How I Met Your Mother
Wed, 03/12/2008
Staff Writer
Ellen Braunstein likes to joke that she met her husband, Mark, on an Internet dating site back when “people worried they’d meet ax murderers online. We were pioneers. Back then, no one was doing it.”    These days, thousands of happy couples meet in cyberspace, but at the time, back in 2000, Internet dating was a novelty. “There were so many questions, so much buzz at our wedding,” she says. Yet the happy couple hardly had time to share their full story with well-wishers. “I wished I had a handout for every time I had to compress our story into a single sentence: ‘We met online,’” Braunstein says. “There was so much more to tell.”     Braunstein, a storyteller at heart, never did record the   story of her own courtship. But the self-confessed avid reader of the New York Times “Vows” section was determined to help others share their own love stories. “I thought to myself, wouldn’t it be great if ordinary couples had that Vows experience?” she says. “Only my stories would end with the proposal instead of what the bride wore.”     In 2004, Braunstein left her full-time job as a journalist in California to launch Courtship Stories (www.courtship-stories.com), which produces professionally designed, 16- to 20-page cardstock books sharing the story of how the couple met and fell in love.     The process is very journalistic, she says. “It’s like writing a series of feature stories documenting the parts of people’s lives that are the most pivotal and self-defining,” she says. “As a newspaper reporter, I became skilled at seeing the extraordinary in the lives of ordinary people,” she says.      Now, instead of writing articles about City Hall, sewers and potholes, Braunstein writes stories about things that affect people in the most personal of ways.      The courtship story has the most narrative momentum, she says. “There’s a true beginning, middle and an end. You start with the first meeting and end with the proposal. The high points are when they say ‘I love you’ for the first time; when they decided that they were the ones for each other.”     Her first struggle as an entrepreneur was convincing people that they had a need for her product. “People had nothing to compare it to,” she says. “I’m like a photographer; I capture memories. But people are not used to paying for it.”     She created a mock-up of a courtship story as a wedding present for a close friend. Problem was, the end result looked more like a high school newspaper than a Martha Stewartesque, reception-ready glossy booklet.      In June 2006, Braunstein partnered with Vanessa Ploski, an award-winning designer based in upstate Nyack, who had experience in the wedding industry. “You need it to look more ‘wedding,’” Ploski insisted.    The duo developed several standard “looks” for the booklets, which are distributed to wedding guests at the reception and can be color-customized. They also set up a Web site where visitors can read sample Courtship Stories.     The timing was right, Braunstein says. “There was this sudden fascination with celebrity weddings. Couples had their own blogs. Trista and Ryan were on ‘The Bachelor.’ I kind of got swept up in this trend.”   Although she attends bridal trade shows, she relies on word of mouth to popularize her Courtship Stories. Each booklet that is distributed bears her company name and phone number and is, in effect, an advertisement. “When guests discover them at the table, they always say, ‘I’ve never seen anything like this before,’” she says. The reception hall morphs into a library reading room. “To me, this is proof positive that in this world of video productions, DJs, and funky laser lights, people still love to read a good love story.”   Culling her journalistic tools, Braunstein interviews the bride and groom separately for close to two hours each, either over the phone or in person. “If I talk to the couple together, they censure each other, or try to complete each other’s sentences,” she says. “This way, they see what the other was thinking for the first time. It surprises them in a nice way.”     In documenting dozens of love stories, Braunstein has become somewhat of an expert on courtships, and many retro traditions that persist. “There are common themes,” she says. “When men decide they want to marry a woman, they are very thoughtful in planning it out. Women sort of go along for the ride. The guy really makes the decision.”     And once a man decides to take the plunge, there’s no stopping him. “He’s determined to go through with it even if his plans are really falling apart,” she says. “It’s really humorous. It’s got to be that day.”   Though the woman has probably picked out her ring in advance, the proposal “shocks her so much that she doesn’t remember saying yes,” Braunstein says. “It’s mind-blowing.”       In the course of recording their stories, Braunstein ends up offering up free counseling to the bride and groom. “I offer them assurance.”     Couples who see their courtship in a similar light and share fond memories display the signs that theirs will be a strong marriage, Braunstein says. And in preserving their memories, couples can look back later on in life at this happy time and have something to help overcome the more difficult times ahead.    Braunstein claims she’s no romantic. “I don’t do sappy or clichés,” she says.