Crop Circles

There's an art in turning scraps into memories.

Luckily, incorrect spelling never stifled Amanda's creativity. The earlier pages of her book are full of "Born to dance!" "Way to go girl!" "It's great to be eleven!" and "What a great kid!" But Creative Memories consultants teach their clients to weed mercilessly, picking out only a few snapshots to capture a moment or event -- and so, in a very few pages, Amanda is a sixteen-year-old with long legs and a huge smile dancing not just on pointe, but in "Junior Bass Bumpers!" Now it's her mother who carefully writes in the words "What a great kid!"

"She's an only child," Cheryl says. "Can you tell?"

Labor of love: Creative Memories consultant Debra Bryson (below) is on the cutting edge of scrapbooking.
James Bludworth
Labor of love: Creative Memories consultant Debra Bryson (below) is on the cutting edge of scrapbooking.
James Bludworth

Three years ago Heidi Everett, a writer who'd lived in St. Cloud, Minnesota, all her life, answered a help-wanted ad by correcting the ad's spelling and sending it back with a resumé. She ended up getting the communications job. The company turned out to be Creative Memories.

"At the time, I thought, 'Oh, my God, an endless Tupperware party,'" she recalls, "but now I love it. I'm a cropper, too. I go pick up my pictures and throw the bad ones away before I even leave the store. And that's what's cool -- we have room for the Martha Stewart wannabes, but also for the domestically challenged, like me."

In fact, she says, the two women who started the business in 1987 were a little of both. "Rhonda Anderson was a homemaker in Billings, Montana, and her mother had always made scrapbooks, and she was teaching her neighbors how to do it the way her mother did. The other, Cheryl Lightle, lived here in St. Cloud, and she was the vice-president of marketing for a photo-album company that had gone bankrupt."

It was Lightle's job to offload a warehouse full of the photo albums that remained. For lack of a better plan, she started calling customers from long ago, asking if they might want to purchase a few albums before the company went out of business for good. When she reached Rhonda Anderson, she hit pay dirt. Anderson, who had inspired a local scrapbooking craze, thought she could use about forty albums, maybe more. Lightle invited her to fly out to Minnesota to discuss a marketing proposition, and Creative Memories was born.

"They made it a direct-sales program," Heidi explains. "Our consultants go into homes and share the message of memory preservation. Making a Back-to-School page, for instance, and longer sessions where everyone comes and works on their pages together. They're known as Crop-Till-You-Drops."

In the process, consultants make money by charging class fees, most of which run around ten dollars, and by selling the art supplies provided to them wholesale by headquarters in St. Cloud. The more serious consultants can rise through the ranks by signing up consultants of their own, à la Amway. "But our distribution teams go only three lines deep," Heidi quickly adds, "so it never really becomes a pyramid thing. We're reputable and good."

And popular. Three years ago, Creative Memories had 12,000 members. Last month there were more than 59,000, some from as far away as Australia. Denver has been an "extraordinary market," Heidi says, one whose acknowledged Queen of the Crop is Meda Branwell, a housewife turned powerhouse cropping consultant for the past eight years. Meda's now a senior director, with an extensive tier of consultants operating beneath her who kick in a percentage of their earnings. It was Meda who first saw that a six-hour Crop-Till-You-Drop might not be enough and five years ago started the tradition of crop retreats held away from the city, in this case at the Vintage Resort in Winter Park.

"And I have to say, we haven't begun to tap into the wonderful career opportunities," Meda says from the relative quiet of her Vintage Resort suite. "The income can be super. Still, I tell people: If you need to put food on the table or a roof over your head, don't stop doing what you're doing, but start doing this and let the income build. And I have all kinds of career gals thinking of making the change."

Meda's daughters were in their teens and thinking about college when she attended her first Creative Memories event and came away transformed. Having worked as a nurse and a pharmaceutical rep, she was unprepared for the sudden sense of fulfillment. "The women in my ladies' Bible class knew it was me," she recalls, "but I still remember that moment -- it was an a-hah! By doing this, I went to work and saved for college, and I rarely missed out on the important moments of my daughters' lives."

Even as she cropped, consulted and sold. "We start with how to be selective. Throwing out your blurry dark duddies. How to overcome the fear of the white page, how to write headlines. We don't play up the creative part," she says. "Creativity is what paralyzes people. We just want to help you get it done, and people love it. They leave HUGGING their new albums."

But without the guidance a consultant provides, Meda warns, they might not get that far. The knockoff scrapbook stores that have sprung up in the wake of Creative Memories' success offer too many supplies, with no incentives to use those supplies to get pages finished. "As a result," she suggests, "some of the people you'll meet out there in the crop room have 25 pairs of decorative scissors and are paralyzed. How many do you really need? It's not just a craftsy fad thing; it's a women's night out. And it can get serious. I've had more than one woman referred by her therapist -- maybe because she lost a loved one and is finally ready to look at those pictures."

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