WHEN APRIL WINCHELL started the blog Regretsy.com in October of 2009, she would not have predicted how ready the world was to lampoon Etsy.com. The massive, un-curated online marketplace for independent and handmade commerce is a monster that spits forth the ridiculous and weird as often as the hip and ethically above-reproach merchandise the site encourages. Regretsy highlights only the weirdest and grossest objects, which would otherwise be invisible, forever overlooked by Etsy's own editorial highlights. In classic blog-to-book fashion, Regretsy contains chapters of handmade oddities plucked from the site, but Winchell also used the opportunity to write essays giving context for what it means to find these diamonds in the rough, calling bullshit on the moral superiority of modern craft culture, and more. MARJORIE SKINNER
MERCURY: Any search words you would recommend for a good time?
APRIL WINCHELL: Some of my favorite stuff has words in the tags that you never in a million years would've thought of. But [it's] almost always pay dirt to look for "vagina" or "fairies" or "tampons" or "vampires" or "Twilight."
Have you noticed any other trends?
There's a lot of what people call "up-cycling." This is one of my pet peeves, when people call something "green" and they're basically just using something that we already have a way to recycle. So if you're making something out of a soda can, it's not quite as impressive to me as if you figured out a way to make a journal out of a used diaper. The other thing that people do is make something reusable and say that it's eco-friendly. I found a listing for a "potty safeguard," and it's a vinyl, like, shower cap that you put over a public toilet seat. These people are suggesting you buy this thing and then you wash it after every single use, and you use soap and water, and you know, 100 gallons of hot water.
Do you think of Regretsy as a way to call bullshit on greenwashing?
Absolutely. I don't do quite as much of that as I would like to, because I've got a lot of other things to make fun of, but I think the whole "green" thing is just an embarrassment, you know? I mean, some of the stuff that people try to pass off as being eco-friendly, if I see it I will almost always call bullshit on it, because it just infuriates me. There are real ways to be "green," and then there's this cynical sort of thing that people tap into to try to get you to buy their shit. In that respect they're really not doing anything more noble or wonderful than corporations do. I always get offended when people who hand-make things think that they have some sort of "moral authority" because it's handmade, when really it's just conspicuous consumption of another kind. There are people who really do find ways to take garbage and do great things, but then there's the woman who makes jewelry out of orange peels, and if she just left those orange peels alone, they'd be gone in a month. But now that you've sprayed varnish all over them, they're going to be in a landfill forever. 'Cause no one's ever going to buy it. No one's ever gonna pay $50 for your fuckin' orange peel, you know, headband.
Can you name some all-time favorite Regretsy items?
One of my favorites was this guy who hated me so much he sent me hate mail for the longest time. It was this African American gentleman who posed completely naked in his listing with a bracelet on the crack of his ass. And he called it the "Buttshield," and he had this long screed about how all men of color need a map of Africa on their ass to, you know, to... I still have no idea what he was talking about. The longer I do this the more [I realize] that it's not all crap. Some of it is fantastic, but it's just peculiar. I try to feature that too, but I have to slip that in like vegetables with a kid. If you slip in too much good stuff, people get angry with you. I put up a post one time that said, "You know, listen, I find a lot of really great stuff in the process of shopping all day looking at this stuff, so I'm thinking about maybe once a week putting up stuff that I think is wonderful." And I got more hate mail from that suggestion than anything I've ever posted.
There are other places for people to go for good vibes.
That's exactly what they said. So, occasionally I'll try to find a way to post something that I think is incredible. Like the other day I did a Captain Picard day, so I was able to post a lot of Star Trek stuff that I secretly thought was quirky and wonderful, and people responded pretty well to that. But you can't do too much of that or people get really pissed off.
I really enjoyed the part of the book where you kind of attack the over-inclusiveness of the craft world, pointing out the purposes served by criticism. But you can't really hope for the day that quality control becomes part of Etsy, can you?
God no! But the truth is that will never happen. I mean there are sites that are juried, but even so you can look through and find things that you think are ridiculous. It's always going to be subjective. I think where it gets dicey for a site like Etsy is that this is how they make their money. The whole infrastructure of that website is pretty much held up by the people who pay their 20-cent listing fees and are re-listing and re-listing and re-listing, and they're not producing the kind of aesthetic that Etsy wants to be known for, so they're largely invisible. A lot of people have said to me, "You're cheapening Etsy by showing this stuff," and I say, "Well, I couldn't show it if it wasn't there." In the same breath accusing me of being cruel, they're admitting that the website is being tarnished by the presence of these items by other artists. I think that's part of the reason why [Regretsy's] been successful, is that there's a general feeling that you're not supposed to criticize things that are handmade. It's become the clearinghouse for people to vent—what if you're a real artist, what if you really are a metal-smith or a glassblower, and you've worked your whole life to be really good at something and people can't find you because the site is choked with glittered paperclip earrings and people who string dime-store toys on twine and sell them as avant-garde necklaces? I mean, you're going to be pretty pissed off.
I've heard some criticism of modern handmade culture being a middle- to upper-class thing, because it is so based on access to the internet. Does that resonate with your experience?
I've never heard that it's the internet that made it upper or middle class. That's an interesting comment. I think it's worse than that, actually, because in some ways it has become as obnoxious and trendy a brand as any high-end kind of pretentious boutique-y brand that people have to have. It's got a level of "this stuff is better than what you could buy in a store because it's handmade." Or you're "doing something good for the planet" or you're "doing something good for the little person" or you're "doing something good by buying this." Which I think becomes less and less true, because the people that are making the most sales are becoming brands, and in fact there's one woman who's become really successful on Etsy—not the only woman, by the way—who has a deal with Urban Outfitters. I think handmade just as an umbrella has become a brand, and I think [it] has kind of lost whatever people are trying to protect about it by the fact that it's become as trendy as it has.
I particularly like the line where you say that some people are just better at choosing things than making things, and that when a good chooser chooses something well, it means more than if they tried to make it.
And sometimes it does, you know? This isn't really a new concept, I mean we all have an aunt or an uncle or grandmother who insists on making us a sweater or a horrible thing, and then as soon as the holidays are over we go home and laugh about it, or we take pictures of it and it's funny, and we wear it for Halloween. The other argument I hear is that "it took me a really long time!" Well, that's great, but lots of things take a long time, you know? "It took me 22 hours to glue all of these doll parts on this rotary telephone." Well, that's great, but it doesn't really mean anything. You're not getting paid by the hour, so... yeah. It's just a position that people take, [that] because it took a long time and because they made it by hand it's valuable and sometimes it's just—sometimes I would like it if you would just buy me something else.
In the introduction, you explain that Regretsy's not just about being mean, and that a lot of people that are featured use it to their advantage, because Etsy's never going to feature them. But have there been instances where you felt really bad for making fun of someone?
Almost never. I try really hard to choose people who I think are asking for it in some way or another. It either has to be really overpriced, really pretentious, [or] really basically in love with itself. I think just the fact that people are selling it gives me a lot of permission. It's not like I'm going into people's homes and taking pictures of things. I make it a practice to never make fun of children and never make fun of anybody who's mentally challenged or never make fun of somebody who's blind or anything like that. And you know, I like to say that if you look at someone's views on an object—because there's a counter on every Etsy object that shows you how many times people have looked at it—I like to say that every single person who's looked at it is someone who didn't like it enough to buy it, so you're being judged all the time. That's what shopping is. Shopping is looking at objects and saying, "I like this well enough to spend my money on it, or I don't." So I don't feel bad for not liking something you've made, just like I don't feel bad for not liking a movie or not liking a book. Another thing people have said to me: "I don't have an issue with the fact that you don't like something, but you shouldn't be telling people about it." Or, "You can not like something, but you should only tell your spouse." Or "It's okay not to like it, but you shouldn't tell a stranger." People have lots of ways of justifying their negative reactions to things. I think it's worse to feel reflexively positive and encourage people you know are really not good at something. I think you should feel worse for that. And I see a lot of that.
Rather than do a straight compendium of Regretsy posts, you use the book format to show a little heart and talk about how important it is to you that Regretsy drives the sale of things it makes fun of, and that all the money the site generates goes to charity.
I wanted to be vulnerable back. Because I do pick on people, and I wanted to be able to say, "I've been there, and in many ways I'm in the same place as you right now, you know? I'm putting out something I created, and you can like it or not like it, and we're kind of in the same boat." If I look at the three things that I'd like the site to do, the book has been able to do the same: It's been able to make people laugh, it's been able to sell stuff for the people who've participated, and it's raising money for charity. I don't keep any money from the site. I figured it was okay for me to make money on the book because that's something that's done with the participation of the people in the book, and they get a benefit and I get a benefit. They're published, their store information is out there, they're making sales as a result of being in the book. I worked hard on writing my parts of it, so I feel like I'm entitled to money from that, although I donate my royalties from time to time. I refer to it as offsetting my asshole footprint. I think it's really great that something people construe as being negative is able to do something positive. I could just be making fun of shit, or I could facilitate a kind of mini movement that does good things. I find that the latter's just a lot more satisfying.