The romance of All Things Cotton Paper
By Laura Union
Ellie O’Brien with her trusty typewriter. Images provided.
Local paper-pusher Ellie O’Brien has lived through the starving artist trope and come out the other end with an envy-worthy success story. The distinction is that she never knew she was starving and hardly considers herself an artist — a satiated businesswoman perhaps. I met Ellie at her house in West Ashley and conducted this interview while she and her wife, Caroline, painted their living room accent wall a rich navy blue. “It all started in 1989,” Ellie began. “Mom and Dad left for the hospital … just kidding. I know you’re here about the Etsy shop.” The moment you meet Ellie, you are sucked into her playful vortex of quick wit and outrageous commentary. She is funny and confident, and settles in next to you as though she’s known you for years. I laughed so hard during our hour-long chat that I had to go home and take a nap.
The story I came for all started on James Island when high-school-aged Ellie came upon a vintage typewriter at a thrift store. “I thought it was so neat but I didn't really do anything with it. I just thought it made me super cool for having this vintage thing … I was trying to be emo.” The typewriter saw Ellie off to college and back and sat quietly on a shelf in her office until 2017. During the passive friendship with the typewriter, Ellie earned a degree in business and easily worked her way up the human resources ladder for local health care companies. “Is there anything sexier than health care HR?” she asked, giggling as she pushed paint into the corners of the wainscoting. “Don’t you want to hear more about that?” She happily settled into the human resources department at Bishop Gadsden, a retirement community on James Island, that she still praises today. “Bishop Gadsden is such a great organization to work for. I had fun with the people there.”
Four years in, she got a little restless. Wishing for a little more leeway in her schedule and a more creative way to spend her time, she wondered about starting a business venture of her own. But what? She eyed her old typewriter friend and finally slipped in a piece of copy paper. “It’s the worst typewriter I’ve ever used” — but the results had an old-timey charm to them. Ellie searched Etsy, an online shop for handmade crafts, for products based around typewriters and surprisingly didn’t find many at all.
“I hopped on eBay and found the cheapest typewriter I could. I didn’t really have a plan. I thought I’d type poems or something, but suddenly I got the idea for wedding vows.” So that’s what she did. She typed up a few popular readings and posted them for sale on Etsy, and one week later, she had her first order. “I was so excited. I was charging pennies at the time but I went out and spent a hundred bucks on fancy paper I’ve never used. It turned out to be terrible for the typewriter but I couldn’t wait to type this guy’s piece.” Orders started trickling in. “I was making $150 a month and I was absolutely thrilled,” she laughed.
When she realized she had a product people wanted, her gears started turning. “Anniversaries!” she exclaimed. The outburst startled me and also Caroline, who had been quietly painting up on a ladder while Ellie told me her fantastical paper tale. “You know, every anniversary is a different gift,” she said. “When I found out the first anniversary is paper and the second is cotton, I thought, ‘Surely there’s cotton paper.’ That’s when things took off.”
Wedding memories printed on cotton paper.
Her officially named Etsy shop, All Things Cotton Paper, began advertising typewriter services as first- and second-year anniversary presents. She was typing vows on thick, decadent paper and framing them to create a thoughtful and personalized gift. The businesswoman in her didn’t let her get too comfortable with the success of it all. Ellie continued to research new product ideas while also developing an interest in the paper itself. “I only use 100 percent cotton paper. The paper is beautiful. It has a deckled edge. You can see the fibers running through each piece. Each one is unique.” She tried a few paper companies before finding a maker in India that met her requirements. “It’s a great company. I’ve gotten really close with the owner. He’s become a really good friend.”
At this point, Ellie wandered off for snacks while Caroline and I discussed life as introverts and our shared aversion to causing trouble. Unlike Caroline, Ellie is cheeky and gregarious, living valiantly in a world that strikes her as very amusing. It’s good she has Caroline to keep her out of trouble.
Ellie returned. “Now back to me,” she said, pretending to push her hair over her shoulder. “I started typing up the lyrics for people’s first dances and printing off the sheet music on the paper. The first dance products were a hit. It got to where I was typing all the time. Both of us.” she nodded to Caroline. “We’d come home from work and type for hours.”
She attributes the success of the shop to Etsy’s marketing and algorithms. “They do the hard stuff for you. In some ways I would rather do it on my own. The Etsy fees are high but I also owe my success to them, and they work out the taxes for me, so …”
“I do our taxes,” Caroline interrupted. “I’m the CFO here.”
“So you see, it’s a family-run business,” Ellie continued without missing a beat. ”I would definitely recommend Etsy. There are so many opportunities there, especially if you’ve got a creative side. I don’t consider myself creative. I just got lucky with a good idea.” Ellie has recently begun selling the cotton paper separately on her own website. “We’ve designed some custom letter and envelope styles that people use for wedding invitation suites.” Many people buy the paper just to use for their own artwork and handwritten letters. Before long, Ellie had absorbed knowledge about the different weights of paper, internal versus external pressing and the materials used.
“I never thought I’d get into the paper business. Once I was bringing in an equal salary from the shop, I started to think about quitting my real job. It was so scary. You can’t just do that, can you? It’s crazy!” But she did. “I quit my job during COVID. While the world crumbled around us, I was blossoming.” She thought for a moment. “Don’t put that in the article.”
Etsy stock did shoot up during the pandemic. With stores closed and gatherings canceled, people turned to the internet’s favorite artisan website for creative gifts to send to loved ones, and Ellie’s orders haven’t slowed down since. “During the busy wedding months, I’m at max capacity. I may have to hire employees!” she declared, outraged by the idea.
In addition to having learned about search engine optimization and general internet advertising, Ellie’s unparalleled people skills have earned her nearly 1,400 positive reviews from the 7,000 pieces she has sold thus far. She takes pride in the time she spends working with customers to personalize their orders. “Getting those good reviews is my favorite part. It’s so rewarding. I feel like I’m part of the celebrations. It’s so upsetting when someone isn’t happy. It doesn’t happen often but I’ll work with them after the fact to help fix anything they’re unhappy with.”
Even locals get in on the goods. “I get a lot of local orders. People who live here just come on by and pick them up. But so many people love Charleston and have visited. They get excited about having a local person making something customized for them.”
Ellie took her entrepreneurial spirit and cashed in her nine-to-five lifestyle for something more personal. So she carries on, creating meaningful treasures for people tied to the romantic nostalgia of love notes and the charming tick of typewriter keys. She may be making magical moments for people all across the world, but Charleston gets to claim Ellie as its own local treasure.
Laura Union is a native Charlestonian with a fondness for people-watching and boiled peanuts. She works in the event industry and lives on James Island with her husband and two lazy dogs.