Bob Slate And The Case Of The Paper Letter

By Danielle Dreilinger

Nov. 25, 2011

BOSTON — Business consultant Laura Donohue came to Bob Slate Stationer one day this spring “looking for some good cheer and a nice pen,” she told the gaggle at the Nov. 17 ribbon-cutting for the new Bob Slate. “I went to the back of the store to inquire about buying not only a pen but the store itself.”
By the time she did that, it was too late to stop the shutdown. The 78-year-old Cambridge, Mass. institution closed in late March 2011 and no one knew a savior might be on the scene. Fans talked about what it might mean: a further step in the blanding-down of Harvard Square, the victory of electronic communication over good old pen-and-paper, the end of family-owned independent stores that can’t compete in a cut-price global marketplace, etc., etc. — even though Mallory Slate said that the store never lost a dime and that he and his brother Justin simply wanted to retire.
But Donohue persisted and has now reopened Bob Slate — leaving the chattering writing classes a little confused. Is there a place for good old pen-and-paper after all? Has the global, electronic marketplace in fact not entirely won yet?
As Greater Boston producer Toni Waterman directed a camerawoman at the front of the store, former co-owner Mallory Slate, 74, stood in the back and pointed an accusing finger at a WGBH News reporter’s beat-up steno pad.
“Let me look at your book! Where’d you get that piece-of-junk book?” he demanded.
Um, Market Basket. $1.19.
Heresy! Slate clutched his tweed jacket. “Oof! Oof-ta!” he cried.

Watch the Greater Boston segment on Bob Slate's reopening.

Donohue told the well-wishers on Nov. 17 that she intended to operate in “a new world of personal communication.” Inside, though, it was a little hard to see what that might mean — leather iPad covers, perhaps? — amidst the familiar old merchandise: Filofax inserts; Italian paper with double-deckled edges; wall calendars for moms, yoginis, lighthouse lovers, Metropolitan Opera fans, goddess-worshippers or all of the above; Sharpies in a dozen colors; to name a few. To refill her fountain pen, would milady prefer Waterman encre violette or J. Herbin violette pensée? A giant stuffed tiger presided at the window, loaned for good luck by a neighboring cobbler, Donohue said.

It all seemed, well, old-fashioned. Can a stationery store be relevant to anyone but the tweedy remnants of Olde Cambridge?
The experiences of Donovan Beeson, co-founder of the Chicago-based Letter Writers Alliance, suggest that perhaps modernizing isn’t the answer. Despite the imperiled state of the US Postal Service, just as CDs and mp3s spurred a few sentimentalists to cherish and collect vinyl records, there are hints of a possible paper revival.
The LWA started in 2007. Among other activities, it sets up pen pals and holds letter-writing socials. The group now has 1892 members, Beeson said, and “we’re going to hit 2,000 before the end of the year.” (Disclosure: I am one of them.) 
Beeson works a few days a month at Chicago stationer Greer and said the store is doing well.  “No one I talk to says ‘Oh, I hate mail,’” she said. They just wish they got more real letters and less junk.

One well-known stationery brand is trying to promote real writing on real paper.
Even in the age of electronic everything, “There’s just certain things that will require a letter,” said Sandra Jordan-Bishop, vice president of sales for Dalton, Mass.–based Crane & Co. Wedding invitations. Thank-you notes after a job interview (yes, hers was on Crane stationery). She envisioned graduating Harvard students coming to Bob Slate to buy fine resume paper.
This fall, the digital team launched a “pen pal” campaign, promising to write back to anyone who sent the company a letter. The response has been “massive,” Jordan-Bishop said.
In fact, the company is expanding its line beyond cards into leather-bound journals and “social papers.” (That’s larger-sized paper you could use for a personal or business letter — “more what you would’ve seen in a Staples in the past,” Jordan-Bishop explained.)
Oh yes. Staples. It might seem strange to try to reopen a business selling pens and paper in the era of big-box retail. How can a Bob Slate compete?
By changing the game. At this point, stationers are targeting an entirely different market from office supply chains, Beeson said.
Crane has begun to emphasize “a quality and luxury experience,” Jordan-Bishop said. In fact, Crane doesn’t sell through Staples or Office Depot at all anymore. And independents like Bob Slate are more important to the company than chain stationers such as Paper Source: Over 1,200 of the almost 2,000 places that carry Crane products are independently owned.
“A lot of customers prefer to go to these smaller stores because they get this one-on-one, personal service,” Jordan-Bishop said.
Beeson happens to be visiting the Boston area over Thanksgiving and can’t wait to visit Bob Slate for the first time. Even with a stationery job at home, she’s excited to see what Donohue’s eye will pick out for her. “I’m sure I will find wonderful things,” she said.

Sign Up

Sign-up for WGBH News updates, WGBH promotions, and previews of what's coming up on WGBH TV.




Support for WGBH is provided by:
Become a WGBH sponsor