For over two years, I’ve been side-hustling with The Nerdware Store while working for an advocacy organization in Washington D.C. Last month, I turned in my two weeks notice and had my last day of work on March 31, 2023. Here’s why…
I started drawing and painting as a toddler, learning from my mom, grandma, and siblings. We had a tradition of entering the annual Duck Stamp and Fish Reel (yes, these are real things) art contests in my home state of South Carolina. Since then, I’ve been on a creative pilgrimage through sewing, cross stitching, knitting, crocheting, pencil drawing, painting with gouache, cake decorating, website design, graphic design, and more.
Despite my love for all things art & creating, I rarely considered being a self-supporting artist as a possibility. There was a brief moment before I started college where I dreamed of being a costume designer, but practicality, and experience always guided me towards office jobs. Uninterested in the corporate values of the business school where I received my undergraduate degree, I pursued internships and work in nonprofits and government. As a person with mental illness disabilities, and the older sister of a young man with down syndrome, I focused my work on making our world a better, more just and inclusive world for people with disabilities.
I started The Nerdware Store on somewhat of a whim while quarantining to see my parents and youngest brother for the winter holidays in 2020. While the 9-to-5 schedule and office (remote or in-person) job structure has always been a struggle for me, the pandemic really pushed how I think about work, society, and my role in all of it. In 2020, I felt desperate to get back to my artistic roots and make sure that creativity was a regular part of my life, which led me to starting The Nerdware Store on Etsy in January of 2021.
So where does fandom come into it all? In addition to being “the artsy one” in my family, I have been a life-long nerd. My mom and siblings introduced me to the Star Wars films, the Lord of the Rings films and books, the Chronicles of Narnia, the Inheritance Series, and other great stories. I remember the wonder and connection I felt while discovering these stories for the first time and then revisiting them regularly. As a very emotional kid, these stories also helped me to process my emotions and gain new perspectives.
In high school, I started making fandom-inspired art, even though I didn’t know the word “fandom” yet. For the longest time, I felt alone in my nerdiness and cherished any opportunities to nerd out with college friends, going to see the newest Marvel films and hosting Lord of the Rings viewing parties at my apartment. Then as I engaged more on instagram and discovered the Nerdist and Binge Mode podcasts, I began to discover the communities built around fandoms and I was enthralled.
But still, I was doing the 9-to-5 thing in internships and fellowships while in grad school, including during the pandemic. In 2020, I finished graduate school, quarantined in my Brooklyn apartment with my roommates, and watched “Star Wars Rebels” for the first time, which was one of the most transformative experiences for me. The pandemic forced me to break out of a cycle of business and commuting and leaving my apartment in the morning and returning after 10pm from the city, late night meetings, etc. It has been scary and devastating and caused me, and so many others, to ask themselves what is really important. When we’re stuck in routines, it’s easy to be in “autopilot” mode just going through the motions. And while I’m the first to say that I love routines, the year 2020 forced a lot of changes in me.
All of these events lead to my decision to start The Nerdware Store to combine my love of art and fandoms, and put myself out there in earnest. At the time, I had no thought of anything but finding something creative to fill my post-work hours. And it has been wild to me to think about how much The Nerdware Store has grown and how much I have changed and grown as a person.
TWO WEEKS NOTICE
Flash forward to 2023, and I’ve had many ups and downs both with my day job and with The Nerdware Store. I remember that I had the chance to talk with Britt from Fulcrum Pins on their Popshop interview, and she asked me what I’m most proud of with The Nerdware Store. Without hesitation, my answer was that I’m most proud that I haven’t quit The Nerdware Store. Through every step, every season, every month of The Nerdware Store for the last two years, I have battled with self-doubt. It is truly only through the uplifting community I’ve made in this online nerdom, the many kind and encouraging words from fellow artists and nerds, and the support of family that I have kept going, despite the frequent self-doubt.
I don’t talk about this much, because it feels embarrassing sometimes, but The Nerdware Store didn’t break even until 2022. If anyone out there has the impression that I’m swimming in profits, I don’t mean to give that impression. While I feel pressure sometimes to prove to the world that The Nerdware Store is successful, the truth is that this passion project is still a work in progress towards profitability. But, despite sometimes feeling less than successful, The Nerdware Store has become so much more than a hobby and side hustle, and it opened up a door for me to consider something besides a 9-to-5 office existence.
At the beginning of 2023, I spent a lot of time thinking about my mental health, what kind of life I want to build, and what I have to give to the world. For the first time, I realized that pursuing art as my vocation could be possible, and that The Nerdware Store is that open door into a different existence. Leaving my day job was a difficult decision because of the amazing people I have gotten to work with and began to consider good friends. Thanks to my therapist in large part, I made my plan, turned in my two-weeks notice, and thought through how I can stay in touch with my colleagues in different ways, and find peace with my decision.
One of the biggest hesitations that kept me from taking the leap was the belief that my art and my Etsy shop are trivial, and that choosing art would be somehow selfish and meaningless. Saying it outloud (or rather writing it out), I can see the ridiculousness of this thought, but it wasn’t until February of 2023 that I was really able to acknowledge to myself that art is powerful, my art, others’ art, and the stories and feelings that guide our art.
Art and stories and stories are important. In many ways, they are life itself. Life can often be hard and lonely, and we live in a world full of injustice. But the stories and art and little joys of life can give us meaning, hope, and connection. I live with depression and anxiety, and while life has looked much brighter since starting medication, I still have ups and downs. As nerdy as it sounds, at my lowest, it has been quotes from beloved stories that helped me keep going. I want to make that possible for others. THAT is why I make pins and more that bring the joy of fandom into everyday life.
I’m an artist! A full-time artist! Quitting my day job and putting my focus and energy into entrepreneurship is one of the wildest, but also most exciting things I’ve done in my adult life. Internally, I’m still figuring out my new routines and balancing my many artistic passions.
On the outside, not much will change with The Nerdware Store for now. I’m working behind the scenes to grow the ways that y’all can engage with the fandom-inspired art and goodies, including opening a Patreon, selling at more comic conventions and local markets here in Baltimore, and making more and more handmade pottery. I’m focusing on building up The Nerdware Store, creating new pins, prints, and mugs, and connecting in new ways with the community of Tolkien and Star Wars nerds out there.
If you are reading this and have been around for a week, a month, a year, or since the very beginning of The Nerdware Store, THANK YOU. Thank you for being here, thank you for hyping me up on instagram, for joining my newsletter, for responding to my excessive story posts of my kitties, for writing reviews on Etsy that make my day, and just for being here and going on this journey with me in whatever way you choose.
What a great story. How inspiring to see your humble beginnings and how your persistence and drive have brought you to this point. It reminds me of Sam Gamgee waxing eloquent about how the stories heroes were the regular folk who just didn’t quit.
Thank you for sharing this, Lillian! This is beautiful piece of writing and reflection on your relationship with art. I’m super excited to see what you do next! Also, I think you’re right about about the importance of stories. We *all* tell stories about the world and our lives. As a fellow disabled human, fandom has meant a lot to me as well. Fandom has been an escape from the world for me, but it’s also been a “place” to connect with others, and even a space to reimagine my future as a disabled human, outside of mainstream narratives about disability.
Thank you Ally! I loved your blog too about your own relationship with fandom. It is truly beautiful how stories help us understand ourselves and the world around us and can create a space for us when the world wasn’t really built for us.