Tom and Pam Elson make custom signs, custom bar stools with artwork, and own a craft store that represents about 80 crafters in Warsaw, Mo.
Some of the artists' work is bought by the Elson's for resale, while other pieces are on consignment. The Elson's also sell items through their Web site and on eBay. Tom says if it wasn't for Internet sales, they would undoubtedly be out of business. A few years ago, the Elson's built a new store in Warsaw before the economy went south.
"Behind the counter we had a wall up there and we needed to do something on it," Tom explains. "I told my wife we ought to decorate it with toilet seats. I've never heard it being done before; I never even thought of it. She said, 'Nobody would buy those. Who would buy a tacky thing like that?' " Well, this went on for four or five years and every once in awhile I'd bring it up. A couple years ago, we had a major snowstorm here, about 16" of snow, 6" to 8" of ice, and everything shut down. Well, there was nobody coming to our store and I got on eBay and I found a guy out of Michigan who was selling toilet seats that were carved; he did relief carving. I could tell by his feedback about how much money he was making - between $30,000 and $50,000 a year just selling toilet seats.
"So I showed it to my wife, she went to Walmart, bought a toilet seat, sanded it down and started working on it. Before the day was over, she made me go back to the store and buy two more. We started selling them on eBay and now we sell quite a few of them a week. I think we're in our third year now and we're not making $50,000 yet, but we're going to get there soon. The economy has bit us in the ass, but we're still selling five or six a week."
Although they are sold in the store, most of them are purchased on the Internet. He has two sizes - round, and oblong for the handicapped - and Tom says you would be surprised how many people are decorating their bathrooms. Although they have more than a dozen standard patterns, mostly wildlife, a customer can send in a photo and it will be duplicated on a toilet seat top. The Elson's make all of their toilet tops out of oak; the pattern is burned into the top of the seat and then painted. The seats sell for $50 to $60.
- Brian Caldwell
This article originally appeared in the April 2010 issue.