"You live in woeful times," announces
Uncle Sam from the cover of a new gift catalog. "You need
And humorous products are, indeed, featured therein.
The DUMBO-based catalog’s pages reveal a curious medley of witty products such as the plush "Freudian Slippers"; "Impeachmints," tasty peach-flavored mints with President Bush on the tin box; a "Global Warming" mug with disappearing coastlines; and "Axis of Evil," a puppet box set with finger-size Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong Il, Ayatollah Khamenei and George W. Bush.
Who is behind these unique, irony-drenched gift ideas? Meet brothers David and Stephan Shaw, owners of the Unemployed Philosophers Guild, who have been perfecting ways of making money from politics since the summer of 1989, when they sold their first freshly baked clay earrings - East Germany for one ear, West Germany for the other - for $5 at a stand on West Broadway.
It wasn’t fun-seeking curiosity that drove David, a history PhD student, and Stephan, a philosophy major undergrad, to the street at that tumultuous time.
"The thing that really got us started was that we couldn’t find any work," says David, 42, from the Guild’s headquarters in DUMBO, where they have been since 1995. "There has never been a business plan. There still isn’t really a business plan."
Moreover, no one in the company has business experience. Instead, the employees’ backgrounds are in filmmaking, theater and arts. In fact, only the Guild’s art director, who designs the products, actually does what he studied to do, says David.
Despite the lack of business expertise, however, the Philosophers’ mints, mugs, puppets and stationery are now sold in hundreds of stores throughout the country and abroad, says David.
"It’s a lot more successful than we thought it would be," he says, attributing their success to making things that they would actually want to have. "[The business] is growing a lot."
Yet for Stephan, who headed the company for the first several years, it was initially hard to commit to the Guild full-time.
"It took me a long time to get into this," he says. "I always treated it as this thing I had to do just to make a living, and I didn’t really want to be doing it even though it was creative and sometimes really satisfying and fun to make things and find that people wanted to spend their hard-earned money on it."
But now, the Shaw Brothers, who live next to each other in Park Slope, are constantly working on new ideas to expand their business.
"A lot of it comes from sleepless nights or driving around," explains David. "We like to think it up ourselves rather than just knock off someone else’s idea."
Due to the nature of the products, he explains, they are mostly sold in the centers of liberalism and intellectualism such as quirky independent stores in Brooklyn and San Francisco, college bookstores, museum shops and coffee houses. David says that opera stores are particularly grateful to the Guild for giving them something new to sell, such as their "Carmen" finger puppet set replete with music box.
The holiday season is the company’s most profitable time as the two months of frenzied gift-buying brings more than half the year’s sales says David.
The most popular products are from their political line, says David, which includes their tins of mints, such as the aforementioned "Impeachmints" and "National Embarrassmints" - also sporting George Bush - as well as the four-inch self-explanatory foam toy, "Smush Bush."
Freud products are also very popular, especially in Europe, where "there is more enthusiasm for Freud than commercial hostility toward Bush," observes David.
The Shaws discovered early that certain historical figures attracted the biggest attention. Since their early handmade pins of Einstein, Freud and Shakespeare, they have expanded to an enormous array of puppets and beanie babies from Socrates in toga to Sherlock Holmes in tweed.
But in the last couple of years, products mocking President Bush have remained on top. The Unemployed Philosophers started selling them at the beginning of 2004, but by election time, they were worried about their sales.
"He won, and we thought this was so depressing that nobody is gonna want to buy a silly tin of mints," David remembers. "It’s true, there was about a month where we didn’t sell a lot of Bush stuff, but by December 2004, we were selling more than we ever did before the election. I think, in a way, it was the only outlet for your Bush hatred.
"We definitely benefited from this awful president," he continues. "It’s gonna take years ’til people hate the next president. We are trying to think ahead. So much of our business is anti-Bush, and Bush has only two years left. So, we’ve been talking about stationery. We just designed a [greeting] card with Gore, a card of McCain."
The Guild owners try to implement change by donating a portion of their profits to political candidates and various charities. They are even thinking of writing a political book. But their long-term plans are still a bit uncertain. All they know for certain is that they don’t want to sell the Unemployed Philosophers Guild.
"I’m not sure what we would do if we sold it," says David. "We’d probably create another company, because it is fun coming up with these ideas."
Unemployed Philosophers Guild products
can be found in the following Brooklyn stores:
Little Things, 145 Seventh Ave. at Garfield Place in Park Slope, (718) 783-4733.
Nancy Nancy, 244A Fifth Ave. at Carroll Street in Park Slope, (718) 789-5262, www.nancynancy.com.
Overtures, 216 Hicks St. at Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights, (718) 643-9345.
Shakespeare’s Sister, 270 Court St. at Butler Street in Cobble Hill, (718) 694-0084, www.shakes
For a complete list of products by the Unemployed Philosophers Guild, call (800) 255-8371 or visit www.philos