Afterthoughts: Sticker Up

On parties, families and what it takes to get a magazine out.

illustration:  kelsey ige

This past month, the staff of HONOLULU threw a sticker party. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, we’re not talking about a Lisa Frank party, here, or a scratch ‘n’ sniff party. No, in the magazine world, “sticker party” is a euphemism. It’s what happens when a new issue gets printed with the wrong Universal Product Code on its cover, making it unsellable in stores. It’s a rare occurrence, but it happened to the June “Best Doctors” issue.

Rather than reprint thousands of magazines, which would be a waste, the best solution in this situation is to apply a corrected UPC sticker onto every single copy, by hand, before the issue gets trucked out to newsstands. Because magazine distribution runs on a tight schedule even at the best of times, this generally needs to happen within a day or two of catching the mistake.

We’ve got a crack circulation team (Hi Chuck, Gaylyn, John and Kim!) but the job of restickering 7,000 magazines so quickly would have been impossible for four people. Luckily, while HONOLULU’s other departments—editorial, design, sales, online, marketing—might not know much about UPCs or circulation, we’ve all got hands, and can manage to stick bits of paper to other bits of paper.

More than 10 of us met up at the distributor’s warehouse in Aiea. The mood was tense—we had just a few hours before the magazines needed to hit the distribution line, everyone was stressed about their own to-do lists that were being put on hold, and the warehouse environment was a little … raw, at least for a bunch of creative types accustomed to air conditioning and ergonomic seating. The place was sweltering, and a crappy radio blasted out Jawaiian and reggae hits loud enough to be heard over the noise of machinery.

The work in front of us: a pallet stacked high with boxes, a couple of utility knives, and rolls and rolls of UPC stickers. And so we got down to it.

It’s easy to miss this fact when you’re handling them one at a time, but magazines are heavy. Hefting and unpacking 60-pound boxes turns out to be quite a back killer. Paper cuts are no joke, either.

The task was fiddly, mindless and repetitive. But we developed grooves, figured out a good workflow, started talking story, actually enjoying the music. (I hit my lifetime tolerance limit on Bob Marley tunes a long time ago, but sometimes “Three Little Birds” just hits the spot.)

At a certain point, people thought to take cellphone photos to capture the moment. I looked up at the team clustered around me and took my own mental snapshot: Alyson, our publisher, alongside Alex Bitter, our summer intern, who surely didn’t envision packing boxes in a warehouse when he signed on. Editor Kam and sales director Donna and food writer Martha and account coordinator Courtni, each absorbed in applying stickers to covers.

We were all here making a magazine happen, in a much more direct way than usual, and the thought filled me with a sudden sense of family.

This year, HONOLULU has been celebrating our 125th year of continuous publication; as Kam mentions in his editor’s page, we’re capping off the anniversary with a book of covers spanning the entire run, all the way back to 1888.

Big milestones like this can be easy to gloss over as abstract concepts, but seeing everyone gathered that day to get the June issue out, I could really see how we’re just the most recent group—family—to work, month after month, year after year, to tell stories about the Islands, and about the people who live in them. (At times, it’s been a literal family; in the 1960s and ’70s, HONOLULU was edited by husband-and-wife team David and Cynthia Eyre.) There are no real shortcuts; and every issue offers its own challenges, but we get it done. The idea that it’s been happening like this for 125 years is an imposing, and humbling, thought.

A couple of hours later, we looked up and saw the same pallet of boxes. This time, though, the boxes were full of 7,000 restickered magazines, ready to ship out.

Sweaty, aching, smudged with dust, we celebrated together.