“I am much more me when I am with you.”
Lately, one of Second Story’s best-selling items is a white greeting card decorated with painted sundrop blossoms that counsels, in all caps: “You will get through this s---.”
But the fate of Second Story Cards may be less certain due to the pandemic’s squeeze. Nearly all of its business comes from selling wholesale to stores in Washington and more than a dozen states, plus sales from area pop-up markets. Founder Reed Sandridge is worried not only about his own well-being and economic prospects, but those of his cardmakers.
The one-man operation works with people who are or have been homeless to turn their wit and clarity into greeting cards and royalties: Fifteen percent of a card’s sale price goes to its author, which for some cardmakers last year added up to about $2,000, Sandridge says. Another 10 percent of sales goes to a charity of the author’s choice. Often, it’s an organization that helped them during their homelessness.
“We end up being the thoughts and hopes of regular people,” Sandridge says. “Our success just proves that you can look at someone on the street and think, ‘That person and me are so different,’ and yet when their ideas and sayings resonate with people who are not homeless, it’s just a testament to how we are all the same at our core. We deal with different problems at different levels, but we all deal with problems and challenges.”
Revenue for the 3½ -year-old business doubled in 2019, according to Sandridge, 46, who was expecting to turn a profit this year for the first time. Instead, he spends his days working to sell individual cards online, alchemizing new business angles for Second Story, and vying for small-business relief (amounting to a $1,000 grant from the city and a loan from the federal government). In a bid to keep himself and the company afloat, he is also applying for other full-time work.
“I’m committed to the company,” Sandridge says, “but [the pandemic] might transform us in a way that I haven’t been really prepared for. But we’re not going to go away.”
Second Story Cards contracts with about 20 cardmakers (most of them are housed at the moment, Sandridge says) and two freelance designers. Many of the cardmakers are starting to fray from the stresses of this year, Sandridge says, finding that having a home only to be trapped inside it “is a different kind of hell.” And though some days the pulse of the business ticks up and brings Sandridge with it, his hope for a holiday sales boom, which typically accounts for nearly half the year’s revenue, is evaporating.
“You know when you see something and it’s just right?” he laments. “Like everything kind of works: It’s helping people, they’re commercially successful, people are enjoying them. … This should work.”
The business was born of the last economic crisis. In 2009, Sandridge was laid off from a nonprofit where he’d worked to better kids’ nutrition and wellness, and, in an effort to climb out of the ensuing funk and to connect with others, he decided to walk the city handing $10 to a random person each day for a year. (He chronicled the effort at YearofGiving.org.) Some of those people were homeless, and those relationships led to Second Story Cards.
Sandridge’s first cardmaker was Anthony Crawford, who was selling the newspaper Street Sense at 19th and M streets NW when Sandridge offered him $10 in early 2010. Crawford is 63 and humbly optimistic with a rich, broadcast-ready voice. After his encounter with Sandridge, they started meeting for lunch or coffee every other week. By 2013, Sandridge had helped Crawford navigate the path to a home after 20 years on the street, and in late 2016 Crawford helped Sandridge launch the card company as its first cardmaker and keeper of the glass-half-full mentality. “I never had anybody accept me the way that Reed does,” Crawford says. For him, Second Story Cards is a chance to feel connected to people in a way he wasn’t able to before. People “never hung around me,” Crawford says. “Why? ‘He’s on the street.’ They walked by me like I was nobody.”
Cardmaker Sasha Williams feels the same; in the past she’s wondered: “Am I worth something to somebody?” She says the cards she produces — along with her work for Street Sense and a 2015 documentary she made about her life inside the now-shuttered D.C. General shelter — give her a voice and confidence.
Williams, 35, started to work on cards with Sandridge in 2017. By then she was in an apartment of her own after living through a car crash that left her blind in one eye, a sexual assault at gunpoint, a diagnosis of bipolar disorder and housing instability for much of her adult life. She has an apartment now in Northeast Washington, where she lives with her two daughters. Her oldest, who is 7 and lived with her at D.C. General, also creates cards for Second Story.
“I love my cards because they’re like pieces of me,” Williams says. “At my best, I just try to look at the brighter side and know that, of course, I went through all these things, but I can create my destiny. I can still have a purpose, I can still do more, I can still be in a happy place. My cards show that.”
Williams wrote the “You will get through this s---” card. “Sometimes you’ve got to just pep talk with yourself. … Sometimes you’ve just got to tell yourself it’s going to be okay, you know what I’m saying? It’s going to be okay,” she says. “[When I see that card] now, it’s still a reminder. And when I see the response, I’m like: People know. People need that reminder, too.”
Danny Freedman is a writer in Memphis.