by Chris Tobias
If you’ve visited the Take Back the Sky table at a convention in the past two years, you’ve no doubt seen the Independents flags we always have flying as part of our display. Those flags are the work of the fine folk at Firefly Cargo Bay, on online store that was one of the very first to offer Firefly- and Serenity-themed merchandise back when there weren’t really any officially licensed sundries to be found. Even in today’s market, which has been flooded with all manner of products aimed at Browncoats as of late, Firefly Cargo Bay still manages to offer a variety of unique Firefly and Serenity merchandise, often with a slightly humorous take on the ‘verse.
The shop, which proudly proclaims itself to be “by a Browncoat, for Browncoats,” is the creation of Karen Paddison, who manages the store from her home in Ontario, Canada– when she’s not on the road selling Firefly Cargo Bay merchandise at conventions all over the US. Karen recently answered a few questions for us about herself, her feelings about the Firefly ‘verse, and the labor of love called Firefly Cargo Bay that’s still in the air more than a decade after she offered that first homemade Firefly item…
TAKE BACK THE SKY: Firefly Cargo Bay is based in Ameliasburgh, Canada, but you’re originally from the Pittsburgh area, right?
KAREN PADDISON: I am a Pittsburgh-area girl. Born and raised in the South Hills.
TBTS: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you ended up in Ontario running a shop that sells merchandise for Browncoats?
KP: I ended up in Ontario by a very round about way. After getting a BA in General Fine Art at IUP, I took a 3 year course in animation. I found that my patience for making thousands of drawings per film was not as strong as needed and my hands couldn’t handle it. However, several of my classmates are amazing animators and got jobs in the industry and moved out to California. My friends all told me I could come out and look for work in the arts and stay with them FOR FREE. I took some of them up on their offers and while staying with one of my friends I met a Canadian who lived in the same apartment complex. Cue sappy chick flick movie music, and throw in 6 years and 5 different towns later and I was married and living in Ontario– part way between his family in Montreal and mine in the ‘Burgh.
TBTS: What was it about Firefly that inspired you to open Firefly Cargo Bay?
KP: It happened quite by accident. The line Mal says to Inara in “Shindig,” about being “fast as a freak” at fencing, just delights me to no end, and the image of a university style sports t-shirt based on it popped into my head. I liked the little in-joke of it and designed one for myself and my own enjoyment. Web sites like Zazzle and Cafe Press were brand new back then. I put the design up and ordered my t-shirt and thought nothing else of it. A few days later another order for the design came in. I was amazed. I even asked my husband if he went and ordered one without telling me to make me feel good about the shop making a sale or something. More sales came in and I started making more designs. That’s the way it continued with Cafe Press for 8 years and over that time I started doing conventions and opened my own shop. Firefly Cargo Bay now is starting its 11th year! All from one little throwaway line in one episode of a cancelled television series!
TBTS: What items have been your best sellers over the years?
KP: Parasols have usually been the best sellers online– especially in October! I date every parasol I paint. I wish I would have thought to number each one when I started offering them, but who knew, right? I’ve been painting Kaylee-esque parasols by hand since 2008, I believe. I’ve got to be well over 500 by now. At conventions the buttons go very well, which is why I’ve branched out into other fandoms with them. I usually have about 150 different ones at any given show. There are some designs of which I know no matter how many I make, I will run out!
TBTS: You’ve done a lot of business at sci-fi conventions. Have you had any particularly memorable moments while selling at cons or as a result of running the shop?
KP: Well, the very first convention I ever worked was Flanvention 2, which of course turned out to be the Browncoat Backup Bash, so I had very adventurous start to my vending career. Some memorable moments are related to the celebrities that are guests of the con. I usually only hear about them from attendees, since I can’t attend any panels or events myself. It was in this way that I know that John Barrowman enjoyed seeing my “I haven’t slept with Captain Jack Harkness– YET” button and that Mark Sheppard answered a panel question about my “If you don’t know this man, turn in your geek card” image that features pictures of him in his various roles. At a show last year I was at my booth just kind of tidying during a slow period. I saw someone in my peripheral vision and looked up to see Wil Wheaton looking over the items! I had made a button based on his “Wheaton’s Law,” which people had been buying that weekend. Several of them took it to his autograph line and he asked them where they got it. On his break he sought out my booth. He pointed to the button on the rack and said, “I think it’s awesome that you have these.” It was great to know that the person who inspired the design is pleased by its existence!
The most amazing thing that has happened to me at any convention so far was during a small one years ago. It was slow in the dealers room when a man and his two teenage kids came to the table. This was back when there was no licensed Firefly stuff, only a handful of independent designers were doing work on it, and I was really the only one having items at conventions. The girl– maybe 16 or so, just brightened up when she realized I had Firefly-themed stuff. She geeked out over everything (which I always love to see), and her dad and older brother were enjoying themselves as well. They purchased quite a lot of things and the girl was worried about how much money her dad was spending. He told her not to worry about it and she could get whatever she wanted. They completed their shopping and said thank you and went their way. A little while later the man returned alone. He thanked me again for having the Firefly-inspired products. I said, “Oh, you’re welcome. I love to do it,” in a friendly but general manner. He then said to me, “No. You don’t understand. My wife died of cancer six months ago. She and my daughter watched Firefly together– it was their thing. They never watched an episode without each other. Today at your booth is the first time I have seen her smile since she lost her mother and that is because of what you have here. Thank you.” I still get tears when I think about that moment. I could have never imagined that the products I offered could invoke such things.
TBTS: Is Firefly Cargo Bay a full-time venture for you? Was that always the case, or has that changed over the years?
KP: As any small business owner will tell you of their own endeavors, the Cargo Bay consumes most of my waking thoughts. I’m always trying to come up with new and fun products or design ideas, arranging the logistics of conventions, or running the business side of it all– book keeping, taxes, expenditures. It started out as just an online hobby because I had two children under the age of three in the beginning and really couldn’t devote more time or energy to it. Since then everything has become so much more connected and simplified for small businesses. Social media and free web stores are some of the reasons I have been able to continue expanding. I have had orders from all over the world– Poland, Spain, Norway, Australia. My daughters are almost teenagers now, which makes it easier for me to be away from home more often. It has slowly become a full time venture. On bad days when I’m frustrated over the business for whatever reason, the thought of just walking away from it all crosses my mind. It never stays long though, as the immediate thought afterwards is, “But what would I do without it?” I haven’t liked the answers to that one yet!
TBTS: There is a lot more licensed Firefly and Serenity merchandise out on the market now than there was when you started Firefly Cargo Bay back in 2004. What do you think of that? Has it changed your approach to what you do at all?
KP: That’s really a love/hate relationship for me now. Naturally I love that the Browncoat fan base has grown so much that it makes it worth big companies’ efforts to market to them, but at the same time it’s often the case that the designers making the products aren’t fans, so they’ll slap “Browncoat” on anything just to grab a buck, or worse still– and happening far too often to me and my fellow designer friends– they will scan the internet and independent artists’ sites and pick a design and print it on their t-shirts– sometimes making them almost exactly the same. Or they will reproduce a product that an independent artist has been making by hand for years, and all the new fans who don’t know that there are more shopping opportunities than the big website think the manufactured version is the only thing out there and heap loads of praise on them for creating this “new” product. I certainly don’t blame the fans, as they have no way of knowing about the “little guy.” I wish the companies with the licenses would be more responsible businesses and either make their own original designs and products, or reach out to the creators of the ones they find and work with them instead of stealing their work. This has not been the case of late. Being the bigger companies, they have more exposure and legal teams and fighting them has become a nightmare for a lot of us. It certainly has made me a lot more cautious as a consumer– especially online. I like to know the person I’m buying from is the person who did the work, so I try to avoid the big sites and stores and seek out small booths or artists’ alleys at shows.
TBTS: Why do you think Firefly and Serenity are still so popular even though we haven’t seen anything new on screen from this ‘verse in a decade or more?
KP: Joss Whedon described Firefly as nine people looking into space and seeing nine different things. I believe that holds true for the fandom as well. Most people I talk to about it love some different aspect of the show. There’s something pretty basic and relatable to almost everyone in those few episodes we were given. And that it is all topped of with great quotable dialogue and humor. Joss has also said because of the abrupt cancellation, that they “weren’t given time to suck.” I think that’s a huge factor, especially when you look at other shows– original Whovians vs reboot Whovians, original Star Trek or Next Generation, and then there’s the whole Star Wars debacle! No matter how strong a show starts out, the longer it goes on the more chance there is that people will just lose interest and move on or it will change and evolve into something that no longer suits their tastes. The Browncoat “gift,” as it were, is that our show is in its perfect little time capsule. No one can mess it up!
TBTS: Do you have any new products that you’re particularly proud of or excited about?
KP: I’m pretty excited about some of the new button designs and am looking forward to their receptions at the conventions this year. Also, there are more small posters in the works– about 11 X 17 size– that are coming together nicely, inspired by Firefly as well as other fandoms. I’m also looking into vinyl wall decals to see if there would be any interest in those. A few other things are coming about too, but I don’t want to really say too much about them, because I don’t know how long they will take to produce, if they come about at all.
TBTS: We know it’s still early, but can you tell us some cons that Firefly Cargo Bay will be attending this year?
KP: It’s never too early to ask me about conventions! I already have my 2016 calendar out and starting to get marked up. Here’s what is confirmed for 2015 already: Emerald City Comic Con in Seattle, MegaCon in Orlando, C2E2 in Chicago (my first year for it!), Denver and Phoenix Comic Cons and, of course, Dragon*Con, which I’ve done every year since 2008. I’m also looking into Salt Lake City Comic Con, New York Comic Con and Pittsburgh Comicon– although that one may be tough because it’s 4 days after Dragon*Con and I usually have nothing left!
TBTS: What are some of the things you take into consideration when designing or deciding on new products for your store?
KP: My main goal is to offer images and items that no one else out there has. I try as much as I can to be original. I also like the “in-joke” aspect of designs; images that don’t immediately give away to what they are referring. Some of the products I carry, though, came about simply because I as a fan wanted one and couldn’t find anyone anywhere offering it, so I went about producing them.
TBTS: Firefly Cargo Bay has been a generous donor to Can’t Stop the Serenity over the years. Are you still working with CSTS?
KP: I certainly am. It used to be that we’d send everything to the global organizers and they’d distribute it, but there are so many participating locations these days that they can’t possibly do that. I try to give as much as I can to as many cities as possible now. CSTS runners have contacted me online, and I try to match my donation to what will best suit their particular event’s needs. Or coordinators will stop by my booth at shows and introduce themselves and sometimes go home with a package of swag for their function or shindig. I feel honored to be able to help out Equality Now and all the local charities at events and screenings in cities and towns I probably will never be able to visit myself.
TBTS: You signed Take Back the Sky‘s petition at last year’s Pittsburgh Comicon. (Thanks again.) Why would you like to see SpaceX name the next manned US spacecraft after Serenity?
KP: I just think it’s a wonderful idea because it can be interpreted a number of ways, and not solely about a fandom having the name of the ship from their show in space. The exploration of space these days is a cooperative international endeavor. It says a lot about it no longer being a “space race” but a way that nation can work with nation in harmony. The next manned US spacecraft being named Serenity would be a physical symbol of humans taking peace into space. I know it may sound sentimental and corny, but that’s just the Kaylee side of me coming out I guess.
TBTS: Is there anything else you’d want people to know about Firefly Cargo Bay?
KP: Well… that we’re still flyin’ and we’re just happy to be doin’ good works!
TBTS: Shiny. That about does it. Thanks for talking to us!
KP: Oh, you’re welcome. It has been a delight.