Dear Blog Readers,
We have become the kind of blogger we never wanted to be — the kind who has a "read our blog" button on our website but the newest post is months old. We blame Facebook for this — it's so much easier to write something there and we seem to have more followers there than we did here on the blog. Still, we can't quite bring ourselves to give it up altogether yet — so instead, we're posting this little note to explain our lack of current entries. Please do check out our facebook page, we think it's fun, if not quite as long form.
sincerely, the Joie de Blogger.
Thursday, July 23, 2015
What's in a Name?
So, it's been quite a long time since we blogged! We just posted a link on Facebook because we were featured as an independent retailer on the MOVA website. Whoever wrote it up, added a bunch of information from an old story I wrote called "What's in a Name?" - about how I chose the name Joie de Vivre - and I decided it would be fun to post that story here - so... here it is, beginning now:
What's in a name?
I had decided to take the plunge. I would start my own business, I had a location, a lease, and a vision. A gift shop selling everything from postcards to windup toys to American Crafts. Things that would give pleasure in some way and make my future customers smile or laugh or wonder. And no one would walk out feeling they couldn’t afford a thing - I didn’t want price to be an issue. I had been in too many stores, gazing at beautiful objects that were completely out of my price range. I didn’t like feeling shut out and I didn’t want my future customers to feel that way either. My plan was to open in June and while preparing for my first buying trip it occurred to me that I needed two more things: a name, and a business card to put that name on. My friends in the craft world would understand if I hadn’t picked a name but I didn’t want to look unprofessional in the big league New York Gift Show.
A night spent at the kitchen table with a few friends and a bottle or two of wine and I had my name: Joie de Vivre. In the end it had come down to that or “The Graham Cracker Club.” The later was finally rejected as being just a shade too esoteric. It also would have been outright theft - it was the title of a New Yorker cartoon drawn by my cartooning idol, Roz Chast. “Joie de Vivre” seemed to sum up the feeling I wanted - a store where everything sold would be something that would bring a little joy to my customers, be it a 25 cent plastic goldfish, or a hundred dollar kaleidoscope.
I also wanted to do something different. Though I would carry products that would fit into either, this wouldn’t be a children’s toy store, and it wouldn’t be a serious craft gallery either - Cambridge already had several of booth. If we sold a product that was technically for children, my criteria would be that it would have to be pleasing to adults in some way as well. Adults were my intended audience. My first business card featured a rubber stamp image of a man in a suit and tie riding a rocking horse. I didn’t think “Joie de Vivre” alone would convey exactly what the store was about, and decided to add a second descriptive line. The card read “Joie de Vivre - Toys for Adults.”
In the immortal words of someone, “that was my first mistake.” I would be in a booth at the Gift Show, discussing the store, or placing an order, and the time would come to give my card to the salesperson writing me up. This was twenty five years ago and a number of those minding the booths were old school, older salesmen. As soon as they read the card their demeanor changed. I would get a wink, a nod, sometimes a leer. It may seem hard to believe, but it took more than once before I realized exactly what was going on. “Oh no,” I’d say, “not that kind of toys for adults. I’m going to be selling puzzles, and kaleidoscopes... things that would amuse an adult. There won’t be anything x-rated about it.” After the twentieth or thirtieth time, my patience wore a little thin and the explanation process started to feel somewhat tedious. I realized that I might have a problem, but once back from the show, I was engulfed in the practical details of opening, and didn’t think much more about it. A few weeks before the opening I was slaving away, sanding surfaces and painting walls. The front windows were papered so no one could look in, and I attached the classic “coming soon” sign to the door. It was June - I often left the door ajar to get fresh air and relief from the paint fumes. One day I heard a few people standing on the sidewalk. They were discussing the shocking fact that an “adult” store was moving into the neighborhood.
A few months later I had changed the card to read “Joie de Vivre - Diversions and Delights.” That took care of problem number one, but there was another unanticipated and funny problem with the name. Lots of people had no idea how to pronounce it. New employees were afraid to answer the phone - they didn’t want to have to say it. Or someone would come to the door with a package and announce that they were looking for “Joey Di Veever.” “Yeah, I got something for a Joey D. Veever... where can I find him?” was one of the more memorable questions. Most of my Cambridge and Boston customers understood the name just fine, but calling to place orders with companies out of the area was another story.
“Hello, I’d like to place an order please” I’d begin. “Please tell me your account number,” the salesperson would request. As I obliged one of two things would occur. Dead silence, as our name came up on their computer screen. Or the evasive “are you at 1792 Mass. Avenue?” In either case, when I said, yes, Joie de Vivre” there would be silence again, then “So that's how you say it,” or “I wasn’t even going to try to say that, usually followed by the question, “Is that French?” or more frequently “what does that mean?” I’ve spent a great deal of time explaining the concept in the last twenty years. At first I tried to translate it faithfully, explaining that it doesn’t literally mean ”the Joy of Life” as many would have it, but is more a quality that a person has - the quality of knowing how to enjoy life. I soon realized that my attempts to explain fell nicely into the category of “putting too fine a point on it” and settled for “it means Joy of Life.” “oh - that's beautiful” was the standard response. “I never took French in high school” was another common refrain. And sometimes as I spelled it out for the millionth time, “J” as in John, “O” as in orange, I thought of the Graham Cracker Club. Everyone knows how to spell that. Of course, it would have brought its own set of questions.
We used to get a lot of calls for pizza. There was a Joey’s Pizza in the area and information would give callers our number. There was the account who for months thought our name was “Spotted Zebra”. Lots of mail to Mr. and Mrs. Joie d. Vivre and countless botched spellings. I learned that names can only be protected in the state one does business in. After the first ten years other Joie de Vivres popped up. I had to bite my tongue when a salesperson would ask if we were in Florida. “But I was the first! I wanted to cry. “These other stores probably saw my badge and copied me!” I only know of one that's still in business, and incredibly oddly, its located in... Cambridge, MD.
For our twentieth anniversary a few years back, we made up a bunch of buttons. Some featured our name and logo but the most popular was the small blue one with the phonetic spelling: “zhwah duh VEEV-ruh.” It's fun to have something to give away to shoppers from out of town, or anyone who professes great affection for the store. Just a few months ago a man came in looking distracted. ”What exactly is this place called?” he asked. “Joie de Vivre!” I replied. “Really?” he said, looking quite amazed. “And... what does it mean?” I explained. It was a lazy afternoon so I gave him the long explanation. “That's crazy” he said. “I had no idea what it meant, or that it was here. I was walking by on my way to the Square. I just had an argument with my wife. She said I had absolutely no joie de vivre.” I gave him a few buttons. “Now you do” I said. There is a little something in a name sometimes.