Regretsy: Where DIY Meets WTF
by April Winchell
Reviewed by Megan Zabel
Etsy.com, the online marketplace where thousands of crafters peddle their handmade wares, has been largely responsible for sparking a DIY renaissance. For April Winchell, an L.A. radio personality and voice actress with an affinity for kitschy, bizarre, or just poorly executed creations, Etsy provided a brand new place to troll for treasures. Winchell routinely found herself buying items that she felt only she could properly appreciate.
Soon, however, friends started buying things from the site and mailing them to her. One such unsolicited gift was sent postage due from South Africa and addressed to Winchell's nickname (for which she had no ID, of course), resulting in several frustrating trips to the post office so she could ultimately retrieve the package: a kitchen rug stenciled with Barack Obama's likeness. Winchell's friend apologized for all the trouble, offering his "Regretsy."
Finding "Regretsy" too good to pass up, Winchell pounced on the domain but forgot about it until a few months later, when, just for her own amusement, she put together about 10 posts comprised of "special" hand-picked items on Etsy, plus her own snarky commentary that she authored under the pseudonym "Helen Killer." With no advertising and little fanfare, Regretsy.com went live on October 1, 2009, and in its first 72 hours, it got over 30 million hits and was featured on Gawker, Gizmodo, and in the Wall Street Journal. After just three days, she got an offer to buy the site outright (which she declined), and, within two months, she'd secured a book deal.
It's easy to be disgusted by people who achieve monstrous overnight success with their little side projects, especially if said projects are based on lampooning others. But, luckily for her -- and for us -- Winchell is uproariously funny. It also helps that some of her victims are, well... asking for it. It's not enough to be just weird, the items she features need to contain, in her words, a "mitigating factor that allows me to be an asshole" -- like shoddy craftsmanship (a clock made from a used cheese grater with most of the cheese removed), an exorbitant price tag (a painting of a corndog listed for $85), or an eccentricity that no one but the artist could understand (sexy vampire, extra-large, reusable menstrual pad, anyone?). Also vital is a complete lack of awareness -- like the man who earnestly sells hummingbird-feeder hats made from bicycle helmets, rods, and sugar-water containers that dangle in front of your face, allowing the wearer a good view of all the action. (There's an instructional video.)
Regretsy isn't the first blog-to-book project to successfully capitalize on the "wacky object + funny commentary" formula, and likely won't be the last. The Cake Wrecks blog-to-book transition was seamless, while the just released book of the Awkward Family Photos blog also seems destined for print success. In Regretsy's case, the format emerges from the conversion mostly unscathed.
Although there's not a wealth of new items in the book, Winchell includes mini-essay introductions to each chapter, adding an endearing personal element that's missing from the blog (which she continued to write pseudonymously until recently). The most obvious blog facet missing are the comments from other readers, which could frequently induce a cascade of giggles after reading Winchell's initial post.
Mirroring the blog, Regretsy is broken into categories like "whimsy," "pet humiliation," and "vulvacraft," which is exactly what it sounds like. And, make no mistake, there's no shortage of vagina-inspired handiwork. If you've ever been in the market for a needle-felted placenta replica, uterus earrings, or bedazzled tampons, consider your search over.
At first, Winchell thought it would be in bad taste to link directly to sellers' actual listings on Etsy, feeling it would be unnecessarily cruel. But sellers complained to Winchell about the missing attribution, so she added links. Then a strange thing happened: these pieces started to sell. As Winchell writes, "When you make coats for farm animals or wall art with masturbating dinosaurs, people aren't going to find you with a keyword search." And you'd be hard-pressed to find them on Etsy, too. Severely quirky items don't fit the Brooklyn-hipster aesthetic that Etsy has successfully achieved, and the misfits rarely find time in the limelight there. Suddenly Winchell had a focus, and it was noble. Regretsy became a successful sales vehicle for unconventional crafters.
But, if it still seems ethically dubious, note that all of the artists featured in Regretsy had to grant their approval, and even got space in the back to make their own statements. One of them summed up the spirit behind the project particularly well:
I couldn't help but wonder why Regretsy had chosen me. After giving the whole thing some very careful thought I asked myself, "Could it possibly be because you're peddling alien dolls using walnuts for their heads?"
I think she's on the right track.