The typical mainstream Valentine’s Day cards you find in supermarkets and stores and on TV commercials generally present a heterosexual angle to the holiday, which doesn’t represent other populations in love. One Greene, Maine couple, Lewis Alessio, and his husband, Jim Shaffer, have been producing creative variations of vintage photograph stationery that tell another visual story.
The couple created In Your Own Words LLC in 2013 to creatively augment vintage photographs into cards and stationery, many featuring men with men and women with women in charming old-fashioned poses.
“Our audience focus is LGBTQ+ but we like to use the term ‘affectionate men, women and children’ for our cards,” said Alessio. “It all started because my husband and I were having difficulty finding cards for each other and friends and loved ones that weren’t insulting, such as two dogs dressed in a tuxedo and evening gown, or outright vulgar.”
Alessio and Shaffer have been collecting vintage images for more than 20 years at yard sales, garage sales, shops, auctions, and online.
The cards and stationery were doing very well before the pandemic, selling in more than 100 small stores across the country.
“We would contact LGBTQ-friendly shops all over the country or shops in urban areas that might be more open to such products,” said Alessio.”But, we had to change our sales focus to Etsy when the pandemic closed nearly all of our small independently owned shops.”
Along the way, In Your Own Words became a certified vendor with the Human Rights Campaign, and pre-pandemic their cards were even sold in Harvey Milk’s camera shop in San Francisco. “We were the only type of cards they sold in the shop, but even that shop has seen sales dwindle so much, so, despite all of the orders we have received from the Human Rights Campaign, that income stream has ceased for the time being.”
Their Etsy store tagline mentions empowering HIV+ Mainers, a mission that Alessio and Shaffer deeply support.
“I was the national CDC’s director of a men’s HIV prevention education program in central Maine for five years,” said Alessio. “I saw a lot of men and women, who couldn’t hold full-time jobs, but they could work at home. So, this business has been a conflation of a number of things personal to us. I came up with the idea of creating a cottage industry where these men and women would assemble the cards and we would market them. In return, we could compensate them with some income, which we’re still hoping to do to benefit them and benefit our community.”
Since the transfer to online sales, Alessio said they are getting their company name out there, thanks to the efforts of their volunteer, Janet Turner.
“I am limited in my talents, but Janet is a techie,” said Alessio. “She helped us move to online platforms such as Etsy and eBay and does our marketing and social media. She has greatly increased our presence on those sites. We’re so grateful to have her.” Adding a wry commentary, he said. “I was born in the wrong century.”
Kay Stephens can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org