Joel & Carolyn Senter: Classic and Special
Two of the most entertaining, hardworking, dedicated Sherlockians anywhere are Joel and Carolyn Senter of Cincinnati, Ohio. Founders and owners of Classic Specialties, one the finest online Sherlockian memorabilia stores in the USA, the Nashville Scholars adore the Senters. They have visited our fair city on several occasions, once to accept their investitures as the Grice Pattersons (FIVE) in the Three Pipe Problem scion.
You'll find the Senters among the attendees at most of the regional Holmesian events in the southeastern and central parts of the US, often as platform participants, or presenters of a play they have written, or as guests of honor. Their reputation for enjoyable presentations, great service, and stimulating conversation insures their popularity among all Sherlockians who meet them.
"The Game" in the USA simply would not be as rewarding without the resources offered by Joel and Carolyn at Classic Specialties. They offer a large catalog of Sherlockian products, books, and miscellanea, and newsy presentations of regional scion events. They report on all significant Sherlockian events, publish interviews with authors, run a Mystery Story contest from time to time, and keep a list of e-mail and web sites of all Sherlockians who will share that information. I believe they must labor long hours into the night, for I personally have seen them develop their HTML and design skills from amateur to quite professional in a very short time. If you haven't visited Classic Specialties, you must do so as soon as you complete the interview below. (Interview with Jim Hawkins in 2000.)
Jim Hawkins(Q): We proudly claim you as invested members of the Nashville Scholars. What other societies do you belong to, either full or honorary members?
Senters(A): We are, of course, honored to be included among the Nashville Scholars. That investiture was a thrill for us. We also belong to "The Tankerville Club" here in Cincinnati, the STUD Society in Chicago, The Northern Musgraves in England, The Sydney Passengers in Australia, The Illustrious Clients of Indianapolis, The American Firm (also invested there as "The Grice Patersons") and Joel belongs to The Sherlock Holmes Wireless Society for Sherlockians who are also licensed Amateur Radio Operators. We are going to apply for membership in Chicago's Torists International soon, too.
Q: How did Classic Specialties begin?
A: We get this question a lot. Let us begin by saying that neither of us has the slightest bit of training or experience to qualify us for what we are doing.
A few months ago we were interviewed on a local cable channel talk-show (the host of which had been one of Joel's students years ago and had served as the MC of a local, late-night bad horror movie TV-show under the pseudonym of "The Cool Ghoul" - he was one of Joel's more successful students!) and the host said something like, "Well, with all your statistical background, I suppose that you did market research, sales analysis and all that sort of thing before you started Classic Specialties."
The answer was, "Well, you'd think we'd do all that, but we didn't. The whole thing was an accident."
What happened was that Carolyn, who, at the time, was a professional knitter, made Joel a sweater with a lot of Sherlockian stuff on it (silhouettes of Holmes and Watson, a string of dancing men, a speckled band, etc. - we have a photo of the sweater if you want it to be emailed over). We went to Newark, NJ to an Friends of Old Time Radio** convention about 1987 or '88 and ran into a fellow named Bill Nadel who was also a Sherlockian (subsequently a BSI). We told him about the sweater, and he asked if Carolyn would make one for him. She declined, because the making of that sweater was a major task and a labor of love for her and too much effort to undertake for mere money. She did, however, as a consolation, make Bill a scarf with Holmes and Watson silhouettes. Bill wore it to some NY area Sherlockian meetings and Carolyn started to get calls from other NY area Sherlockians asking if she would make scarves for them.
She made a few and then created a whole line of such scarves (really our first product line) including an "Empty House" scarf, a "Speckled Band" scarf (she also made a bell pull with a speckled band on it), a "Valley of Fear" scarf (with the Birlstone cipher on it), and a bunch of others. When we started to advertise these, folks with other Sherlockian products to sell started coming to us asking if we could market their stuff for them.
One of the first of these was Mrs. Wiggins of the original "Sherlock Holmes Gazette." As time went by, more and more folks started coming to us asking if we could market things for them and, now, we have become "middle persons" for lots of Sherlockians with things to sell. We buy things from all over the world (often items that wouldn't ever see the light of day if it weren't for our purchases) and inform The Sherlockian Community of their availability via our catalogs (The Sherlockian Times) and web site . The number of items available for sale and the size of the Sherlockian buying population both seem to grow every year. (There is information on our web site and in our "Formidable Scrap-Book of Baker Street" about our genesis, too.)
Q: What do you regard as the most important things you do at Classic Specialties?
A: Our most visible efforts are, of course, the marketing of Sherlockian items many of which would never be made available to The Community without us. Not only do we market things for our fellow Sherlockians, but we occasionally publish small efforts (our Scrap-Book or Bud Livingston's recent Anatomically, My dear Watson) which would otherwise never have seen the light of day.
We think, however, that our major contribution is more of a sociological one. Since we probably have more direct contact with more Sherlockians that does anyone else in the world, we have the resources to bring people together in The Sherlockian Community - people who would otherwise never know about each other or about Sherlockian organizations.
As you know, we have directed a number of folks to The Nashville Scholars. We have connected folks to the Greenville SC "Survivors" group and been thanked both by the group and by the individuals involved (one lady said that we had "changed her life" - she didn't say, but we certainly hope for the better!).
We brought individual Sherlockians in Gainesville FL - who did not know each other - together and they subsequently formed a scion society. We introduced New Orleans area Sherlockians to each other and enhanced the membership and activities of "The Mystik Crew" scion in that community.
One of our most heartwarming "interventions" happened when we brought together, as Sherlockian "pen pals," two World War II vets, both of whom were pretty much alone in the world. It is most interesting and gratifying, when people thank us for making contacts with other Sherlockians, to hear, "I thought I was alone! I thought I was the only Sherlock Holmes fan in the world! It is great to meet others!"
We feel that we contribute to keeping The Master's Memory Green in a number of other ways. As you know, both our Sherlockian Times and our web site contain a lot of non-commercial material. We have announcements, reviews of meetings, publications offered by our clients, etc. - Well over half or our web site is devoted to what we think of as being purely "Community (Sherlockian, that is) Service."
You probably also know that we have made a considerable investment in recording the proceedings of Sherlockian conferences, meetings, and the like. When we make these recordings into products that can be purchased by Sherlockians who were not lucky enough to be at the meetings, we always pay royalties to the conference sponsoring organization and make an equal donation to the benevolent activities of "The American Firm."
We would hope that others would see our major efforts as transcending commercial activities - but we fear that in many quarters, especially among folks that don't know us well, we are regarded as being "mere hucksters" with, we fear, some disdain. We would hope that that image will alter with time.
Q: You seem to track closely the pulse of all things Holmesian, recording it on your incredible Classic Specialties site. What are some of the best memories of events you've attended? Please tell us about the visit to the London Holmes Society. How did this come about? Is Dinner at Parliament with London's stellar Sherlockians as awesome as it sounds?
A: Boy, that is a tough one! We started discussing this question and then started naming just about every event we have ever attended!
Every Sherlockian event we attend is full of intelligent, interesting, and creative people and each one has its own charm. Certainly meeting John Bennett Shaw at "Holmes on the Range" in Kansas City in '90 was one.
The geographic beauty of Door County and the fun and comradeship of the Canonical Convocation and Caper (CCC), were things for which we will be ever grateful to the Sherlockian Community, without which we would have never known about CCC.
The Sherlock Holmes Society of London event in The House of Commons was, of course, awesome, but we never quite got over the idea that we were "outsiders" in that environment. Standing around in evening clothes, rubbing shoulders with the likes of David Stuart Davies, Colin Dexter, Shirley Purvis, Antony Richards, etc., and gazing out over the Thames was certainly a rush for us poor Colonials! When we left the Parliament building we were ushered down a ramp which ran along side the back of the building. There was a light mist and wet cobblestones and through a couple of archways about 60 or 70 yards away, there was the figure of a single Bobby outlined by a lone street lamp (gaslight?). What we wouldn't have given for a photo of that scene!?
Then we walked out under the shadow of Big Ben (it wasn't striking, which would have made the scene perfect - but it did strike before we got a cab!).
Of course, an additional "rush" came from just walking along Baker Street and feeling the footsteps of The Master that were once imprinted there (if only in the imaginations of thousands of Sherlockians!).
We got to that SHS of L meeting, as usual, by accident. We had entertained our British friend, Antony Richards, here in Cincinnati, and we market for him some of the publications of his "Irregular Railway Company." He said to us, "Why don't you come to the SHS of L meeting as my guest?"
We think that he was somewhat surprised when we took him up on his invitation and actually showed up!!
Q: Carolyn, you seem to handle any assignment with consistent grace and expertise. What experience in your background prepared you for this business where you have to know HTML, web design, finance, etc.?
A. First let me finish blushing at your compliments which exaggerate any accomplishments that I may have achieved. I am tempted to confess that whatever we have been able to do comes from being too simple-minded to know that we can't possibly do it!
If I assume for a moment, that your evaluation of our activities is related to the truth of what actually occurred, then I would first have to attribute our accomplishments to being blessed with my partner and husband who had the courage to retire. There is an old expression that "two heads are better than one" or an academic attestation that "the group is more than the sum of the individuals comprising it." His retirement enabled our partnership and I do feel that the two of us together can accomplish almost anything.
You did want to know specifically about my (Carolyn's) background, though. I spent several years as a special education teacher (my students had to have a measured IQ of less than 50); an occupation for which I also had neither training nor experience. One has to be nimble in such an environment and draw information and skills from multiple sources to cope with the totally unpredictable situations which arose in my classroom daily.
Such adaptable skills were further honed when I left the classroom and became "CEO" of our own educational organization (EduCom Inc.) in which we specialized in rehabilitation services for variously handicapped adult clients. Working in this new "corporate structure" required the acquisition of management skills, accounting skills, report writing skills, marketing skills, etc. As seems to have been always the case with various ventures I have undertaken, I never had enough money to hire anyone to help me, and, thus, I had to figure out how to do everything myself in the beginning.
So, I guess that I am back to where I started - we don't seem to have enough sense to know that what we are doing can't be done with any reasonable commitment of time and effort, so we just keep doing it anyway. I presume that the most important skills I have brought to Classic Specialties boil down to an ability of "making do" with inadequate facilities (and money) and an ability to bring to bear multiple past experiences to confront and solve whatever current problems we might encounter.
(Note from Joel: Carolyn tends to be overly modest - she has also been a model, a knitting and fabric arts teacher, a karate and tai chi instructor, she holds a Master's degree in Special Education, and she is a great life partner for me - I feel intensely lucky to have her in my life.)
Q: Joel, we know you are a recovering university psychology professor. Do you find Classic Specialties the culmination of your life's journey, just a refreshing different endeavor, or a challenge every day?
A: Interesting question. I guess that I never thought of myself as having had a "life's journey." Most of the things I have done in my life have been the result of sheer accident. I got into graduate school in psychology (after an abysmal undergraduate record) because the head of the department at Ole Miss had had a good day on the golf course.
I was accepted for study toward the Ph. D. at the University of Cincinnati because of one of my professor's own misdemeanors (would only go into details about this one in person and preferably over a beer or two).
I got my job at the U of C because I was serving as the laboratory teaching assistant in experimental psychology when my professor was killed in an accident and I took over his course. The following year I was hired to replace the deceased professor mostly because I was just readily available, experienced in the course work I was expected to teach, and I would work cheap.
In spite of my rather shaky beginnings as an academic, I did pretty well. I wrote a couple of college level textbooks, some 60 or 70 journal articles and tech reports, and I won both the University's awards for outstanding research and outstanding teaching during my tenure. As far as I can tell, when I left the University and became a "recovering psychologist," I started a new life - a renaissance, if you will.
Very strange - I spent over 30 years being a university professor and now it seems like it never happened. Of course, my former colleagues (the ones still living) sneer at what I am doing now. They think of it has being demeaning and beneath a person of my background and education. I won't go into what I think of them, but I will tell you what I tell them, i.e., "At least I now sell things that the consumers want to buy; as a professor I sold things that none of my "consumers" (students) ever actually wanted. They only bought my services because some old guys in the administration building told them that they had to take my courses." (After all, who would ever take a course in statistics because they *wanted* to?!).
I also remind them that when I was a professor nobody ever invited me to have dinner in The House of Commons in London or to play golf in a private country club in Chicago - I think that I have actually improved my lot, if not my income, quite a bit and I certainly enjoy what I am doing now a great deal more.
But I do credit my past life with very much the same sort of experiences that Carolyn mentioned, i.e., a background requiring a good deal of creativity in the face of no help and no budget. For example, how does one give the obligatory periodic "quizzes" to classes of 800+ students without destroying a forest for paper and giving four teaching assistants hernias lugging tests to the classroom?
Our past experiences have, I think, developed for both of us levels of creativity and ingenuity which serves us well in our present efforts.
Q: Joel, a second question for you. Tell us about your interest/fascination with radio and radio drama in particular. Of course this dramatic flair goes hand in hand with Holmes. Do you remember the first time you heard Holmes on the radio? And when did you write your first play, Holmes or not.
A: Well, I am a member of that vanishing generation who grew up with radio as the main source of information and entertainment. I am embarrassed to admit that I do not remember the first Holmes episode on the radio, but then, I didn't become a Sherlockian until I was in high school.
One, I think, sort of "imprints" on whatever was going on during the formative years of life. Every generation likes the music that was popular when we were growing up. I still "dig" Glenn Miller; Carolyn "swooned" over "Doo-Wop."
My interest in radio simply comes from being exposed to it during my formative years. My involvement in "radio show" production was, like everything else in my life, an accident. We went to that same Friends of Old Time Radio convention mentioned before and they were having auditions for people to perform in some of the program recreations they were going to do. Much to my surprise, Carolyn went to audition (she had also studied theatrical arts in the past) - she won a small part in the major performance of the convention in which they reenacted an episode of a show called "Big Town." She performed with some of the professional old timers (including Mason Adams and Ezra Stone - radio's Henry Aldrich - and some others).
After that we both started trying out at subsequent conventions. We played in "The Maltese Falcon" (naturally I did "The Fat Man"), "Casablanca" and a number of other things. Eventually, Carolyn sort of got stage fright and didn't want to do it any more and I found out that I was never the actor she was (although I did get to play in a recreation of a "Lone Ranger" episode with Fred Foy who was the announcer for the original radio show), so I turned my interests more to writing, directing and producing.
I take every opportunity to indulge in such things, now mostly for the Sherlockian community (although I have written a couple of scripts for the Newark convention for the last two years).
Q: What do you see in the future for Classic Specialties and your personal Sherlockian activities?
A: Our personal Sherlockian activities are for life in one form or another! Once a Sherlockian; always a Sherlockian! We don't know anybody who ever "quit" being a Sherlockian.
As for Classic Specialties, we really don't know. As the old joke goes, "Classic Specialties is a non-profit organization. We didn't intend it to be that way, but that is certainly the way it has turned out!"
We have never made any significant money from the Classic Specialties. A year in which Classic Specialties pays all its own bills is, in our view, a good year!
We have kept on doing it for two main reasons:
1) People have come to depend on us. People who want to publish little monographs contact us to see if we will market it for them. Groups that want to produce club lapel pins call us to say that they only have 22 members but they have to have 300 pins made as a minimum order - will we buy the residual pins from them? People call us in the middle of the summer to see if we are going to do a Sherlockian Christmas Card this year? And such goes on year to year.
2) We get to go places we would never have known about and get to know Sherlockians we would never have met were in not for our Classic Specialties' efforts - and, as you know - Sherlockians are the most interesting people in the world!
Had it not been for Classic Specialties, we would never have known many of the wonderful people we have met throughout The Community - certainly, high on that list of wonderful folk are our Nashville friends who are a great bunch and whose efforts in keeping The Memory green are exemplary.
We commented that Classic Specialties is a non-profit-making enterprise, but our business does grow every year. What this means is that we handle more merchandise and more money every year, but not much of the latter stays with Classic Specialties very long. But with handling more and more merchandise every year, and with only two of us to do it, we just might be pushing the envelope of the amount of effort we can personally handle. We might be becoming "victims of our own success" (if you can call it that) and simply generating more work than the two of us can handle.
But, in retrospect, we always feel this way right after the Holiday rush - after the effort cools down a little, we tend to say, "Oh, it wasn't all that bad. We can make it another year."
Only time and our aging energies will tell!!
(Submitted by Jim Hawkins / 2000)
1. Old Time Radio article and links: WikiPedia Source
2. Classic Specialties - transferring out of Nashville Scholars website