a pretty terrible compromise: a one-year delay of the testing requirements, plus a vague promise from the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), the body charged with administering the law, not to go after domestic handmade toymakers. During that year, toymakers and sellers will still face fines and even jail time if the government discovers their products aren’t up to code. And the postponement does not apply to painted toys or jewelry.
As a direct result of the CPSIA, some business is already drying up. Selecta, a German maker of wooden toys popular with the DIY consumer set, announced that it would no longer export toys to the United States as of the end of 2008, leaving its 1,200 U.S. retailers high and dry. HABA, another German toymaker, has removed its line of jewelry from 2009 catalogs. Since lead is completely banned in all objects intended for children, dirt bikes and other kids’ bicycles containing tiny amounts of lead in their mechanical parts will become illegal. One dealer, Malcolm Smith of the Riverside, California, company Malcolm Smith Motorsports, is defying the law, but other companies have simply pulled their children’s lines off the market.
Jewelry is subject to particularly strict requirements, since most true crystals and rhinestones contain lead—although it poses minimal danger to kids, since the metal remains locked inside the crystal structure of the stones. (A California toy law, which was the model for federal legislation, contains exceptions for rhinestones.) The CPSIA also requires that children’s books printed before 1985 be individually tested to rule out the presence of lead paint or other hazardous materials, a provision that has angered librarians and caused some used bookstores to trash much of their vintage stock. Emily Sheketoff, executive director of the American Library Association, told the Congress-covering paper The Hill, “We are an industry that looks out for children every day. We are much more concerned [with children’s safety] than that commission or its general counsel.” At this year’s Toy Fair in New York, CPSC Assistant Executive Director John Mullen told bookmakers, “We’re creating a little immunity box for you. You can sell with impunity.” Shortly afterward, however, Mullen noted that if state attorneys general decided to go after publishers under the new law, there was nothing the CPSC could do.
Despite these onerous new burdens on the industry, outlets such as the New York Times editorial page remained hostile to mom-and-pop concerns, writing that the delay in implementation “has caused confusion and allowed opponents to foment needless fears that the law could injure smaller enterprises like libraries, resale shops and handmade toy businesses.” It’s hard to imagine which was more of a shock to the system of people like Leibovitz: getting the support of congressional Republicans or finding themselves in the crosshairs of a Times editorial.
Jennifer Grinnell, founder of LivingPlaying. com, posted a mini-manifesto at change.org in February, after the law went into effect. Grinnell wanted the world to know that she opposed the law, but not because she and her allies are part of any “right wing business group.” She writes of a political gathering at Toy Fair 2009: “To my left sat a vegetarian from Vermont, to my right a cloth diaper retailer from Arizona. Also at the table were people from New York, Connecticut, Minnesota and three people (me included) from Massachusetts. The sad fact about larger public discussions in the US these days is how politicized almost every subject has become. In an ‘us’ and ‘them’ environment, we seem to have lost [sight] of the fact that perhaps we, the citizens who find fault with this law, actually have a legitimate point and are not trying to advance an ideology or nefarious political agenda.”
Leibovitz says sales have held steady for Craftsbury Kids, even as the economy founders and she struggles to figure out which suppliers, if any, will keep her on the right side of the law. But after a baptism by fire in the political process, she’s not so sure that her side will win. With a one-year grace period for most of the industry, it may be possible to convert the stated sympathies of congressmen like Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) into legislation that will carve out an exception for most domestic small-scale toymakers. But Leibovitz’s new cynicism shows through when she sighs and says, “There seemed to be an increase in supportive letters from representatives, but no actual changes.”