Sometimes a step back is really a step forward. That's how devotees look at Etsy, an online marketplace for handmade goods. Etsy (www.etsy.com) is where old-style commerce meets today's technology. It harks back to a time when people bought their goods directly from the people who made them -- hats from a milliner, furniture from a carpenter, bread from a baker. But in this marketplace, buyer and seller can be separated by thousands of miles, and their transaction can happen with a few computer keystrokes.
Etsy is a medium for buying and selling paintings, jewelry, clothing, furniture, even tutorials for rituals designed to bring love or prosperity. Anything that's made by an individual is fair game -- even computer code and home musical recordings, said Matthew Stinchcomb, Etsy's vice president of communications.
The site grew out of what Stinchcomb sees as a renewed appreciation for the creativity and integrity of things made by hand, especially at a time when the safety of some mass-produced imports is being called into question. "It's about wanting to know where your products come from and how they're made," he said.
The unique nature of handmade is a draw, too, Stinchcomb said. Many buyers aren't inspired by the thought of purchasing a shirt they can find in any Gap store in the world, he said. They want something no one else has.
And then there was the eBay backlash. As artisans and shoppers discovered that eBay's breadth could be overwhelming, the need arose for a more focused site, he said.
An online community
For potter Jennifer Nesbitt of Akron, Ohio, Etsy provided a way to turn her passion into a job that gives her the flexibility to be at home with her 9-year-old son, Dylan.
Nesbitt has been making pottery since 2001, but until she joined Etsy about two years ago, she was limited to selling at craft shows. She has sold more than 450 pieces via her Etsy shop, JMN Pottery, and said Etsy accounts for about 80 percent of her business.
She said she appreciates the way Etsy supports its vendors with workshops and other resources and likes the connections it fosters with her buyers and with other sellers. Nesbitt belongs to two sellers' groups, the Cleveland Etsy Team and the Etsy Mud Team, a group of potters.
"It's a community, really," she said of the site.
Unlike Nesbitt, Akron's Devona Brazier is more of an Etsy dabbler. She saw it as a way to sell the Asian-style baby carriers called meitais that she sews, but when she got bored with those, she started making other products.
A longtime sewer who once wanted to be a fashion designer, Brazier specializes in children's clothing and often transforms thrift-store buys. "It's like an outlet for my creativity," she said.
She sold 18 items last year through her Etsy shop, LuvLugs & More, but she's fine with a slow pace. She wouldn't be able to keep up if she got a lot of orders at once, she said.
Besides, Etsy is just a means to support her hobby, she said. She enjoys making clothes, but daughters Olivia, 3, and Elise, 1 1/2, can wear only so many of her creations.
Etsy was the brainchild of Rob Kalin, a painter, carpenter and photographer who designed and created the site in 2005 with Chris Maguire and Haim Scoppik. Stinchcomb likes to think of even Etsy as handmade; the creators did everything from writing computer codes to splicing cables, he said.
The origin of the site's name "is an enigma," Stinchcomb said. "Only Rob knows for sure."
The site started slowly, but word apparently is getting around. Etsy took two years to sell its first million items, but just three months to sell the second million, Stinchcomb said. It now has about 700,000 members, and the number is growing by about 3,000 a day.
Etsy operates somewhat like eBay, except its sellers offer their goods at fixed prices rather than putting them up for auction. Vendors set up virtual stores where they can post photos and information about their items, and they deal directly with buyers on sales and shipments.
Etsy's cut is a 20-cent charge to list an item for four months and a 3.5 percent commission on each sale.
Although about 900,000 items are for sale on the site, search options let buyers narrow their searches to local vendors, product categories and even colors. There are also fun ways to sample what's on the site, such as "Showcase," a place for sellers to display their best work, and "Pounce," which lets shoppers visit either shops that haven't yet made a sale or shops with the most recent activity.
Stinchcomb said Etsy's mission is helping people make a living by making creative things. So it not only provides the means for sales, but it also educates its vendors on such issues as health insurance.
But he said the site sees a responsibility toward its buyers, too.
"We want to encourage people to be conscientious consumers," he said.