When most people think about NY NOW and National Stationery Show (NSS) exhibitors, they think of self-contained brands. But Crow & Canary (C&C) is a a little different. Based in Portland, Oregon, but covering a broad swath of coastal states and territories, this rep group also takes its highly curated selection of gift and stationery brands not just on the road to its individual retail clients, but to NY NOW and NSS. And having exhibited some 22 times in different locations and configurations since 2012, it’s safe to say neither would be quite the same without this particular exhibitor!
However, Owner & Principal Sales Rep Carina Murray is as much of a colorful, vibrant destination as the booth itself. Carina traces her passion for stationery back to a childhood obsession with Sanrio stationery sets — but she also comes from great paper stock. Carina credits her dad for being an excellent pen pal and unearthing some of the neatest greeting cards a girl could dream of in her formative years. Today Carina resides in picturesque Portland with her husband, Brian and their pup, Ula, as well as a slightly grumpy, lop-eared bunny called Sherman. I’m so grateful she agreed to be interviewed here!
SS: You say that an ardor for snail mail and great design were driving forces in the formation of C&C in 2006. Doubtless you’re a true champion of independent stationers and designers, so I am curious to learn more about your background and how you arrived at the idea of starting C&C.
CM: I had been scheming on opening a gift boutique while living in Juneau, Alaska, in 2002. I had identified a need, done some research and started a business plan, but ultimately decided that I enjoyed the freedom to travel too much to make the long-term commitment that a retail shop requires.
In 2006, I was helping a friend with production for her greeting card line one day a week, as I had begun to make the transition away from working as a full-time optician in Portland, Oregon. She suggested that I may want to consider a sales rep role within the stationery industry. My knee jerk response was, “No way, I’m not a salesperson.” However, the idea really stuck with me and I decided that I could redefine what sales look like and simply help match retailers with outstanding product lines, at which point I made the leap and founded the business in October of 2006.
SS: How many ranges do you currently represent? Do they all share certain common traits, and if so, what are they?
CM: We typically represent 20-25 lines at any given time. It’s always a bit of a balancing act as there is only so much real estate within a rep’s sample bags, as well as time that a buyer has to browse products in a meeting, so that has been our our go-to scope. We gravitate towards independent designers with a modern aesthetic, we also love handmade mediums such as letterpress, screen printing and laser cut assemblage.
SS: You describe C&C as a concierge service, which I love. Can you explain that aspect of your business?
CM: There is a nuance to working with independent retailers and as sales reps, we need to be tuned into their needs and what their customers are looking for, as it is definitely not a “one size fits all” scenario. In my meetings, I make a point of leading with the types of designs and products I know are a match and try to make the most of our time together. We also make a point to help with sourcing and troubleshooting. If a retailer is looking for an item or category I don’t sell, I’m always happy to make suggestions or make introductions to help them find what they need. All of the C&C team is excellent at going the extra mile, and I love hearing their stories — fixtures they’ve found for a shop, match-making for manager positions or hand-delivering seasonal cards when a shop has sold out quickly. I’m fortunate to work with a team of resourceful, thoughtful and creative women.
SS: When considering a new range, what are the criteria you use?
CC: It’s often in flux, depending on what we have on our current roster and what our retailers are asking for. However, these constants remain; a modern aesthetic, experience wholesaling and a selection of gift categories are always a big plus. We strive to represent lines that are unique and stand out in their aesthetic point of view and are collaborative, flexible and understand the role that we play within their business.
SS: Please describe how business is currently being conducted at Crow & Canary. Is everything done digitally now?
CM: With COVID-19, the majority of our retailers are still closed or are operating under restricted criteria and hours. It’s been a struggle since so much is still up in the air and certain regions may be in a position in which they will be required to close again. Although we have taken some in-person appointments and even virtual meetings via Zoom, the majority of our business is via our online wholesale portal or reaching out via phone or email, for the time being. We all miss calling on our stores and very much look forward to a future in which our schedules are back to being on the road consistently.
SS: How have your NSS/NY NOW booth location and configurations changed through the years, ending with the space you found yourself in at the February 2020 NY NOW?
CM: We’ve been exhibiting since 2012 and February marked our 22nd show, between NSS and NY NOW! We started out with a double booth and our locations and configurations have changed over the years, however, we’ve been in our spacious NY NOW booth that is in a quad configuration and open on two sides of the aisle in the 7600 row, since August 2015.
SS: Thinking back to your earlier NSS/NY NOW experiences, how did these shape and nurture your brand?
CM: Our presence at the shows was truly paramount to establishing our East Coast territories and enabling our reps in these regions to grow their accounts and contacts. Since we are primarily road reps, we also love the ability to showcase products that may be too unwieldy to show at in-store appointments or are typically shown via catalog or iPad. We’re also better able to spot new trends, best sellers and holes missing in the market during our 3.5 days of meeting with such a large volume of buyers.
SS: What are your favorite memories, on and off the show floor, from past NSS/NY NOWs?
CM: The in-person connection with our accounts, the lines we represent, other sales reps and of course simply getting to spend time with my own team is invaluable. The time flies by so quickly each show! There are some retailers that we only meet with at shows, as they don’t have time to meet with their reps outside of market. Though I’m not often able to get away from our booth, I do also try to source new line prospects or check-in with folks we’ve had our eye on to collaborate with.
My birthday often coincides with the August NY NOW show and I always feel spoiled by my fellow canaries and countless folks that take the time to leave a card for me or swing by to wish me an extra special day.
SS: When NY NOW/NSS reopens, what are you most excited about?
CC: I am sure to sound like a broken record here, but face to face connection! I cannot wait to catch up with our retailers, manufacturers and industry friends in person.
SS: Ok, this has been bugging me for an embarrassingly long time. Do you get your show nails done in NYC, or before you leave Portland?
CC: I love that my nail art has become a fun topic of conversation at shows, as well as getting to admire others fun manis at Javits! Historically, it’s been a mix of both — in New York, I’ve gone to Paint Box, Valley Nails (sadly closed now) and Akiko Nails. However, I’m now forever loyal to the talented Christi of Polished in Portland.
In terms of planning, I typically have some art, fashion or even stationery inspiration in a saved folder on my phone and will discuss with the nail tech a couple of options before landing on the final design and interpretation.
SS: What were your most successful cards/brands at at the February 2020 NY NOW?
CM: Red Cap Cards is always a destination deck for so many of our shops. They license artwork from 30+ talented illustrators and their new collections are impressive and sizable. We’ve had the pleasure of representing Red Cap for 10 years now and our accounts are always anxiously anticipating their next release and newest artist collaboration.
SS: Are you returning in ‘21? What factors played into your decision to keep returning to NSS and NY NOW?
CM: I’m definitely trying to remain optimistic about being part of NY NOW in 2021. We would love nothing more than to return, but will need to weigh participation interest from the lines we represent, as well as the current state of independent retail. COVID has hit small businesses particularly hard and we will do everything in our power to support our shops and manufacturers in rebounding, but also realize that getting back to what we know as “business as usual” may take some time.
SS: Is there anything else you’d like to share about NY NOW, or your thoughts on the show generally?
CM: Although trade show planning, prep and set up never gets much easier, the arduous tasks always feel worth it on the opening Sunday of every show we’ve exhibited at. I have so much gratitude to our lines that participate, our buyers that prioritize ordering at our booth, each of our reps and “honorary canaries” that work the C&C booth — and a special note of appreciation for our NY rep, Kimberley, who has been our point person for receiving and does 2-3 extra days of setting up before I arrive at Javits for all 22 shows (and counting)!
Thank you so much Carina for so graciously taking my questions and sharing your memories. To stay up to date with the Winter 2021 edition of NY NOW, sign up for updates here. I hope to see you all there!