GREENE — To Lew Alessio and Jim Shaffer, a simple black-and-white portrait of two nameless men dressed in Depression-era suits and hats spoke more eloquently than any words they could write.
One of the men sits on a photo backdrop of a crescent moon. The other man stands behind, his forearm resting on his friend's shoulder. Together, they hold a handmade sign reading "Let's Get Married."
The image has become the centerpiece of Alessio and Shaffer's new company, in your own words LLC.
In June, the company began selling greeting cards aimed at a gay and lesbian audience.
"The photograph is the epitome of what we're doing," said Shaffer, who serves as company president. "It states precisely who we are."
Shaffer and Alessio found the photograph last year at an auction. They paid $400, and they would have gone much higher, though they don't know who the men are or why they were photographed together more than 100 years ago with a marriage proposal.
"I don't know what they were doing," said Alessio, Shaffer's husband and the company's creative director. "I don't care."
Rather, the image conveys a sense of warmth and affection, he said.
"Most of what is available for our community is risque sarcasm," he said. "Now that the subject of same-sex relationships is mainstream, we feel that there are many people who want to celebrate a same-gender wedding by going to a store and not having to pick a card with a plastic bride and groom."
The business grew out of Alessio's hobby of collecting historic photos of same-sex pairs and groups.
They began planning the business about a year ago. Shaffer had spent years in retail marketing. Alessio had experience as a graphic designer.
The men met with mentors, gathered focus groups and created a business plan and marketing materials. They finally kicked off this spring at the National Stationary Show in New York City's massive Javits Center.
Today, they are wholesaling cards to 16 retailers nationwide — including one in Maine — and growing strategically. They connect with people on Facebook and on their website, www.inyourownwords.ME.
As the name suggests, each card is blank on the inside. On the outside, each card is affixed with one of Alessio's photographs. With more than 300 different images in his archive, he has plenty to choose from, he said.
"I won't live long enough to use them all," he joked.
The business and design work on the cards happens in the couple's historic Greene home. The assembly of the cards and photos is being done by a small group of people, each of whom is HIV positive.
The cards are made of recycled paper and sell in stores for $5.50 each.
It's been a tough process to iron out, starting with the printing. About half a dozen printers passed on the job to print the cards, likely over the subject matter, Alessio said.
"They just canceled appointments or would not return phone calls," Alessio said. In one case, a secretary informed them that the owner was Catholic and would likely object.
They searched for two months.
"We did find a printer who was perfectly comfortable doing it here in Maine," he said. "While it was sad to see the resistance, we were encouraged that people were talking about it."
They plan to build on that talk. In places such as Dallas, Salt Lake City and Lexington, Ky., a market for the cards is building. Their cards also are for sale at Orphan Annie's in downtown Auburn.
The couple hope to be turning a profit by next summer. In five years, they hope to break into the mainstream.
"I'd like to walk into a printer and be able to say, 'Our cards are about affectionate men, affectionate women and kids' and have them say, 'Oh. Let's see what you've got,'" Alessio said. "I think there'll be less and less fear."