A Creative Way to Say Thanks

A former marketing executive decides to take a leap of faith.

- Posted on Jan 26, 2011

Creativity abounds!

Turquoise, lime, fuchsia! Spools of ribbon in every color of the rainbow burst from the open drawers of a vintage card catalog. Handmade cards and letterpress invitations are neatly stacked on a wooden table. Miniature soaps and gift books line the shelves of an antique walnut hutch.

And on the old library counter there’s my favorite product—Civilettes, little thank-you notes that you can hand out like business cards. That reminds me…I look around my store, Greer, and say a quick prayer of thanks. After all, this dream wouldn’t have come true without plenty of guidance from above. I started out with no experience in retail or design—just an inexplicable urge and (believe it or not) an overstuffed handbag.

Back in 1997 I was climbing the corporate ladder as an advertising executive. But the more I moved up the ranks, the less I felt like myself. I kept daydreaming about starting a new career (doing what, I wasn’t sure) where I could be really creative. So I quit. Just like that.

I know, I know. Leaving a decent job with no idea what to do next? Even I thought that was kind of crazy. “You followed your heart,” my husband, Steve, assured me. “Now you’ll find a job you really love.”

After about a month, I got some freelance marketing work, but no clearer sense of what job I could love. I would ask, Lord, have I just ruined my life? Please guide me in the right direction.

One day I was in my favorite store, poking around. Paper from all over the world, brightly colored journals, amazing gifts and the most charming thank-you cards I’d ever seen. I must’ve spent an hour browsing—I couldn’t get enough of the stuff!

Maybe that’s because those thank-you notes brought me back to my childhood. Manners were big (big!) in our house. I’m the oldest of three girls and my parents made sure that “please” and “thank you” were part of our vocabulary almost as soon as we could talk. “You’re never too busy to say thanks,” Mom would say.

I’d duck into that store between freelancing jobs—in fact, it was usually the highlight of my day. I found myself wondering, Can I make cards too? At least it would get my mind off my career worries. One day in the shop I discovered some thin Japanese paper with a butterfly design. “I’ll take this!” I said. I also bought some ribbon, parchment paper, blank note cards and envelopes.

I got home and started experimenting—gluing ribbon down, folding the parchment different ways. Playing, designing—it was so much fun! Now if only I could find that kind of joy in a real job.

“You’re a natural,” said Steve, when I showed him one of my finished butterfly cards. “You should try to sell them.”

“I don’t know…this is a great hobby, but selling them? You think?”

“I’m serious,” he said. “You’ve got talent, Chandra.”

I gave some cards to friends and they loved them, so I worked up the nerve to take the cards to a few boutiques. Each one turned me away. Great, I thought. You left your job almost a year ago and all you’ve done is play around with paper and ribbons. Way to go, Chandra. Dejected, I made one last appointment—at the paper store that had inspired me. I spread 12 of my little butterfly cards out in front of the owner. She stared at them for a good long while, not saying a word.

Lord, is this what you want me to be doing? I asked. I really need to know.

The owner looked up at me. “I’ll take them all.”

I let out a huge sigh of relief.

More orders came in and it hit me: Maybe I should open my own store. It was risky, sure, but I knew what it meant to take a leap of faith. Steve and I had a bit of money saved up that we could use. I started off with a kiosk in the mall. It did well…so well that just a year and a half after I left my advertising job, I opened Greer.

We’ve been in business for 11 years now, selling everything from stationery and travel journals to picture frames, ribbons, coasters and pillows. Our best-selling product, though, is the Civilette—which has a story of its own.

One night in 2006 I closed up the store and walked out to my car. I had my overstuffed black bag slung on one shoulder (don’t bags always seem to be overstuffed?) and a box of envelopes in my hands. Balancing the box on my knee, I tried to unlock my car door. My bag flew off my shoulder and into the middle of the street. Every last thing fell out: lipstick, wallet, comb, gum, my laptop, you name it. A woman ran over. “Let me help you,” she said. Together we picked up everything and put it safely back inside my bag.

“Thank you so much,” I said.

“Glad to help,” she said, and walked away like it was no big deal.

I mentioned her at home that night. “If only I’d gotten her name and address,” I said. “I’d send her a card.” Too bad I didn’t have a little note that I could’ve handed to her, like a business card except saying thank you. Wait! Why didn’t I have that?

That’s how Civilettes were born. They’re small, with “Thank You” printed on the front and “Please reuse” on the back. Each pack has the message “Use in the event of a kind deed or word from stranger or friend.” We’ve sold over 15,000 packs!

We’ve also added “I Love You,” “I’m Sorry” and “Good Job” Civilettes. And remember that paper store that inspired me? They’re our number one buyer of Civilettes. I’ve had people from all over tell me they hand them out along with their business cards or give them to hotel employees, store clerks and teachers. Steve and I like to give them to wait­staff and cabdrivers—even to each other!

I think when we let people know how much we appreciate them, it helps us recognize just how blessed we are. Like Mom used to tell me, “You’re never too busy to say thank you.” I do every time I look around my store, because I can’t help but remember the One who led me on my journey here.

Thank you. It’s how I start off my day, and how I end it too.

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