THIS JOURNAL DOCUMENTS MY INTAKE OF ONE BOOK, ZINE, CD OR DVD A DAY. RATINGS ARE: ***** = Godhead, **** = Great, *** = Good, ** = Fair, * = Why Bother?

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Aqua Ink Greeting Cards

Aqua Ink, Inc.
Ken Hobart & Virginia Nichols

"Postcards, artful or truly awful, grow sillier but more valuable with age." - Joanne Ostrow ("It's In the Cards," Washington Post, Oct. 9, 1981)

The Leather Underground on Read Street

Back in the day, the original Leather Underground, a gay-friendly fetish store on Read Street, had the best - and most risque, most outre, most tasteless - greeting cards in Baltimore. Needless to say, I am a fan of all things risque, outre and tasteless, and so - although I am more a tepid Tom of Tory Towson than a torrid Tom of Finland type - I often visited the Leather Underground for my holiday and special occasion greeting cards. Read Street was happening back in the '80s and continued to be so even up through the late '90s, with nearby businesses like Atomic Books and Modern Music across the street, and the Baltimore City Paper right around the corner.

"Walk-ins  are always welcome at The Leather Underground!"

Leather Underground's holiday cards were especially great, with an assortment of trashy Dreamland Studios/John Waters stars like Divine, Edith Massey and  Jean Hill adorning cards saying "Have a Divine Christmas" or "Season's Beatings" (featuring a leather-bound, whip-whipping Edith Massey disciplining Santa-on-a-leash).

"Season's Beatings" from Edith Massey (Rockshots, 1982)

Dreamlander Bob Adams carried these cards at Fastback, the Fells Point thrift shop he co-owned with Edith Massey, and you could also find them at Spencer's Gifts in the suburban malls. But my all-time favorite holiday card that I picked up at the Leather Underground was this one, featuring Baltimore's notorious Grinch, Abe Sherman, proclaiming (in true cantankerous spirit), "Holiday Schmoliday...Where's the gifts already?"

Abe Sherman's "Holiday Schmoliday" holiday greeting card
(Photo: Hobart-Nichols, Aqua Ink, 1983)

Inside of "Holiday Schmoliday" greeting card

For years, this card disappeared off the camp greeting cards market, until recently, when I entered the American Visionary Art Museum's Sideshow gift shop to see old Abe Sherman staring me in the face! "Yes, finally!"  I exclaimed, as a store employee said, "You know who that is, right?" "Of course," I cried, explaining that it was my favorite holiday card, as I proceeded to clutch dozens of them in my arms.

The Grinch Who Stole Book Browsing
"You are a Baltimorean from way back if you shopped at Abe Sherman’s downtown newsstand and felt Abe’s eyes boring into the back of your head while browsing. He’d toss you out in a heartbeat if he thought you had mistaken the newsstand for a library." - Richard Berglund and Kathi Santora (dyingtotelltheirstories.com)
So who was Abe Sherman, you ask? Starting in 1919, Sherman operated a newsstand at Baltimore’s Battle Monument at Calvert and Fayette streets, up until 1970 when until he opened Sherman’s Books uptown at the corner of Park Avenue and Mulberry Street.

Abe Sherman's original news stand under Baltimore’s Battle Monument at Calvert and Fayette streets

Besides making his mark as a gruff news vendor and civic figure who rubbed elbows with Babe Ruth, F. Scott Fitzgerald, H.L. Mencken and William Manchester, Sherman was also a celebrated military hero; he served with Maryland’s 29th Army Division (175th Regiment) in both world wars, receiving a Silver Star for bravery at Normandy in WWII.  He was the oldest Baltimorean serving in WWII, enlisting as a 43-year-old private after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941. In 1991, Gov. William Donald Schaefer joined with military officials to dedicate a Maryland National Guard dormitory near Reisterstown, Maryland, Abe Sherman Hall, in his memory. He died in 1987, age 89, and is buried at Mikro Kodesh Beth Israel Cemetery on Bowleys Lane in East Baltimore.

Military plaque dedicated to WWI & WWII war hero Abe Sherman 

He was also a legendary grump, famous for telling customers, "This ain't no library, kid. If ya ain't buying nothin', get the hell outta here. I ain't running no charity operation." Abe would then direct page-flipping customer up the block to the Enoch Pratt Central Library, where I currently work. I wonder how much business he sent our way back in the day (I think we owe him many thanks!)?

For more on Abe Sherman, see "Abe Sherman's Newsstand/Bookstore" (baltimoreorless.com).

Abe Sherman referrals were always welcome at the Enoch Pratt Library!

Delving Deeper into the Aqua Net

"...the cards...are usually crammed with stuff as high in camp and as low in taste as possible." - Lynn Williams ("The Right Touch Is a Light Touch," Baltimore Sun, April 12, 1986)

Though I didn't know it at the time, many of the Leather Underground cards were "Aquavision" cards produced by a now-defunct design company called Aqua Ink, Inc, whose cards could also be found at discerning boutiques around town like Harborplace's Wish You Were Here store, among others. Aqua Ink was founded in 1980 by two former Syracuse University classmates, Ken Hobart and Virginia Nichols, and lasted until they sold the business in 1986. Their cards often featured color photos of themselves, as well as friends and family, dressed in what a 1986 Baltimore Sun article ("The Right Touch Is a Light Touch," by Lynn Williams, Baltimore Sun, April 12, 1986) described as "bizarre characters in wild costumes" and usually "crammed with stuff as high in camp and low in taste as possible." It was taken as a compliment!

Ken Hobart and canine friend (Photo: George H. Cook, Baltimore Sun).

And, Baltimore being Smalltimore, it turns out that Kevin Gassman - the hair stylist who has cut my wife's hair for almost 40 years (!), and who worked on several John Waters film productions - was a former roommate of Ken Hobart, back when a group of friends rented a house near Druid Park Lake. So it made sense that the back of the "Holiday Schmoliday" card credited Kevin Gassman for "location" - Gassman's Read Street apartment provided the backdrop for the Abe Sherman picture - as Aqua Ink was all about using their friends and area locales for their shoots.

Back of "Holiday Schmoliday" card.
Location: Kevin Gassman's Read Street apartment provided the backdrop to Abe Sherman's photo

Abe Sherman would have been around 85 years-old when this photo was taken, and he had either mellowed out a bit or was really impressed by Kevin Gassman's place - because it looks like he's almost smiling (er, or is that a grimace?). Ken Hobart was also a fan of Kevin's apartment, posing in his vintage kitchen for this "Nothing says lovin' like something from the oven!" card:

"Nothing says lovin' like something from the oven!" Model: Ken Hobart (Aqua Ink, 1983)

Tragically, Hobart, a former creative director of the Becker Group design company, died of AIDS in July 2001. But Virginia Nichols still lives in the Baltimore area and reportedly runs a pet services business; formerly, she co-founded Setco Scenic Services, a Highlandtown company that built sets for films and television commercials.

According to the staff at AVAM's Sideshow gift shop, Nichols is responsible for the sudden reappearance of their "new" line of old '80s Aqua Ink cards."She was just in this week to drop off some holiday cards," one informed me. And I'm so glad she did, as she made this 62-year-old man-child's Christmas Miracle a reality this year.

I made sure I picked up one of every Aqua Ink on offer, mainly out of curiosity as to what the owners looked like - they pop up on just about every card!

Cheers! Ken Hobart and Virginia Nichols

Merry Christmas card. Models: Ken Hobart & Virginia Nichols

Happy Holidaze card featuring Virginia Nichols

Ken Hobart rockin' around the Christmas Tree

Ken Hobart posing for an Aqua Ink card

The Aqua Ink crew dig up the dirt at Greenmount Cemetery

Bon Voyage! Showcasing the Inner Harbor circa 1983

In the early '80s, Hobart and Nichols apparently also briefly partnered with collector Ellen Zegar, working out of a Capitol Hill, Washington D.C., home to make making a series of what Washington Post writer Joanne Ostrow described as "sleazy-tacky postal and greeting cards" ("It's In the Cards," Washington Post, October 9, 1981).

Ostrow went on to describe the cards as follows:

"Mmmm, what a spread," is a typical tableau: plastic nude doll on salad greens, "bottoms up" swizzle stick in a glass, surrounded by knife and fork on a place setting of leopardskin. Another is a Fifties-style montage of a woman in a wolf suit leafing through True Confessions, a box of chocolates and a frothy drink on the Art Deco mirror table before her. Aqua Ink's new "Non-Traditional Christmas" line includes "Hark and the Herald Angels Sing," a black-faced rock act with the inscription, "Deck the Halls shoo-bop shoo-bop." Then there's a red- suited Santa spray-painting an alley wall: "Santa Lives."

Santa Lives!

But the Aqua Ink cards at the AVAM gift shop all credit just Hobart-Nichols. Regardless, I'm so glad Virginia Nichols has shared her backstock with Sideshow. Though Aquavision cards may seem somewhat dated and innocent in today's "anything goes" Internet world of trolling and transgression, I'm thankful for the trip down Memory Lane via this time capsule of old school kitsch and charm.

Aqua Ink party invitation cards

Related Links:
"The Right Touch Is a Light Touch" (Lynn Williams, The Baltimore Sun, April 12, 1986)
"Abe Sherman's Newsstand/Bookstore" (Baltimore Or Less, 1-13-2014)
"Abe Sherman: An Unforgettable Bookstore Owner and War Hero" (Dyingtotelltheirstories.com)
"It's In the Cards" (Joanne Ostrow, Washington Post, Oct. 9, 1981)
"Edith Massey Christmas Card Collection" (Baltimore Or Less), December 23, 2014)