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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Blast from the past: Victorian Accents

An envelope, addressed to a business we shut down in 1986, arrived yesterday.

You can't imagine my surprise yesterday when I found the envelope pictured above among the bills and circulars in the mailbox.

It's an order envelope addressed to Victorian Accents, which is the reason we moved to Plainfield
from Brooklyn back in the early 1980s.

Victorian Accents was a mail-order business we had started and operated out of our small apartment in Brooklyn Heights. It sold books and technical materials for folks interested in restoring and/or renovating vintage homes -- Victorian, but also other homes that were built before World War II.

The timing had been just right. Clem Labine had turned his mimeographed restoration tips newssheet into the glossy and upscale Old House Journal.

San Francisco's 'Painted Ladies' -- outrageously colored Victorians in the Haigh-Ashbury and Castro neighborhoods -- were everywhere in posters, TV shows and movies, and in a book of photos by Mike Larsen and Elizabeth Posada.

Young Bruce Bradbury had persuaded his father to invest in his hand-screened wallpaper venture and Bradbury & Bradbury wallpapers was born in Benicia, California.

Using my experience in the bookselling business, we launched Victorian Accents as a mail order catalog. Our first ad was a tiny classified in the back of Smithsonian magazine, which turned out to be an excellent conduit to interested customers.

By the early 1980s we were faced with needing to find a space for the business as it had completely taken over our apartment.

A friend from Plainfield invited us to a house tour in the Van Wyck Brooks District and the rest is history.

A realtor lurking on the edges of the tour (no, it was not John DeMarco) latched on to us and showed us around. The Cones, who eventually became our next door neighbors, invited is to relax on their back porch with gin and tonics after looking at the wreck next door (which we eventually bought).

Plainfield seemed a perfect match -- a town with a lot of history, a lot of charm and friendly people.

We moved in and tackled restoring the house and growing the business at the same time.

By Christmas 1985, we were mailing half a million catalogs at a time, four times a year. The business was generating about $1 million in sales and had three employees (Evelyn, Tina and Patty) plus me.

There was no internet, no Amazon, no Borders bookstores. Barnes & Noble was still selling used textbooks and academic press remainders. We had a corner of sorts on this little niche market.

Then the bottom fell out.

Our 1985 Christmas season catalog had been printed and labelled at the bindery in Brooklyn and delivered to the USPS regional center in Deer Park, Long Island to be dropped into the mail stream.

But the orders never came. Weeks passed and no orders. Frantic calls were made and everyone in the chain showed they had done their part.

Finally, after Christmas, word came from the bindery that the USPS folks had found our catalog in a parked trailer in the back of the huge lot.

It was too late, we had lost the season and could not recover. We learned customers have no recourse against the postal system in a situation such as ours.

We shut the business down, laid off the employees and I went to work selling real estate. Gradually, Victorian Accents receded into the past.

But every once in a while, as yesterday, one of those order envelopes will arrive. It is now twenty-eight years since we closed the business and a customer had kept a catalog all that time!

The nice lady from Ansted, West Virginia is asking for an updated catalog.

I shall write her a note thanking her for her interest but suggesting that her best bet is to check or Google whatever she is looking for.

How the times have changed!

  -- Dan Damon [follow]

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Anonymous said...

Thank you for the walk down memory lane- I moved in in '79. You could not find a home of the same substance anywhere else, for the price. I too, was called by the restorative energy of the people. We all learned a great deal restoring each others homes. The city seemed more interested in the quality of life in it's neighborhoods and so did the people.
Thanks, again, for the memories!