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Black-Themed Greetings Are in the Cards : Inroads Made Slowly Into Huge Market

October 16, 1987|KATHRYN HARRIS | Times Staff Writer

Six years ago, Stephanie P. Honeywood tried to sell her sister's greeting cards to the fashionable galleries and shops along Connecticut Avenue in the nation's capital. The sisters are black, and the art is black-themed.

"They wouldn't even look at what I had," Honeywood says. "It was just too new, too different."

Now actor Bill Cosby owns some of Varnette P. Honeywood's artwork, and reproductions are part of the set decorations on "The Cosby Show," the nation's most-watched prime-time television series. The Honeywoods' greeting cards have found their way into nearly 150 shops and galleries across the country.

But that's a tiny dent in the greeting card business when American Greetings, the industry's largest publicly traded company, boasts of 65,000 outlets for its cards.

Only now, in the 1980s, are black artists and black entrepreneurs attempting to make inroads in the industry, despite the fact that 12% of the nation's population is black.

Income Flow Welcome

The sparse distribution of black-themed art is sometimes attributed to the merchants' fear of offending either black or white customers with an ill-chosen "image," as the artwork on cards is called.

But more complex reasons lie in the distribution system itself, and in the artists' reluctance to plunge full time into the greeting card business. Many artists explain that they'd rather paint than sell. By operating small greeting card businesses from their homes, they can create images of their own liking and retain control. The sales may not be staggering, but they provide a welcome flow of income.

No nationwide distribution system has yet emerged to serve such independents, although at least one Los Angeles company has tried and failed.

For more than three years, a company called Black Is More Than Beautiful produced and distributed black-themed cards for as many as 20 artists. In 1986, however, the company sought the protection of bankruptcy court and was dissolved a few months later, according to Phillip T. Wilson, its former president and chief executive.

Wilson says the firm posted sales of nearly $250,000 in its best year, yet "barely broke even." He and his partner, Chris Brownlie, discovered that they were operating on too modest a margin to compete with giant card companies.

"It cost us more to print our cards," Wilson says. "At the same time, I can't charge any more than they charge because their cards are on shelves right next to mine."

From the outset, Wilson's company had to persuade some retailers of the potential sales in black-themed art. On more than one occasion, Wilson positioned himself outside a shop to count the number of black customers entering to provide some statistical evidence. "The majority of retailers are not black," Wilson says, and in his experience, many retailers seem unaware of black customers' varying tastes. "To fuel that, the black clients are not in the habit of assuming that something's missing when the black product (is absent). They don't demand it."

Major greeting card companies do offer black-themed cards, but the independent artists sometimes scorn those efforts because the images are dictated by corporations and drawn by staff artists.

Staff Artists Used

"They haven't had a lot of success with it because it has to come from the heart," contends Avery Clayton, a Los Angeles artist whose pen-and-ink cards sell alongside the Honeywoods' at the California Museum of Afro-American History and Culture gift shop.

Hallmark Cards, the privately owned Kansas City company believed to outsell American Greetings, has been offering black-themed cards since 1968, according to Hallmark spokeswoman Rachel Bolton.

With the exception of some images purchased on a free-lance basis, Hallmark uses its regular staff of artists and sales personnel to create and distribute the cards, she says. "All artists may get assigned to anything. . . . All salesmen offer these cards to any Hallmark retailer who chooses to have them."

Although Bolton declines to divulge what percentage of sales the black-themed cards constitute, she says Hallmark counts at least 225 black-themed images in its thousands of card offerings.

Clayton, who began distributing his own cards in 1981, says he has sold as much as $60,000 in one year, but "ran day and night." He was one of the local artists who signed on with Black Is More Than Beautiful.

Clayton had already sold poster reproductions to J. C. Penney, but he found that the new distributor opened doors to K mart and Walgreen drug stores among others. "They were excellent," Clayton says of Wilson and Brownlie, attributing the firm's downfall to a case of "too much, too soon."

"Costs did get ahead of us," concedes Wilson. The partners took no salaries, he says, but moved to better quarters to "establish a business atmosphere."

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