Since it opened in 2017, Lockwood Paper has stocked political-themed cards and trinkets alongside the usual greeting, Get Well Soon, and holiday cards. Walk into the Astoria stationery shop today and you might find a scented candle that claims to smell like “Is it over yet?”—a reference both to the COVID-19 pandemic and the increasingly high-stress political battleground in the U.S. There are items bearing an image of Kamala Harris with the phrase “Stay Nasty,” and “2020” stickers printed with a cartoon-style rendering of a dumpster fire—a best-selling graphic across products ranging from birthday cards to tea towels.
In addition to election-related accessories that exclaim “Voting is sexy” and “Fucking Vote,” Lockwood Paper’s wares have also recently expanded to include COVID-19-specific cards. Among the new genres that have become popular in recent months are thank you cards dedicated to postal delivery people and medical professionals, as well as cards with quarantine-themed messages and designs (a “Hugs + Kisses Replacement Card” features a drawing of hand sanitizer and a face mask). As a whole, the store’s selection now targets the intersection of politics and “current events” more bluntly than in years past, according to associate buyer and manager, Brian Kess.
Even amidst the economic upheaval caused by the ongoing pandemic, several of New York’s stationery stores and gift shops have publicly embraced socio-political causes despite the common conception that politics and business don’t mix. For the most part, their political offerings have been in high demand. But there has also been notable pushback.
Support for social and political causes has been at the core of Williamsburg-based stationery and gift shop Lovewild Design ever since owner and creative director Sierra Zamarripa started the small business in 2014. Zamarripa’s shop specializes in sustainable gifts and paper goods, and, increasingly, is home to a number of voting-specific accessories, like face masks and tote bags printed with the word “Vote.”
But while “Vote” totes have been a customer favorite in the past month, the store has also experienced backlash online. Zamarripa, who makes the bags, wrote in an email that the shop’s Instagram gets “a bunch of unfollows when we post anything vaguely political.” This is particularly true of content relating to the Black Lives Matter movement, ranging from images and captions on the topic of violence against LGBTQ+ (and specifically trans) people of color to a post of Zamarripa’s daughter holding a “Black Lives Matter” cardboard sign at a rally in May.
View this post on Instagram
P and I attended a #blacklivesmatter march and rally today. It starts here. At this age, this generation. Children are not “color blind” and it’s important we don’t pretend otherwise. Today was most certainly different from the protests we take part in (pre-covid + nyc) but felt it was imperative to join forces no matter where we are.
When Lockwood Paper reopened this summer, it too received blowback in the form of “escalating” instances of vandalism, according to Kess.
“We have a Black Lives Matter sign in our window,” he explained, “and our store was first being tagged with spray paint with BLM and then the awnings were slashed and spray painted.”
Kess added that later, the shop’s windows were “smashed” and ultimately had to be replaced.
“It was someone who was possibly targeting stores with Black Lives Matter signage, possibly someone who knew we were a slightly more progressive place,” he speculated. “Or it could have just been somebody with a grudge. You know, we just have no idea still, which is part of the most stressful part about it, is like there’s no answer yet.”
The bout of vandalism has been such a sensitive topic that the owner of Lockwood Paper took to Instagram in the beginning of July to apologize for sharing “photos and videos of Lockwood vandalism and camera footage of the act” with the shop’s social media following.
Despite the vandalism, Kess remains committed to stocking the quirky political items that customers seek from their neighborhood stationery shop.
“If our customers weren’t buying them, we wouldn’t be ordering them,” he said. “It’s a reflection of us, our views, and our community.”
Customers of the store have been clamoring for items that speak to the zeitgeist. Ruth Bader Ginsburg-inspired items, which have long been stocked at Lockwood Paper, sold out almost instantaneously following the recent death of the Supreme Court justice and Brooklyn native.
“That morning after RBG passed,” Kess explained over the phone, “I was walking to work—I have about a half an hour to decompress as I walk to work—and I was thinking to myself Should I move all of the, you know, the RBG products into one place for people to find? Or is that in poor taste? You know, the capitalist guilt was getting to me of like, Would that be capitalizing on this woman’s passing? You know, this legend. But then within a half an hour of us being open, the first three people that walk in the door were like, ‘Where is your Ruth Bader Ginsburg stuff?’”
“It kind of gave me some peace of mind that people in our neighborhood knew that we were a place that they could find that stuff, that we were kind of a haven for people of like mind,” he added.
Zamarripa’s socio-political leanings have always been evident both in the design and price of certain products at Lovewild. Proceeds from some items in the shop fund organizations like the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, Planned Parenthood, and the Black Mamas Matter Alliance. Typically, Zamarripa donates 20 percent of an item’s retail price. Occasionally, for “limited edition” stock, she donates 100 percent of the profits.
Some of these items appear more artistic than outwardly political. “We have a kitchen towel that has different kinds of boobs on it,” Zamarripa explained over the phone, “and that goes to Planned Parenthood.”
But four years ago, the selection was a bit more direct.
“Last election we had stuff that was kind of mocking in a semi-subtle way—maybe not subtle at all, actually—but about resistance,” Zamarripa said with a laugh. Some stand-out items included a greeting card stating “I would punch a Nazi for you” and a Father’s Day card with the slogan “You give the patriarchy a good name.”
A similarly snappy card, featuring an illustration of a girl carrying a neatly wrapped present underneath the question “Is this a new president?!” has been a recent hit at Greenwich Letterpress, according to an Instagram post from the Manhattan-based stationery shop. The post urges viewers to vote and claims of the card, “after November 3rd we hope it’s irrelevant.”
The shop’s website boasts a handful of greeting cards filed under a category called “snarky” that speak to the current socio-political moment, including one currently out of stock card with the text, “Pandemic Pro Tip: Cruise ships are bad. Stay on dry land, alone.”
COVID-19 is more than a punchline for these local stationery shops, though. Both Lovewild Design and Lockwood Paper have felt lasting effects from the pandemic.
During the height of COVID-19 spread in New York, Lovewild Design’s studio kept the small business afloat—Zamarripa and her mother filled online and wholesale orders from the studio space while the retail store was closed to in-person shoppers. Lovewild Design also lost business, though, when two wholesale orders of over $10,000 were cancelled by “bigger companies panicking or smaller stores mandated to close,” Zamarripa wrote in an email.
Lockwood Paper similarly closed shop during the COVID-19 shutdown but had no business other than online orders (and the occasional “store pickup”) to fall back on. Kess was laid off during the spring, along with most others from the store. He said a small crew fulfilled orders and kept Lockwood Paper up and running, to the extent possible, and that he returned to work at the end of June, mere days before the store reopened for in-person shopping.
“After a few months of kind of weird up and down, I feel like customers are a little more comfortable shopping in person now,” explained Kess, who has worked at Lockwood Paper for over a year. “So there are more people here, on the weekends especially, which has helped us get back up to some normal sales numbers.”
At Lovewild, Zamarripa is awaiting the start of the holiday season—typically a “busy time” of year for stationery and gift shops. She seemed hopeful that sales will bounce back but admitted that some level of uncertainty goes hand in hand with running a small business. She also added that it’s been difficult to separate the impact of COVID-19 from that of the current political climate on her business.
“I think around election time in general that people are less willing to spend money,” Zamarripa said, “just because I feel like there is some kind of nervousness of What’s going to happen.”