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And other assorted goods: Gastank Guy’s robot faces found a home on Etsy.

Crafting a Unique Marketplace

Recycling, imagination, and interconnectedness help drive an underground community of artists

By Chet Hardin

Craftspeople are a funny breed. They spend their nights ripping apart piles of ’80s T-shirts, reenvisioning the remnants as dresses and scarves. They take glee in silk-screening images of Holly Golightly onto baby bibs and gluing pop-art illustrations of “famous Jews” onto the lids of little metal containers. Any object, no matter how banal or practical, can become the canvas or element-of-design to the vaguely bored, creative masses. Restless tinkerers and daydreamers—it is good to have them around. They help the rest of us stay honest in our disposable, mass-marketed culture.

Its even better to have these crafty types online, at one tidy Web site, where the vaguely bored, PayPal-enabled are able to peruse the trinkets and unique fashions from the comfort of their own couches. is just such a site, a perennial favorite for in-the-know treasure hunters.

The Etsy experience is simple and recognizable to anyone who has ever ventured near a keyboard and mouse. Users must register to shop or sell their wares. After registering, shopping is a breeze: search, like, click.

Setting up a store is almost as easy: Come up with a memorable name, upload a photo and a clever description of yourself, and that’s it. You are set. You can market as many items as you want, with multiple images and a description for each item. The Etsy tools keep track of every item you’ve listed, your customers’ comments and ratings, and provide a nifty shopping cart. For this service, the Etsy crew take a 3.5-percent cut from your sales, plus a 20-cent service fee for every item—comparable to what credit-card companies demand for their service at regular brick-and-mortar retailers.

The dominating rule at Etsy is that everything must be homemade. Homemade from raw material, modified from vintage goods, or drab sundries spruced up beyond ubiquity.

A cheap, white ceramic plate? Blah. An old-fashioned restaurant plate touched up by Foldedpigs with the image of a human brain and the romantic claim “I love you more than zombies love brains” printed underneath? Delicious. That rubber trash can in the corner of your kitchen? Yawn. The same trash can with a slinky ’50s pin-up girl peering up from the lid? High-class. A brown corduroy jacket goes from “boring professor” to “dashing hipster” when the print of an giraffe lumbers onto its back. Babies go from “defenseless droolers” to “kick-ass bawlers” when a print of Bruce Lee is slapped on their onesies.

You get the idea.

But not everything at Etsy is kitchen wares and clothing. For as many practical items there are at the Web site, there are completely ridiculous bits and pieces, too.

No one needs an assortment of old motorcycle gas tanks painted and modified to look like the heads of salty robots. But Gastank Guy will be happy to sell you a couple. No one needs a functioning iPod encasement fashioned out of an old Game Boy, or the vile Dr. Wangenstein, a 3-inch-tall “Mad Scientist Extraordinaire Needle Felted Sculpture” with towering yellow tufts of hair dashing up from the sides of his bright-pink face. But Dr. Wangenstein needs you to want him, and at Etsy dozens of people from around the world have already peeped him in the day or so that he has been up for sale. And that iPod carrier sold after 200 people got to gawk at its inventiveness.

Since the first item sold on Etsy (a computer homemade by the company’s cofounder, Rob Kalin) in 2005, the site has built around itself a spend-happy, loyal following of eccentrics. This year, the registered users at Etsy topped 200,000, with a quarter of those users, 42,000, maintaining their own stores. A staff of 18 fulltime coders, designers, and business types, keep the site running.

The company’s founders said that they started Etsy to “fix world commerce.” Kalin sums up his two-year-old site’s appeal: “It’s so darn pretty and subversive.”

Pretty, yes, of course. The site’s design is spare and attractive, and highly navigable, leaving as center pieces “monkey muffin plushies” and demonic squid pillows. Etsy is pretty because most of what the sellers are pushing is pretty darn cute.

But subversive, too, because what Etsy has done is given a group of like-minded dreamers the opportunity to come together and buck mainstream corporate trends with their own reenvisioned marketplace. At its core, Etsy is a subversive action because subverting the status quo means dreaming up what you want, and then finding the means to create it. For yourself.

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