Today we are talking with Laura Donohue of Bob Slate Stationer:
RD: Please give us a short description of your store.
Bob Slate, Stationer was established in 1930 in Harvard Square, Cambridge as a full-line ‘stationer’ selling paper as well as writing instruments, with an emphasis on personal stationery and office supplies, which constituted the primary markets for those goods then. Writing, whether it be a personal note or a business letter, was a very formal, yet very personal experience that was considered an important part of a proper upbringing that sustained strong interpersonal relationships. Over time, the store has evolved to include other paper products that support personal and interpersonal communications, such as greeting cards, packaging for gift giving, diaries and basic art supplies. We consider ourselves a hardware store of writing, with a bit of a technical emphasis on finding the right combination of paper and writing instrument for the task at hand. The store concept is a treasure chest, with hidden delights to be found in every corner and shelf, and knowledgeable staff to help you find what you need. Being very Bostonian by background, for us the notion of ‘delights’ means precisely functional as well as decorative products. We match our papers with a substantial collection of writing instruments, highlighted by our famous ‘pen alley’, which features dozens of everyday pens available open stock in all possible colors. We also offer traditional dip pen and fountain pen collections, and a sizeable ink and refill collection, to help make your writing experience memorable.
I acquired the business from the Slate family 5 years ago, and have attempted to continue the store’s evolution during the digital age while still maintaining our roots in pen & paper.
RD: Have digital devices and apps changed how people use notebooks?
The technology of writing and communication has been evolving for some time, and yet writing and notebooks persist and resist being eliminated. Whether it be the invention of the typewriter, the telegraph, the fax, the personal computer, email or messaging, these technologies represent an ever increasing need and / or desire to communicate. Digital devices and apps are merely the latest tools in the personal arsenal for communication. While they effectively enable more instantaneous transmission, for many such communication feels impersonal, elusive or impermanent (despite the fact that the internet remembers all whether we like it nor not!!). There remains a perceived permanence to paper writing for thoughts and ideas considered worthy of keeping. While some communications has become almost fully digitized, others remain rooted in pen and paper. As a result, pen and paper remain in use, particularly in markets rooted in idea generation or self reflection.
In the digital world, notebooks and journals remain extremely functional; they complement digital devices in allowing quick capture and remembering of key points or thoughts while one scrolls through various digital pages. Or they serve as a backup — anyone who has inadvertently deleted their calendar or address book while updating their phone’s operating system can attest to the benefits of handwritten information. Thus the pairing of analog and digital writing devices is quite prevalent for many applications.
RD: What do you see as the future of notebooks?
The future of notebooks appears quite strong. We see customers of all ages wanting to put aside their technologies and unplug for relaxation and deep thinking — the digital communications can be intrusive as well as impersonal, as they are largely interactive — demanding a response — and often less introspective. Journals and notebooks serve well the desire to self reflect or create, since they support unskilled doodling, which seems freer and less stressful than having to learn how to make the technology accomplish the same task. One can see curling up on the couch with a journal just as one curls up with a favorite book, to reflect and capture some thoughts and experience oneself without distractions.
RD: Why do some people continue to use paper in a digital world?
Writing with pen on paper offers a very pleasurable experience. The smooth flow of ink on paper — particularly a paper with a smooth, brushed finish such as Rhodia — creates a pleasurable sensation that seemingly frees thoughts to flow along with the ink. Whether it be the weighty but precisely balanced feel of a favorite pen, or the joyous splash of color that the ink creates on the white background, or the individuality of ones handwriting, the writing experience is a highly personal and intimate one.
RD: How do people “discover” paper and notebooks now that so many stationery and office supply stores have disappeared?
Ironically, the digital world provides great assistance to purveyors of pen and paper. We rely heavily on search engines to identify our store in response to product queries; on social media by which customers’ friends confirm our potential value; and on emails and webstores to be available to customers on demand. These technologies are essential to modern retail. However, we supplement the digital introduction with a very personal shopping experience. Once inside, the customer takes a step into a special world of personal communication where they can touch and test the pen and paper, and work with our staff to choose the one that gives them their desired experience. We have many customers who do not live close by but make regular expeditions to our store just for the experience of being surrounded by beautiful (and functional) papers and writing instruments, and being able to ask questions of our skilled staff. Besides — you never know what new and exciting things we have just discovered at the trade shows!
RD: Any additional comments or observations that you would like to add?
Rhodia notebooks and pads, as well as its fellow Exaclair brands of Clairefontaine notebooks, Quo Vadis diaries, G. Lalo stationery, J Herbin and Brause pens and inks, and Exacompta office products, are well-known and highly-desired products for those who value writing and the creative experience. The product line is continually refreshed and updated with thoughtful features that meet many needs and desires. We are proud to carry Rhodia and Exaclair in our store!