Squeezing in and out of the photo booth at The Matador a few weeks ago, my friends and I began to lose interest in the booth one by one. We were being distracted by a woman selling handmade greeting cards which she carried in a case hung around her neck as if she were selling cigars, cigarettes.
The greeting cards were funny, rude, and smart — the kind of cards you’d want to send your best friends and enemies.
Alisa Starr sells her Snarky Cards in dozens of bars and retail establishments all over Portland. That night our group bought a handful of cards, and Starr agreed to answer a few of my questions.
What are your favorite bars to sell in?
Have you ever received one of your own cards?
Sometimes guys ask me that in the bar. It’s usually because they’re thinking about buying a card from me and then doing something cute and flirty with it — like filling it out and then handing it back to me.
I usually look at them with a “What the fuck for?” expression on my face and say no. Their face falls. They look down, and stop flirting, trying to find another in. Usually they can’t recover and end up melting back into the bar, slinking away.
I’m never sure if I’m okay with them melting into the background or not. But the thing is, if you don’t have the balls to say whatever you need to say to me, you’re probably not going to last too long in my company. Because I will scare the fuck out of you. I make the cards because, mostly, because I don’t need the cards. Other people do. I’m encouraging people to think honestly about their lives. I’m trying to get people to say the truth faster.
Well, that’s how it started out, anyway. I just wanted to cut through people’s bullshit. Including mine. Because if we shed our self-deceptions and we are who we know ourselves to be, inside and out, we can allow people to love us quicker, truer and without reservation. I mean, if you think about the people who you know love you, the people you can depend on when you are without anchor, they are the people who know your secrets. The people for whom you do not have to pretend.
If you can shed some of those pretenses as you go, and become that person most of the time, more people have a chance to know you, and therefore love you.
It sounds pretty noble, right? Most of the time, I believe it too. But every once in a while, a card like: “I’m sorry I shit in your pants” sells like crazy and I start to think all of that is bullshit. Maybe I’m just an old bar hag who figured out a way to drink her way through the night for free.
What is the production process like? I.e., do you “mass produce” a single card or have many “one-off” cards?
I spend about 40 hours a week making cards.
First I get the paper, which comes in a big sheet. Then I tear it into card-sized peices. I dip them in paint. I wait for them to dry. I paint pretty pictures on one side. I wait for them to dry. I paint pretty pictures on the other side. I wait for them to dry. I stamp my website/copyright on the card. I put it on my typing desk. In a big ole’ pile, with other cards.
I keep a list of all the cards I’ve ever written on said desk. Once I have that big ole’ pile of ready-to-type cards, I pull out my Snarky Card Box (the one that hangs beneath my boobs at bars, where I sell) and look at what I’ve got on me.
I look at my cards, counting them, mentally keeping tabs on which ones sell etc. every day. I make notes, if something new is moving, I highlight it on my “all the cards ever list” if something is a dog, I make a note and try to remember not to make any more of it.
There are about 5 cards that will always sell when I go out. It doesn’t matter how many hundreds of them I’ve already sold in this city, everyone always falls for them. I try to keep about ten of each on hand every time I go out. After I’ve typed those up, other patterns emerge, and I settle on the cards I need typed up for my night. Then I type until my wrists and back hurt.
How did you come up with the idea, and when did you decide to start doing the rounds at pdx bars?
I started making the cards 5 or 6 years ago when I was working in an art studio in San Jose, California. I came up with my first 30 cards then. We were going to mass-produce them. Then my boss stopped taking her medication, and I had to go find a real job. The cards sat in my notebook until October, 2006, when I was trying to figure out what to send my sister for her birthday. I made and sent her some of the cards, and she called me, totally excited. She said she showed them around her office and everyone there agreed I was a genius.
I started making them for my friends. And then, last July 4, I found myself turning 29 years old, and jobless. And totally disinterested in finding a job that wasn’t selling my art.
I think other people have biological clocks. I have a ticking time-bomb of art. When I was in high school I fully expected myself to have a novel finished and published by the time I was 20. Last year I decided I just couldn’t live anymore without trying to make myself a real writer, without trying to become famous for my wit. I was tired of being disappointed in myself.
What are you writing now other than the cards?
I have a couple of scripts that I’m trying to work on right now. Some short video’s that I want to set loose on Youtube eventually. The Youtube videos are infomercials for a training video on “How to Take a Punch In The Vag Like A Man”.
The movie is a dark (romantic?) comedy called “And Now Magically I’m Inside Of You”. I think it’s going to have 3 different endings, like Clue.
If Hallmark were to approach you and say they wanted to place a huge order of cards that had the same vibe but with a somewhat gentler tone, how would you approach the project, or would you at all?
If Hallmark approached me, it’d better be to buy my cards. I don’t see them ordering them from me. I’m too small to supply them the number of cards they’d need. I see them (or someone like them) buying the line from me eventually. I mean, they have their own production line which is more efficient and dependable than me, making cards in my living room.
If a large company approached me and said they wanted “something with the same vibe but with a somewhat gentler tone,” I’d say something like “Okay I have no idea what that means. You’re going to have to be more specific.”
The thing about my cards is the sentiment is harsh. I don’t know how to tone that down without losing the over-all effect. They’re only 1-3 sentences long, and most of them don’t swear. So it’s not like I could say “Okay, I’ll take-out the swearing, does that work for you?” I’d find myself having a conversation like “Okay, so you want me to make a card that sort of apologizes for gaying up your A-hole? Like, “I’m sorry I gayed up your nipples? Is that what you’re looking for?”
You don’t kinda gay-up someone’s A-hole. The charm of my cards is that they’re honest and also that they’re specific; and most of the time, they honestly and specifically talk about sex. In order to tone them down, I think they would lose either their specific nature or their honesty or their sex-talk. And that would make them like a lot of other cards that you can already buy.
I think I’d be open to having the conversation (unless whomever is asking is catching me on a cranky day) but at the end of it, I’d probably gently guide the asker to the conclusion that they’re looking for a different set of cards than the ones I make.
So: the nice answer is that they’re probably looking for a product I don’t offer and am not interested in making. The snarky answer is that I will think that they are a pussy once they ask the question.
When a possible retailer says that I’d need to tone them down for their customers, I always think that they’re underestimating their customers. Most people crave truth. And it’s something that they don’t expect in greeting cards, so the power of the surprise rev’s up their laughter. I have 24 different businesses in town who sell my cards, and time and time again, my favorite business owners tell me that it’s the people they least expect that whoop it up when they read them: new mothers, women in their sixties, happily married octogenarians, tie-wearing professionals, therapists. And I think it’s because of the sex.
It doesn’t matter who you are, or what kind of person you are, sex is on everyone’s mind. It’s one of the few unifying factors in the universe. Everyone wants more, or better sex, or sex with better people, or less sex with the wrong people. No matter how old we get, that drive is part of us. And while there are now a lot of television shows, blogs, clubs, books, video’s, newspaper columns and movies about how to get/keep better sex with better people, there aren’t any cards.
So, I’d kinda feel sorry for anyone who didn’t see the value in that, or wasn’t interested in pushing that forward by partnering with Snarky Cards. At this point, they sell well enough that I can be choosy and only agree to vendor for people who are really into my cards. “Go where you’re wanted” is my motto in life and in business.