I am by nature an obsessive hoarder of memories, so when I was looking for a job after my first year of college applying at the local scrapbook store seemed like a good choice.
I had held various jobs throughout high school and my first year of college, but I’d never worked retail. My interview consisted of answering normal retail-type questions and also dropping off a sample portfolio of my “work” (which meant a scrapbook). Working in the scrapbook community is an amped-up version of regular retail; not only do people come in and buy your store’s products, they then transform the products into something incredibly personal, oftentimes while you watch. (Besides that, a good portion of your customer base is women who routinely drop hundreds of dollars on craft paper.)
At the time, scrapbooking was a $2.5 billion industry; there were dozens and dozens of magazines devoted to scrapbooking, there were scrapbooking trends and celebrities, there were scrapbooking cruises and conventions and conferences. When I first started working there I thought I’d stay separate from all that, that it would just be a job and that I wouldn’t get too immersed.
The store itself was in a strip mall, next to a hole-in-the-wall shipping establishment and a burrito place. It was open seven days a week. We had three full aisles of papers (both printed and cardstock) and a wall of stickers, a dining-table-sized chest of die-cuts, a few racks of various yarns and fibers, and an impressive selection of empty albums and add-ons. The rest of the store was mostly embellishments. The “shabby” look was big when I was there, so there would be things like faux-rusted hinges or weathered-looking metal cutouts or porcelain nameplates. If it sounds expensive, it was; one frequent customer used to pay only in checks and write SAFEWAY in the memos to hide her visits from her husband.
For around a hundred dollars you could buy a QuicKutz, a handheld die-cutter, and for one-sixty you could buy either an upper- or lowercase alphabet set to go with it. When I went back to school at the end of my first summer the store gave me one as a gift. Even the papers weren’t cheap––usually you’d start with sheets of Bazzill cardstock as a backdrop, which at around eighty cents a sheet was more expensive than regular cardstock, but it was textured and came in hundreds of extremely specific colors. Patterned, gold-leafed, transparent or brand-name papers might run up to two or three dollars apiece. One eccentric lady in her sixties, with arms weighed down by gold and jade bracelets, would sweep through the store dressed in brocade and weigh her multiple shopping baskets with sheet after sheet of paper (we had to ring up each one individually; checking her out could take a good fifteen minutes) and leave with bills sometimes breaking six or seven hundred dollars. She only ever bought paper, and when I asked one time what she did with it all, she grinned so all her gold fillings were exposed and then laughed.
The space in the back of the store served as a classroom on nights and weekends and an open space with huge tables and lots of open space for people to work (or crop, which was the verb people used where you might have expected scrapbook). My first time there I’d pulled out a pair of scissors to a collective gasp of horror: did I not have a paper-cutter? Sometimes if I was sticking price tags onto miniature Jolee’s flowers or themed die-cuts I’d sit at the tables and talk to the people who’d come to crop. I heard about births and weddings and important relationships. I learned the names and faces and stories of people’s family members. I heard all the hushed gossip about who thought whose layouts were overrated and whose were crap.
There were, I quickly learned, distinct types of scrapbookers. They were all women, predominantly white mothers, and disproportionately Mormon (all the most famous scrapbookers and manufacturers were based in Utah) and completely enamored with pets, anything costume-related and all things Disney. But some were mothers picturing their adult sons someday cherishing these inked, beribboned chronicle of events like a first home run in Little League or losing a tooth; some were the 2005 version of the young married bloggers whose blog headers feature wedding pictures and text like, “It all started when two people fell in love,” it being, apparently, an epic saga of meal planning and date nights. One woman raised pet guinea pigs and devoted volumes to showcasing what (to me) looked like the same picture of the two guinea pigs over and over.
There was a Southerner who once, without lowering her voice, complained of a mall hiring a “chocolate Santa” and thus “ruining” her grandchildren’s Santa pictures for the year. She had adult children and made books for each of them, really beautiful ones journaled in blunt, unsentimental detail. Some–the kinds of people who booked tickets months in advance to attend the scrapbooking conventions and came back conspicuously weighted down with swag from the big-name vendors like Creating Keepsakes and Rusty Pickle and Basic Grey–liked to brag about their scrapbooking obsession the way people usually do their coffee/chocolate/HGTV addictions. Some had “cropping rooms” in their homes devoted to scrapbooking: big tables, specially-designed drawers to fit the 12×12 paper, whole chests full of brads and eyelets and stamps and ephemera. All of them had Cropper Hoppers, which were designed to carry your paper cutter and whatever other tools (eyelet setter, X-acto knife, inkpads for rubbing across the edges of paper or photos to give visual definition) you might use.
Sometimes, though, there were outliers–sometimes men came in with vague ideas that they wanted to make “something” with which they would propose to their girlfriends; they would stand helplessly in the aisles staring at the hundreds of papers waiting for someone to offer help. Sometimes people with new babies would come in wanting to capture little moments that might otherwise go forgotten, but sometimes it was sad, too. Once a quiet, businesslike Indian woman came in to make a shadow box to display at the funeral of her ten-year-old son, who had died of anaphylaxis after accidentally ingesting milk.
We talked about everyone. There was a staff of around ten (all women; I was by far the youngest), and they were gossipy and protective and fiercely loyal, and it was like suddenly acquiring so many new aunts. When my now-husband was dealing with what the doctors thought was some kind of bone tumor, the group of them made me cards (handmade, naturally) and rearranged the work schedule so I could fly down for his surgery. They all scrapbooked, of course. Most spent their paychecks entirely on supplies.
When that’s your daily form of community, it’s easy to normalize things, and it wasn’t long before I too found myself dropping good chunks of my paycheck on supplies. I’d come to the Friday-night crops that lasted well into the early hours of the morning, and at home I always had pages I was working on. The pages were about people or events in my life, about particular nights I wanted to always remember, about trips I’d taken or just daily things like my favorite books or what I liked to cook or what the view from my window looked like. Once I made one about my panic attacks. I’d bring them into the store sometimes, hoping for an excuse to show someone.
At first I just worked during regular hours, stocking and chatting with customers and ringing up purchases, but, because the owners were supportive, after a little while they let me teach classes, which both paid better and meant more to me. I experimented with twisting fibers and fabrics into my designs and learned to melt epoxy to make my own embellishments. I designed my own patterns for background and accent papers in Photoshop. I learned to print photographs on sheets of paper and then adhere clear packing tape over the printouts, then soak the whole thing in water until the paper would gently peel away and leave sketched-looking transfers of the photos on the tape. It was fun––it was more than fun––and while I had the job I could tell myself I was doing something productive, really: I was chronicling life, I was increasing my skill set. I could justify the tools and the supplies I bought, and too all those hours and hours I spent trying to translate my memories and my daily life into colorful, textured, 8 x 8 layouts in an album.
When you’re majoring in English literature and not, say, software engineering, there aren’t many ways to make much money, so when I went back to San Diego during the school year I looked for places to teach there, too. I once taught once at a place called SCRAPBOOK DIVA!, which primarily sold neon leopard stickers and papers and pencils that said things like SCRAPBOOK DIVA! Scrapbooking about scrapbooking was a little too meta for me; I lasted one class.
At a larger and more highly-regarded store (a frequent stop when scrapbooking celebs made their circuits of the country), I spent more time battling the management than making anything or teaching. Instead of the tight-knit, auntie-like community I was used to, this store was staffed mainly by a twenty-something manager on a perpetual power trip and a cadre of high school girls. Once I was paid in store credit. Once everyone in my class canceled except for one woman and I wasn’t allowed to cancel the class. Once an elderly woman refused my advice and then proceeded to cut herself with blunt scissors and bleed all over her and everyone else’s papers. (She did not become a repeat client.) In that same class, a different woman––middle-aged, thin, with braces––accused me of making my directions too complicated and finally slammed her papers down and swept them off the table in the midst of a meltdown not in front of me but at me.
I hated it, and yet I told myself scrapbooking mattered enough to me that I would put up with it, and so I did. On holidays and summers, though, I’d still go home and teach at my home store.
And, meanwhile (and without the community of the late-night crops) I continue to work on my own scrapbooks, alone.
I could gently mock the whole industry around my friends: did you know there are scrabpook CRUISES? Can you believe how much money people spend on this stuff?–conveniently failing to mention that I too spent significant amounts of money, or telling myself it was different because I had an employee discount–and yet often when my roommate was watching TV or doing responsible things like jogging, I was cropping at the huge L-shaped desk she’d generously allowed me to set up in our apartment. At night I’d mentally plan different layouts. I’d look around each day and try to find things in my immediate vicinity that might make good fodder for a page. It was therapeutic and it also wasn’t; it was fulfilling and it also made me sad. It was something I wanted to show people and then whenever they asked to see what I was working on I got shy. A scrapbook feels like the kind of thing you’d show your grandma and your kids, but I never wanted to sugarcoat life in a way that would make it feel presentable at family gatherings; when I journaled on my pages, I was honest in a way I felt hesitant to reveal.
For three years I did this, until one day during my last year of undergrad I got an email from one of the owners saying the store at home was going to close. It might not have come out of nowhere, but because I’d been 500 miles away for the better part of the year, it seemed like it had. I went home for the closing, which was sad, and then I graduated from college and moved away and went on with life, and even though things were happening that I wanted to chronicle and remember–I graduated and got engaged and then married; I started an MFA; I went on trips–I stopped scrapbooking completely.
I’d like to say I had some good reason for stopping, that it was because I had some epiphany about the nature of memory or audience or carpe diem-ing or something, but really it was Facebook; suddenly there were easier, cheaper ways to store and share pictures. Besides that, when I moved I didn’t have the space to spread out all the papers and materials anymore, and as time went on I felt odd about having so many years’ worth of gaps between my last pages and whatever I might create anew.
Sometimes I pass by the place where the store used to be (it has since become a Kumon. The burrito place and the shipping company live on). I’ve slowly gotten rid of maybe half of my scrapbooking supplies and tools, although I can’t help holding onto some of them for someday, just in case.
And the books–they sit packed up in a box in my closet. In some ways they are the most personal and intimate things I ever created. They were like a blog, in a way, except that their audience was less defined and that typing up a post implies a different (and far lesser) level of commitment. The thing is, I’m not sure I’d show them to many people. Removed from the insular community where this kind of thing seemed totally normal, it feels like an exceptional narcissism to have devoted so much to my own college-era memories–like I thought by dressing them in dyed/distressed/inked papers I might elevate them somehow, might make them seem to other people as important as they always were to me.
Kelly Loy Gilbert writes, works with teenagers and tries to keep a newborn daughter happy in the SF Bay Area. Also, for the past five years she has been locked in an ongoing debate with her husband about what it means when one says say one wants toast. (One slice or two? Kelly says one.) Her debut novel will be out from Disney-Hyperion in Spring/Summer 2014.