I met Martie McNabb at one of the local chapter Association of Personal Historian meetings last year. She owns and operates a business in Brooklyn, NY She is a visual artist who tells personal history stories in books (& other display products) using only photos & memorabilia. Her books are created to let the reader tell the story in their own words. Which makes for a better story. Martie has been in business for over nine years and she is graciously going to share her wisdom and insights with us today.
Purelysimplewords (PSW): Welcome Martie. I know you are really busy so thanks for your time.
Martie McNabb (MM): Not busy with a lot of paid work.
PSW: It’s like that everywhere.
MM: It’s a standard thing. It’s the three stages of building a business. Visibility, Credibility and Profitability. Memories Out of the Box is heading into the Profitability stage but we are not there yet.
PSW: How long have you been doing Personal History work?
MM: We are coming up to 9 to 10 years.
PSW: That’s a long time!
MM: Personal Historians in general have a difficult time selling our services. At least people know what to do (as a memoir writer). There are no words (text) in the work I do, except those that are in documents or memorabilia. Occasionally if a client wants it but then they have to do the work. But the majority of my clients don’t have the time to caption anything. They look to what I create as an opportunity for storytelling. They pull the book off the shelf and sit down with their family and they go through it and reminisce and remember and reconnect with one another and that’s where the words come in as part of an individual, family or organizational oral tradition.
PSW: How did you get started as a Personal Historian?
MM: I was a high school Biology teacher in the city here for 8 ½ years. I wasn’t burnt out but I was crispy around the edges. I knew I couldn’t stay doing it. Mainly I love the kids but got burnt out by the administration and politics of education. As we know all the money is going into testing. Companies like Pearson Testing and curriculum companies are making a fortune off of it but the reality of it is you need to train teachers really, really well then you give them all the support they need to become excellent teachers then leave them the Fuck alone.
PSW: I agree with you on that one.
MM: No administrator would go into a cardiac surgeon’s operating room and tell them what to do. Teachers need the same respect. It’s not the money. The money is really good but it was all the other stuff. Anyway I had to leave there and I was just trying to figure what to do. I went back to my first career which was sign language interpreting. Which I still do occasionally if I need cash. Then I said, “What’s next?”
I decided to take a 16 week business class called Workshop in Business Opportunities (WIBO) which met once a week, we had homework. It cost me $99 and they had a curriculum they taught you and had different people who came in and taught you about different areas of building a business. It was an opportunity to meet other entrepreneurs too. I was not thinking of one business and around that time I went to visit a friend in North Carolina. I hadn’t seen my friend in 6 years . When I saw her she felt it was so important to tell me that she had become an aunt in that 6 year period. Her twin sister had two girls and all she wanted to do was show me pictures of her nieces. She spent half the visit going back and forth to her bedroom trying to find the right dresser drawer with the right envelope with the right picture in it. It occurred to me, why do we document the heck out of our lives. We take photos, we collect all kinds of stuff that document the things we remember. Touchstones that really make a difference for us. We hold on to them but so rarely do anything with them. They just sit in a box, mainly that’s how Memories Out of the Box came about.
I wondered how many other people have this problem. Needless to say it was a very informal marketing search. There is no known research about it at this point. All I can tell is we can see hundreds and thousands of old photographs at tag sales and flea markets and antique stores, the problem of what do you do with your photos have been around for a very long time. Because they are ending up in tag sales and flea markets and auctions. Someone in whatever family did nothing with them. You find old scrap books from the 20’s and 30’s and even earlier that have nothing in them. Perhaps the first couple of pages have photos in them and the rest nothing. I think the challenge of what we do with our photos, documents and memorabilia of our lives has been going on for a long time. But again I don’t have hard and fast truth of it. I started to think about it and ask people about it and said OK what valuable service can I offer because there seems to be a big need for it. Let me try opening this business. And so I did.
PSW: What do you enjoy most about doing this type of work?
MM: The most difficult part of this work is getting more work. It’s getting the word out to people to say I can do this work, people don’t understand that they can hand me their boxes, bags or key to their storage unit or whatever and I can do the majority of the work all by myself. Without them being there.
The next thing is I don’t spend enough time actually doing the work, because the clients are motivated to do it but it is not on the top of their priority list, especially for my clients basically since they handed it off to me and given me a check. It sometimes takes a little while to get back to me so I can move forward on these projects.
But the best part is when I am finally getting into my studio and start to work on these projects it’s pure joy. Time just stands still and I just get into this space of loving to be a part of telling this story. Of this visual narrative and I get to know the characters, I see where they go and what is important to them, what they do and who are their friends. I see children grow up and the weddings that have been in boxes for 22 years. They finally get into a beautiful book and get delivered to a husband and wife for their 23rd wedding anniversary. It’s the joy of creating the finished display product that is what I love and also it’s just being able to know that when I hand these projects back to my clients they are so thrilled. Many of these people thought about what to do with these boxes for years if not decades. Here when I say it is not a priority. I say it is not a top priority, but it is in the back of their minds and they think they have to do something with these. I have to find those wedding photos, the trips we took or my daughters baby book that I never finished and now my daughter’s is graduating from college. All of these things that were in the back of their minds but they have not done anything with it. The sense of relief they have when it’s done, they can sit down and look through it, share and reminisce. I have had some that were so excited to get the finished book, sit with some wine and go through each page and relish every moment. These are some reasons I love doing what I do.
PSW: Do you put the actual pictures in a book or do you scan them and put the scan in the book?
MM: It all depends on what my clients want and what the end product is. 1. I can take the original photos, documents, postcards, letters cards, teeth, locks of hair,. brochures, maps and all of that put them in a photo safe scrapbook with adhesive that is photo safe and archival quality. This is called a one off. A big challenge for the client is what to do with the originals if they want a digital book. There is still a preservation issue to that. Many of my clients don’t have a lot of storage space so they may never do anything with the originals. 2. I can scan each individual photo and document to create a digital book that can be printed. Either way is fine but I often ask what the clients plan on doing with the originals.
Many clients just want one copy because they know they are not going to do anything with the originals. The best protection for the items is to be in a book. That gives the archive the most probable chance of surviving and being preserved.
PSW: What is digitizing?
MM: Scanning and digitizing is the same thing, most of the books I create are large. Most are 12 x 12 or 14 x 14. They can’t be scanned in a typical scanner. I have a friend who is a product photographer and takes high quality photos. His studio is set up so that he can photograph each page which creates a digital image. I can then have a back up copy to send off to a book publisher or printer and have a copy made.
PSW: You have been in this business for a long time. From where you began to where you are now what has not worked and what have you learned from it?
MM: Needless to say I have had many failures. This is my first forte in owning a business. No one in my immediate family has ever owned a business. My great grandfather and his six brothers started a company back in the late 1800’s to early 1900’s. Other than that it’s been hit or miss on my side. I am primarily on my own. Because it is a new industry and concept even before I knew anything about the Association of Personal Historians I started Memories Out of the Box. There was no road map. There could be other companies out there that do the work I do but I can’t find them. There is one that is similar by a woman in Oregon. Also Taylor Whitney in Albany, NY. But no one does the visual story telling as I do.
My clients are not the type to send their precious items out to be organized/scanned so I decided to open an store in Brooklyn, NY that sold photo albums and scrapbooks and frames, I had classes, workshops and studio space for those who had these projects in mind but no room in their house. Some people worked with me on a coaching basis. I got great feedback from people in the area. As a result I got over 400 email addresses. If I got a nickel for every time I was told this store is a great idea I would be rolling in it now. I did acquire a great client who I still work with. I am working on book 9, 10 and 11.
Unfortunately, the store did not work out for various reasons like the economy and my lack of business experience. It was in essence a “failure”. So what did I learn from it. By living in this neighborhood for 20 years having a store increased my visibility and credibility. I was smart enough to adjust my path to continue the work that I do. Which is all I want to do. I did not give up. I continued to offer my services I learned I hate retail. I learned I can fail, learn from it and make better mistakes next time. I learned to take my financial life seriously. Being CFO of my financial life is new to me and I am learning to handle that.
PSW: Who would you say is the most interesting client you have ever had?
MM: This is a woman I met when I opened my store. She is like a hurricane and has a huge heart. She takes the time to sit down and really listens and connects with you . As I mentioned I am working on book 9, 10 and 11 for her. She inherited a box of stuff from her mother dating back to the 18 and 1900’s that I organized, curated and placed in a book. When her son was 13 I made a book for him. I have seen her family grow. I have taken trips with them, and she is welcoming, friendly, and trusting. She makes me feel I am part of that family and I really love that about her. Hopefully I will be there to do wedding albums for her sons and daughter as we move forward. It is wonderful to be a family’s visual narrator.
PSW: What advice would you like to pass on about having your own business and being a personal historian?
MM: First is you learn important things about yourself, deep things. Having your own business is not like having a job. It’s about starting and growing a business you believe in.
In terms of a personal history business there is no question that it is in the beginning stages and it will grow. We are the life story people after all.
I just connected with Story Corp. They say that they make recordings that go into the Library the Congress so your great great great grandchildren can listen to your story. Sadly I think this does not happen though because Story Corps doesn’t help the individuals preserve the DVD they are given &/or create a tradition that makes sure the family knows that this recording even exists. When I come across CD’s & DVD’s in the boxes I work with I make sure they are included in my end product and backed up in some way so these ancestral voices aren’t lost. Personal Historians are not only concerned about telling or recording stories but also about preserving them for future generations that know that they are there.
PSW: is there anything else you would like to add?
MM: I encourage everyone to check out our Show & Tell events. They are great opportunities to share lives and legacy. It’s a fun event. The events are free too.
PSW: Thank you Martie for sharing your world with us.
Martie is talented and generous with her expertise. Her visual narratives are unique and each one of her creations is one of a kind. She is passionate about everyone not leaving the story of their lives stuck in a box.
To find out more about Martie McNabb, her portfolio, the process she uses, adult show and tell events and her work go to: memoriesoutofthebox.com. (718) 398-1519 Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, NY