November 22, 2013
It’s tough doing the things you want to do in this world when you have no money, and it’s tough to earn money when you have no job, which is the place where Ben finds himself these days. So when he started making plans in September for how he could scrape together the funds to get himself to the Winter 2014 SacAnime convention in Sacramento, we all got to thinking about how he could turn his passion for Japanese anime and manga into a money-making venture.
Ben has been to enough conventions that he has gotten to know some of the vendors, so when he attended the summer convention over Labor Day weekend he took notes, especially from the artists who sell their commissions in the Artists Alley, which is something he has been interested in. We brainstormed a bit and came up with the idea that he might be able to sell some pinback buttons and magnets of his work during the convention. It probably wouldn’t make him rich, but it might earn him enough to be able to pay for his booth and his share of the hotel room he likes to rent with his friends for the weekend. “But then I won’t get to see the convention if I’m in my booth all weekend,” he complained. We suggested that if he shared a spot with someone, not only would it cut his $40 booth fee in half, but it would allow him to split time with the other person so he could mingle with the other convention attendees.
Ben was starting to get comfortable with the idea, but there were still two problems: first, he needed to reserve a booth space and reservations weren’t until the end of September; second, he needed a way to produce the buttons that he hoped to sell. Knowing that it takes time to set up a store of any kind, we decided that it would be a good idea if he could attend another event closer to home and get his feet wet as a business entrepreneur. It just so happened that Oakley was holding its annual Harvest Festival on Oct. 19 and might have one more booth space available, if we wanted it. Roni quickly sent in the $40 reservation fee and set the clock ticking on the rest of our plans.
The next step was to buy Ben his button machine, an activity that turned into something like shopping for a new car. We wanted to involve him in the process, so Glenn researched button supply companies online and ordered several catalogs that he and Ben perused to get an idea of which machine might be the best. The machines come in several sizes, from 1-inch buttons up to 6 inches. They also come in a variety of prices, and being that this was an experiment to see how it went, we wanted to keep the cost as low as possible. But we also wanted to make sure that we got a good machine that would last a long time before needing to be replaced. In the end, we settled on a Tecre manual 2.25-inch machine and purchased enough supplies so that Ben could assemble 250 pinbacks and 100 magnets.
Then came the bad news: the booths for the anime convention were sold out. On the very first day. In despair, Ben was ready to give up on the idea of making buttons, but we had just plunked down a few hundred dollars for a button machine and had already reserved our spot at the Harvest Festival; we weren’t ready to abandon the plan so easily. And as we explained to Ben, if he is serious about selling his artwork then he needs to find other ways to supplement his income while he’s working toward that goal, and making buttons could be a successful business venture if he markets that service the right way. Sometimes as a parent you have to play coach and cheerleader at the same time. So we set our sights on the Harvest Festival and Azure Arts was born.
Ben may have chosen the name for his new business, but it was Roni who did much of the legwork attending to the details of getting him set up, using her business and public relations knowledge to create a website and keep Ben focused on the task of creating merchandise for his booth. The goal was to not only have buttons to sell the day of the festival, but also that he could sell online through his website and could use to promote his service to businesses; buttons have long been a popular promotional item for small companies, and we’ve known people who made a tidy living in the advertising specialties business.
The button machine we ordered arrived in the mail on Sept. 26 and was waiting on the dining room table the day we got back from our drive to Lodi. Ben had already opened the box, which we took as a positive sign that he was interested in putting it to work. In short order we had him come up with a test design that we printed out on our color printer, then let him go through the assembly process. We watched as he used a circle cutter to cut out the artwork, then placed the aluminum pinback parts in the dies of the button machine and pressed everything together. Push the handle down once, rotate the dies, push the handle down again, and voila! A finished button of an anime girl.
The three of us spent the next two weeks coming up with button designs. Glenn put his Photoshop skills to work on some Halloween-themed designs, while Roni perused the craft store for preprinted paper products that could be used to make both buttons and bookmarks. She also searched online for other useful craft ideas. Ben of course had his original artwork that he planned to use, but he also came up with a design for some Pokemon trainer buttons and sacrificed the covers to his childhood Pokemon books to produce one-of-a-kind pins featuring full-color pictures of the books’ characters.
“This is sort of fun,” Ben remarked as he was busily stamping out buttons a couple of days before the festival. He was assembling a nice little pile and getting more confident with the machine. He could pop out a pin in less than half a minute. He was also getting inspired to try other materials in his buttons, moving on from our simple copy paper prints to the book covers and eventually cutouts of his old Pokemon trading cards that he no longer cared about. It was in the middle of stamping out one of these trading card buttons that suddenly the machine stopped working.
Jams are not uncommon with button machines, we later learned, and they are sensitive to assembling pinback parts incorrectly or, as we had done, trying to use paper that is too thick. There are two solutions to the problem: force the dies apart or send the machine back to the manufacturer so they can fix it for you. Being that we had a show to prepare for in less than two days, sending it back to Arizona for repair wasn’t a viable option. We had to “unstick” the dies ourselves, but there were specific instructions not to pry them apart with a sharp object that could damage the dies. Try as we might, the dies remained glued together and we were starting to despair that the machine would be out of commission for the day of the festival. We barely had any buttons to sell, and we would be unable to do our idea of having kids color their own designs to make into buttons on the spot.
In desperation, on Friday morning we put in a call to Dr. Don’s Buttons, the Arizona company from which we had ordered our machine, to see if there was anything else that could be done. They asked if we had tried the suggested method of using a block of wood and hitting it with a hammer to force the dies apart. We had, with no success. “You have to give it a real good whack,” the woman on the phone told us, so we did. Three times. And then just as Glenn feared he might break the machine for good if he hit it any harder, the dies finally popped open. We were saved! Ben spent the rest of Friday punching out buttons while Roni sat alongside him at the dining room table assembling bookmarks, notecards and magnets.
We’ve had booths at dozens of festivals in the past few years, but it had been a long time since we’d sold anything at one. Selling – or trying to sell – merchandise of any kind at a festival is vastly different than running an information booth where you give away freebies and people are happy to see and talk with you. The moment they realize you want their money, they turn and run the other way. We hoped that wouldn’t be Ben’s first experience, but we had girded him for the possibility by telling him that doing the Harvest Festival was more about gaining experience as a vendor than trying to make a small fortune in six hours.
It was a good thing that the button machine was working again, because we had planned on letting kids design their own buttons that Ben would stamp out on the spot. Roni had made up some coloring blanks and supplied pens and crayons the kids could use for the project, and we set a nominal price of $2.50 for the activity. A few parents balked at that, but others had no qualms, and by the end of the afternoon Ben had sold enough on-the-spot buttons to pay for his booth space. What he didn’t sell as many of were our original designs. Glenn and Roni had come up with more than a dozen designs between them, and Ben had supplied a few dozen more, focusing his efforts on Pokemon trainer badges and the cover artwork from his old books. He had also made a few pins with his original character artwork. None of it was a hot seller, and by the end of the day he’d sold perhaps a half-dozen of the predesigned items. If not for a late visit from his Aunt Jacki, Uncle Kevin and cousin Robert, Roni’s bookmarks and laminated magnets would have gone untouched.
Were we disappointed by the lack of sales? Considering that the Harvest Festival is a small show and sparsely attended, it wasn’t a horrible day. Ben made enough money to pay for his booth space, and once we set aside money to replenish the supply of button parts he had about $38 in profit. Not enough to make a living, but some feel-good cash for his first effort.
Now we’re trying to figure out where to go next. We’re trying to encourage Ben to reach out to the local business community to let people know he can do short runs of buttons for event promotions and the like. In the meantime, we helped him set up a website at www.azurearts.net where you can find his buttons available for purchase or commission him to do an illustration.
More than three decades of publishing history came to an end Oct. 25 when Glenn’s newspaper closed the doors for good at its production facility in Walnut Creek’s Shadelands business park and moved into leased office space two blocks away. The move brought mixed emotions of relief and sadness for all involved, particularly those who work in the editorial department and had for the past six months watched as the newsroom was emptied first of their colleagues and finally of its desks. To be more accurate, the newspaper had been downsizing for much of the past decade, so the skeleton crew that was left in the gutted newsroom was truly the last of the survivors.
The 270,000-square-foot facility that once housed printing presses, circulation, advertising, prepress, and administrative offices as well as the editorial production staff was put up for sale in August 2011 during the late stages of the recession, when few companies were looking for commercial real estate. That gave the paper plenty of time to clean out the unused areas of the building, so for months there had been a daily parade of garbage and dismantled office cubicles making their way out to the employee parking lot, where the neighborhood drifters and grifters sifted through the detritus in search of metal they could steal. The empty caverns where the presses and mailroom equipment once were proved spooky places at night, with no security present to deter trespassers, and only the occasional rat and cockroaches to keep one company.
Editorial staffers held a wake for the old building the Saturday before the big move, autographing one of the newsroom walls with the names of employees past and present, and parading around the bronze bust of the paper’s founder, Dean Lesher, who found himself posing for photos draped in a feather boa amongst other humiliations. After that, it was a weeklong cleanup as reporters and editors emptied their desks and packed moving boxes with the belongings they planned to take to the new office complex at Centre Pointe, literally two blocks away.
For Glenn, the change of office means a longer daily commute, but just by half a mile each way. The new office suite is remarkably clean, with new furniture and carpeting, and new flatscreen TVs adorning the pillars in the editorial department. Everyone is on the ground floor and in the same room, so reporters and editors work directly across from advertising sales reps, accountants, and the HR department. It feels like a thriving news organization again, even if it is just an illusion created through the endless downsizing that has accompanied the paper’s shift from the print world to a digital one. At least Glenn is happy to have a larger desk with his new cubicle, although he now would like some taller walls so he can have a place to hang his collection of calendars.
With Thanksgiving just a few days away, it is hard to believe that the holiday season is almost upon us along with the end of another year. The department stores long ago put out their Christmas merchandise, but we’ve taken our time getting to the season of red and green while we’ve enjoyed Halloween and several of our local craft fairs.
On Nov. 9 we visited the Redman-Pocahontas Hall in Oakley to enjoy a pancake breakfast and check out their small fall craft show. The pancake breakfasts are a regular monthly fundraiser for the group, but it had been some time since we’d attended one. Even Ben, who usually prefers to hang out at home, joined us for the outing. We had the dining room entirely to ourselves, except for the mayor and his wife who were seated at another table. It’s a small town, what can we say?
On Nov. 16 we dropped in at the Antioch fairgrounds to see the annual Fall Craft Fair and managed to make it through without buying anything, although there were a few booths that caught our eye. Many of the vendors attending the show come back year after year, so we were familiar with many of them, although Roni did find a couple to interview for articles she planned to write for the newspaper.
Halloween was a typically laid back affair. As it fell on a Thursday, we didn’t see the huge crowds of trick-or-treaters we’ve received in other years, but there were still enough to deplete a couple bags of candy. Ben didn’t go out or dress up this year, mainly because he went to a birthday party a couple of days later that doubled as a Halloween function. That didn’t stop him from raiding the candy supply after the other kids had come and gone. Roni prepared her usual feast of Halloween-themed dinner items, and Glenn supplied the creepy music on his computer, cranking up the volume to Martha Stewart’s Halloween soundtrack for as long as we could stand to listen. Isn’t that special?
It’s time to get this newsletter posted before we have to start thinking about turkey feasts and tree trimming. Thanks as always for reading, and we’ll return next month.