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The Commons
Photo 1

Storymatic Studios' flagship product, The Storymatic.


A conversation with Brian Mooney and Vaune Trachtman

A writer and a photographer meet at Marlboro College and fall in love. And 21 years later, they give the world Storymatic — their 'little boxes full of Yes!'

This series of interviews is supplied to The Commons by the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation (, the regional development corporation tasked with helping businesses start up in Windham County. These interviews are intended to explore the experience of starting a business in the Windham County region, looking at how individual business owners choose to be in southern Vermont, as well as their challenges, opportunities, lessons learned, and memorable celebrations.

The interviews are designed, in the words of the BDCC, “to inspire those sitting on the sidelines while reminding others they are not alone, that yes, you can open a successful business in Southern Vermont.”

Interviewer Jerry Goldberg, recently named executive director of the nonprofit In-Sight Photography Project in Brattleboro, worked as a communications executive for many years at CBS in both New York and Los Angeles. Later, in Brattleboro, he headed communications at World Learning and from 2005 to 2013 served as executive director of the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce.

Originally published in The Commons issue #409 (Wednesday, May 24, 2017).

BRATTLEBORO—I’d been down that hall before: third floor, down the corridor from the circus, next to the giant red octopus hanging from the wall.

No, you can’t make it up when you’re talking about the Cotton Mill. Everything’s possible — and nothing makes sense.

And that’s the beauty of it. The many entrances. The stairways. The turns. And the relief when at last the sign on the door tells you you’re home — whatever home happens to mean for you that day.

I’d been looking forward to meeting the folks behind The Storymatic from the minute I saw their website. “Little boxes full of Yes!” was how they defined their magical product. It didn’t take long for me to get that the box of space called Storymatic Studios would, in the course of an hour, prompt a resounding “yes” to its own delightful adventure.

Let that happen for you, now, as you listen in to Brian and Vaune — and to the voice in your own head.

* * *

Jerry Goldberg: O.K., Brian. Where did your journey start?

Brian Mooney: I grew up in Housatonic, Massachusetts, a very small village near Great Barrington and Stockbridge.

J.G.: Did you come up to Vermont with your family to ski, or....

B.M.: Nope. My family came to Vermont only once when I was a kid, and that was in 1976 to see the Spirit of ’76 bicentennial train in Bennington. When we crossed the border and I saw that sign, “Bienvenue,” I fell in love! We got rock candy on the way home.

Vaune Trachtman: You saw the bicentennial train? I didn’t know that.

J.G.: Hey, there’s discovery going on, and I’m here to witness. Cool!

So, Brian, college? Where, when, and to study what?

B.M.: Marlboro College starting in 1985. Wow. That was a long time ago. Playwriting and sociology.

J.G.: And what about you, Vaune? How’d you come to be sitting here with me today?

V.T.: I’m from Center City, Philadelphia. My connection to Vermont goes back to when I was quite little. My mother worked for the Marlboro Music Festival, which is kind of headquartered in Philly and also operates out of New York City. We came up here every summer for the Music Festival. Along the way, circumstance led me to the Putney School.

J.G.: Did you do high school there?

V.T.: Yes. I graduated in 1984 and later went to Marlboro College, where I met Brian.

J.G.: I love it! What did you study at Marlboro?

V.T.: Photography and philosophy. We both graduated in 1990 and decided to go to Seattle.

J.G.: What was that about?

V.T.: We just wanted to grow up, see something else, you know? We thought we’d go for a year and we ended up out there for five years.

B.M.: It was a good place for theater. I had a directing internship at the Seattle Repertory Theatre, and a couple of things I’d written were done in very small theaters around town.

V.T.: And I did some production work for arts events and some film and TV work.

J.G.: What kind of work was that?

V.T.: I did props for a TV show called Totally Hidden Video, and I helped with arts events like the Northwest Folklife Festival, Bumbershoot Festival, and the Seattle Fringe Festival. Seattle in the early ’90s was a cool place to be, with lots of interesting work in the arts.

J.G.: So what brought Seattle to a close for you guys?

B.M.: I was working in an office. It was a good job and I worked with great people; I probably could have stayed for quite a while. But I started to get restless. I didn’t feel creatively fulfilled.

In 1995, I applied to graduate school, and we came back to New England so I could get my MFA in English and creative writing from UMass-Amherst.

J.G.: And you, Vaune? Sounds like you were enjoying your work in Seattle. What was returning to the Northeast like for you?

V.T.: Well, I came back for love — to be with Brian. There wasn’t a lot job-wise going on for me here, so I started volunteer teaching and mentoring at In-Sight Photography Project. I also did photogravure and retouching at Renaissance Press.

B.M.: And when I graduated from UMass in 1999, Vaune started grad school in photography at New York University and the International Center of Photography.

V.T.: Then I went to work at Time Inc., primarily as an imaging specialist for a bunch of their magazines. That mostly means I got very good at Photoshop. I was there during the transition from film to digital, which was really interesting. Meanwhile, Brian returned to Marlboro College as a visiting professor of writing.

J.G.: So there was a lot of back and forth.

B.M. and V.T.: Yup.

J.G.: So here we are at Storymatic Studios in the Cotton Mill in Brattleboro, Vermont. Connect the dots for me.

V.T.: Brian had been teaching for a long time. The Putney School Summer Programs for... how long did you do that?

B.M.: From ’98 until 2015, with a couple of years off in there. And then Marlboro College from 2003 through 2007, and then again from 2012 to 2013.

V.T.: Storymatic comes from his fiction and poetry classes.

B.M.: Well, I really enjoy making up writing prompts.

J.G.: I’m familiar with the use of prompts in writing groups. But allow me to be the reader here: What, pray, is a prompt?

B.M.: For me, a prompt is a way to attune yourself to the creative impulse that’s around you all the time but that you might not otherwise recognize. That’s ultimately the point of a prompt: you are prompted to realize that you can make something where before something didn’t seem to exist.

I think a good prompt helps you realize that creativity is all around us, all the time. I like coming up with prompts that go, “Hey, check it out. There’s something around you. It’s a story. Or maybe it’s a poem. Or a song. What are you going to do with it now that you can feel it’s there?”

J.G.: So a good prompt is not overly directive. It could be as simple as just the word “Blue.” Write!

B.M.: Exactly. For me, a good prompt is about “Yes.” Too often people get hung up on a “No.” But a good prompt is all about Yes. And that’s what we do — we make little boxes full of “Yes.”

J.G.: Yes, you do! So you got the idea that you could do something with them, make something out of them. Yet from what I’m hearing, you hadn’t been business entrepreneurs.

B.M.: Ha. No. The opposite.

J.G.: So, there you were. A prompt in your head made you say “Yes” to prompts and wanting to do something with them?

B.M.: You’re absolutely right. This whole journey has been about saying “Yes” to something that wants to be said “Yes” to.

In my classes, it started with scraps of paper in a brown lunch bag that helped students say “Yes” to stories. The bag worked well enough that I organized it onto colored construction paper in a box so it was easier to use in class.

And that was going to be the end of it, really. But when the economy tanked, I lost a lot of freelance writing and editing I’d lined up, and I looked around me and remembered that my students had often encouraged me to market this one writing prompt. They would actually try to buy it from me in class. Like, take money out and wave it in front of me.

So I started thinking, “You know, I expect them to listen to me... I should listen to them.”

So I went to Staples, where a very nice manager helped me lay the cards out so I could make a few more boxes. It was scary, spending a hundred bucks I barely had to make something and try to sell it. I’d never done anything like that. I don’t think I ever even had a lemonade stand.

So it was hard. Fortunately, Vaune was incredibly supportive, and the guy at Staples liked the idea and let me have about a 75 percent discount so I could give this thing a shot. I put a site on Yahoo, emailed some people, and the first handful of Storymatics sold right away. So I made a few more.

That was the beginning of The Storymatic.

J.G.: That’s beautiful. It’s the leap from being the creative person to taking creativity and applying it in a way that’s been inside of you all along, but you never knew was there.

B.M.: Vaune often describes this as an accidental business.

J.G.: So in what year did Storymatic Studios actually start?

B.M.: We incorporated in 2009, but so much of the first couple years was spent finding our way on an extremely part-time basis that I think the real date is more like 2011. That’s when things got a little more real.

V.T.: After Storymatic outgrew Staples, we had some made at Prospect Communications. They were great to work with. They did the cards, and we hand-stamped the boxes on our kitchen table with some rubber stamps we had specially made by a really nice Irish hippie named Casey in the East Village. We were a home factory, warehouse and shipping dock. And then Restoration Hardware placed a large order.

B.M.: There was no way to hand-stamp that many boxes in the amount of time we had. With Restoration Hardware and subsequent accounts, we really had to answer the question: “How do we function as a business where we’re not hand-stamping at our kitchen table?”

J.G.: And how did you go about learning that?

B.M.: As part of my freelance writing, I worked for a Brooklyn company called Big Duck that does non-profit branding. That helped a lot.

Big Duck taught me a lot about branding and vision and mission and values. I met a designer there who I really enjoyed working with, and we’re still working together. Sonny can read my mind, and he helps keep me focused.

J.G.: OK, speaking of branding, here goes: What’s your 30-second elevator pitch? You know, if somebody asks you, “So, what is The Storymatic?”

B.M.: Storymatic Studios makes a card-based family of creative prompts that connects you to story, memory, and the creative impulse that surrounds us.

Storymatic is really open-ended and flexible in terms of what you can do with it. At trade shows, I’ll often say, “It’s like one of those red recess balls that you grew up with: you can bounce it by yourself or play kickball with a whole bunch of people. You can bounce it off a wall, or you can shoot a basket. You can do whatever you want with that ball — just like you can do whatever you want with Storymatic.”

V.T.: So at an educational trade show we emphasize teaching; at a gift show, how it’s a good icebreaker at parties. At BookExpo America, where we’re going to be in the first week of June, we’ll emphasize that it’s a fun thing for writers and readers and people who think about stories. For the museum store trade show, which we did in April, we focused on Rememory, which is great for anyone interested in memoir and personal history.

J.G.: [Looking at a Rememory box.] I can see why. That’s really cool.

So have there been any obstacles? Has anything stood in your way?

B.M.: There have been some learning opportunities along the way.

J.G.: Learning opportunities. I love that. Cap-E for euphemism!

B.M.: Originally, I think I felt that I needed to get permission from someone, anyone, before I did something, because I hadn’t done anything remotely like this before. Or I looked for others to tell me what to do, which didn’t always go the way I expected.

Now, when I seek people’s opinions, or feedback — because I do like information — I understand that ultimately a decision has to be made and I can’t always look to another person to make it. That’s been a hard lesson. But a good one.

V.T.:Brian is good at listening to his inner red flag.

B.M.: In general, I like to think that Storymatic knows what it needs. I just try to listen to that.

V.T.: So much of The Storymatic is his brain in a box. He put it out into the world, where it’s leading and we’re following where it wants to go. It doesn’t fit into a perfect little niche. Because he’s the creator he can kind of tell where it wants to be.

B.M.: For example, lots of people have told me to have it manufactured in China. But when I say, “Hey, Storymatic. Where do you want to be made?” Storymatic says, “In the U.S., duh.” And then I just do what The Storymatic says.

J.G.: So how many of you are there at Storymatic? I’m here with two of you.

B.M.: What I think of as The Storymatic team includes the people who do the actual manufacturing, and Sonny who helps with design, and Deena who helps with the books, and friends who test the products, and—

V.T.: —But really to answer your question, it’s just the two of us.

B.M.: Yeah. As you can see, we’ve got bins filled with inventory, and we have a new product in development. We’re taking on more and more of the shipping. We’re hoping that we’ll eventually be able to bring somebody on to help with that.

J.G.: So there’s the two of you. Who specializes in what?

B.M.: Vaune does lots of day-to-day stuff, from getting the trade-show stuff together to sales calls. I have a hard time calling people. I’m not a salesperson. I’m still figuring out what I actually do.

J.G.: So is operating this business here in Brattleboro, in a small town, O.K.?

B.M.: I love it. We were talking about this yesterday. How did I put it? I don’t know if this is a term, but the infrastructure touch points are all really positive.

Wow. That’s some serious jargon I made up and then actually used in a conversation.

J.G.: Infrastructure touch points. Could be a prompt!

B.M.: Or a band. Infrastructure and the Touch Points.

For instance, Holly at the West Brattleboro Post Office. Mark the UPS guy. And the bank. I called them yesterday and said, “Hey, it’s me.” We chat, and I feel reinforced. I don’t know if it’s like that everywhere.

V.T.: And it’s great to be in the Cotton Mill. We’d visited during Open Studios maybe 10 to 12 years ago and thought it was great. So a few years ago, we approached the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation about space and moved into about 275 square feet — not big, right? Then we outgrew that and moved to a larger space. Fairly soon, we should be moving into an even bigger space.

It’s helpful being in a building like this with good neighbors. You have these different businesses, all these small businesses. And it’s as if you’re coming in to work with everybody else coming in to work.

When you’re working from your house, you’re by yourself. Here, we have more of that water-cooler activity. Since there are many different small businesses, you can get many different perspectives. For example, we’re down the hall from New England Center for Circus Arts, and Pam, who does a lot of their social media, will stop by and ask, “What do you use to ...?” And vice versa. It’s helpful.

B.M.: Plus, when you enter the Cotton Mill, you can smell maple syrup and granola and chocolate and chai and the aroma of the wood that the woodworkers are working with, and the leather the shoemaker’s using. You breathe in productivity and exhale creativity.

The BDCC has been very supportive, and not just in terms of providing a roof and walls. Their support services — classes, info sessions, consultations — have been really helpful. Businesses here in the Cotton Mill can incubate and grow, and some eventually go on to build their own homes.

You know what? I recently overheard a conversation downtown about how Brattleboro has an “entrepreneurial vibe.” I think BDCC can probably take some credit for that conversation.

J.G.: OK. You’re at a party and somebody asks you about why you came up here, why you decided to start your business here. What would you say to them?

B.M.: We have friends who are unloading their moving truck this week. They left Seattle and bought a house in Newfane. They’re just the people you’re talking about. They were looking to live in a place that is a lot less stressful, that’s calmer and healthier.

We don’t have kids, but this would be a good place to raise ’em if we did. We have some of the best food anywhere, and you can go outside and touch grass and snow... and see the stars!

J.G.: The stars! That’s right. You can!

B.M.: And I’m sure there’s some rock candy around here somewhere.

V.T.: I met a number of people at Open Studios in December who’d either just moved here or were casing it out. It’s not that people are coming here for some job. Rather, it’s a conscious decision that this is where they want to live their lives.

J.G.: There’s a story about your business — a story you tell yourself about it, a story you want others to tell themselves and others about it. Are you satisfied that the story about The Storymatic is the right story?

V.T.: Wow, that’s a good question.

B.M.: A really good question. And answering it is an ongoing process. My answer for today is a little long, but here goes.

We have a few different products now: Storymatic Kids, Rememory, and a new one we’re working on that we hope will be in production soon.

So that original Storymatic from Staples now has a few brothers and sisters. And as they find their way in the world, the Storymatic family lives a life outside of me. They go into classrooms without me, and living rooms, and nursing homes, and wherever.

Without me. I can’t follow, saying, “Wait, wait! Do things this way.” Yeah, I can do that to some degree with the instructions and suggestions, but ultimately when you create a thing — an actual physical object out there in the world that is not eaten or used up or otherwise consumed — that thing begins to take on its own life, and it creates its own narrative.

The challenge for me is to make sure that our Storymatic values remain intact as it asserts itself in the world, apart from me. And that it, on its own in another state or another country, is doing what it wants to do, which is to help people tap into their imaginations.

That’s the story I’m in right now. The one that asks, “What is the best way to do this?”

There’s your prompt, Jerry. Write!

J.G.: O.K., here goes: “Right now, over 100,000 boxes 3 inches high, 7 inches long and 2 inches deep, are playing a part in thousands of lives. The boxes are stamped ‘The Storymatic’ and under that, ‘Six trillion stories in one little box.’ Which one will you tell?

“What a kick it is for me to know that if even half of the folks who own one turn theirs over, 100,000 eyeballs will read ‘Brattleboro, VT 05303.’ What a great story for our little town!”

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