Alternative Cards : The Offbeat Message: It Pays Off

Times Staff Writer

At Aahs!, a trendy Westwood shop, the walls are covered with hundreds of offbeat greeting cards that you will not typically find in your local Hallmark store. One card has a cover with a drawing of Ronald Reagan dressed in pajamas that can be cut out like a paper doll. Inside the card are different hats and outfits, ranging from a cowboy suit to a czar’s regalia.

At Puente Hills Mall, curious shoppers are drawn into It’s a Small World. They pass through a portal that sports two $395 fake palm trees and a giant $2,000 artificial fuchsia plant and discover hundreds of cards. One woman giggles as she goes through a rack of “insult” cards signed inside: “Anonymously Yours.”

“I love these,” she said. “I can send them to all my rotten friends!”

Welcome to the world of alternative card stores, which are popping up all over the country. Their cards are avant-garde, funny, risque, irreverent and sometimes downright raunchy, and American shoppers are finding them a refreshing change from the traditional offerings of Hallmark Cards, American Greetings and Gibson Greetings.


2 Humdrum Categories

Ten years ago, the alternative card market was almost non-existent. Greeting cards fell into two categories: the traditional fare with a rose on the cover and a seven-line poem inside or studio cards with cartoon drawings and unsophisticated humor.

Today, alternative cards are expanding faster than any other segment of the greeting card market, with an estimated 25% growth rate compared to the overall market’s 5%. Alternative cards account for nearly a tenth of the $3.2 billion in greeting card sales.

The increasing popularity of alternative cards is catapulting once small-time card makers, such as Recycled Paper Products, Paper Moon and California Dreamers, into multimillion-dollar companies with worldwide operations. Artists and photographers are discovering a new outlet for their talents, and enterprising entrepreneurs are cashing in with stores that go by such names as Aahs!, the Card Factory, Art Explosion, Paper Doll and Freudian Slip.


‘Less Serious’

Even the big card makers are getting into the alternative act. Hallmark has offbeat lines like SummerTree Press, Love Talk and Lite, which it calls “a third less serious than regular greeting cards.” American Greetings also has alternative lines and is testing Squiggles and Giggles, its version of an alternative card shop, but will not disclose where the stores are or how many it is testing.

The big appeal of alternative cards is that they offer a cheap (85 cents to $3) way of communicating messages and images appropriate to today’s life styles. The cards are being sent for any and all occasions, not just for such special events as birthdays and anniversaries.

They offer sophisticated, contemporary messages that people want but, perhaps, dare not to relay in person. “People like to say things without actually saying them,” said Ivan Rubin, a consultant to It’s a Small World.


R. Chris Martin, a professor of psychology at the University of Missouri who is a consultant to Hallmark, said, “It is becoming OK to say what you’re feeling because . . . it is more mentally healthy to recognize your feelings and get them out on the table and get feedback.”

The new cards address once sensitive topics like divorce, working women, stepchildren and pets as well as conventional ones like as birthdays, anniversaries, Christmas and bereavement.

Card illustrations range from slick graphics, a specialty of Culver City-based Paper Moon, to the commercial-looking photographs of California Dreamers to simple drawings like those of artist Sandra Boynton for Recycled Paper Products. She is considered a pioneer in the alternative card field.

Animals, especially those dressed in outlandish clothes, are favorites for card covers. So are men and women--many undressed or sparingly clothed--in beefcake and cheesecake poses. Many of the cards appeal to special groups, like gays. There are Betty Boop and Joan Rivers cards, reprints of old movie posters and a host of other creations.


Recycled Paper Products’ best-selling card for the last seven years has been “Hippo Birdie Two Ewes,” a takeoff on the traditional “Happy Birthday” song illustrated by a hippo, a bird and two ewes.

Four-Letter Words

A card by California Dreamers shows an overweight woman in a pink workout suit, slumped on a stool with an exasperated look. Inside it reads, “I could learn to hate Jane Fonda.”

When there is no other way to express a sentiment but in four-letter words, there are cards for that, too. “It used to be it was a man’s world and a woman’s place was in the home,” says a card showing a man with a briefcase waving goodby to his robe-clad spouse and two children. The thought is completed inside: “They can kiss that s--- goodby.”


Many of the cards are risque and very adult in humor. “Some quite frankly are not appropriate to send to everyone,” said Chuck Holst of the Los Angeles firm of Holst/Bowen Inc., a manufacturers’ representative.

Card makers, artists, photographers and stores have reaped a bonanza from the craze.

Consider Michael Keiser and Philip Friedman, who 14 years ago had just graduated from Amherst College and decided to take a break before graduate school. They founded Recycled Paper Products in Chicago, the oldest of the alternative card makers, which, with about $70 million in annual sales, claims to be the fourth-largest card producer after Hallmark, American Greetings and Gibson.

Similarly, Paper Moon began seven years ago when Fred Zax, then a self-described “bored” attorney, and his wife, Sandy, teamed up with free-lance designer and author Linda Barton. They concentrated on adapting such media-oriented art as editorial and advertising graphics, pioneering a whole new look in cards.


‘It Was Spooky’

They worked up a line of 90 cards for the Los Angeles Gift Show and immediately found buyers. “It was spooky,” Zax said. “We were caught by surprise.”

California Dreamers, which is headquartered in Chicago, began in San Francisco as an arm of the design firm of Murrie White Drummond Lienhart & Associates, which has developed packaging for Minute Maid orange juice, Excedrin, Bufferin and Secret deodorant. “A greeting card on a shelf has the same problem that a product in a store has--to create a strong visual attraction,” said Herb Murrie, one of California Dreamers’ founders.

The larger firms typically have lean corporate and design staffs and rely heavily on free-lance photographers and artists, who are given credit on the backs of cards and receive royalties.


Retail Market Report, an Atlanta-based market research firm that collects data on the greeting card industry, tracks about 100 other smaller card companies, including Exc!amations of Benicia, Calif., which began six years ago when Bruce and Valerie Schooley were looking for extra income to finance their graduate studies in the Pasadena area.

The husband-wife team began with simple one-line graphics. One card features the word “Burp” on the cover, with “Thanks for dinner” on the inside. Bruce Schooley had dabbled in art while studying for a doctorate in clinical psychology.

Hallmark started imitating their ideas after two years, said Valerie Schooley, a former teacher in Los Angeles. Exc!amations moved on to photographing teddy bears and now features animals that belong to the Schooleys, their 25 employees, friends and associates.

‘Industry Is Special’


More enterprises are popping up. “The card industry is special in that it doesn’t take a lot of money to initiate a business,” said Mary Lou Dorio, editor of the Retail Market Report.

Cat Tracks, for example, began in Los Angeles less than a year ago when Sherry Rayn Barnett, a free-lance photographer, helped singer-composer Lauren Wood put together a 15-minute slide show about cats. “Lauren was doing some club gigs locally and was looking for something to keep her audiences between her first and second shows,” Barnett recalled.

The cat show was so well received that its creators took the photos to card companies, which expressed interest. The entrepreneurs decided, however, to make and sell cards themselves. The cards are handmade, with individual photos featuring Wood’s 14-year-old cat pasted onto cards that are blank inside.

The cards are sold in Aahs! and the Fred Segal card shop on Melrose Avenue, among other stores. Cat Tracks recently hired sales representatives in California and New York.


Once principally found in major urban centers at free-standing, voguish stores, alternative cards are increasingly on display in such major chains as Bullock’s in California and Marshall Field in Illinois and in racks at record and drug stores.

Most stores dedicated to the selling of alternative cards are independently owned, although there are a few small, regional chains. Aahs! and the Card Factory, for example, have developed in Southern California. Art Explosion, which started in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., as one of the first alternative card stores, has expanded to Houston.

Impulse Purchases

Alternative card shops are increasingly opening in malls. Because cards tend to be impulse purchases, such shops benefit from the heavy volume of customer traffic. A card store in an ideal location can generate annual sales averaging $300 to $500 per square foot and running as high as $900 a square foot, according to store operators. Chain Store Age, a trade publication, reports that annual sales of a typical mall store average $167.60 per square foot.


Rubin, a founder of the Art Explosion chain, was hired by Denver-based Coach House Gifts of Denver to change its 30 It’s a Small World stores into alternative card shops. The Small World store at Puente Hills Mall once featured mostly such products as the “Hello Kitty” line from Japan-based Sanrio.

Now it sells alternative cards along with such gift and stationery items as the $2,000 fuchsia plant, which Rubin said is “outrageous” but “will sell.” He said store sales hit a record high the first weekend Small World was opened under its new format.

Recycled Paper Products has its Rocs alternative card store in Chicago, which serves not only as a retail outlet but also as a model for independent operators interested in setting up shops. Ellen Mora, vice president of Recycled Paper Products’ retail store division, said the company has helped open 15 stores under various names since last September and will assist in establishing 17 more by this fall.

Experiment Dropped


Despite the growth, some alternative stores have not succeeded. Hallmark recently abandoned Heartbeeps, its two-store alternative retail experiment, which had been open for a year. Hallmark instead chose to open a chain of party-goods stores, another format it had been testing.

Hallmark, however, has launched a number of alternative card lines. Earlier this year, it introduced its Modern Woman line, which touches on themes like promotions and the frustrations of trying to be a superwoman--"things a few years back that women weren’t concerned with or were too up-tight to laugh about,” said Rachel Bolton, a Hallmark spokeswoman.

American Greetings said it is too early to determine how its Squiggles and Giggles store test is coming along. The stores carry American Greetings’ traditional and alternative cards as well as those of Paper Moon, California Dreamers and Exc!amations. Said Valerie Schooley of Exc!amations: “American Greetings decided instead of knocking us off to give us space.”