Tactile allure of paper's still a draw


It is not new. It is not flashy. It is not sexy," says Melanie Nerenberg. "'But people are coming to it with a vengeance."

She is referring to that humble commodity called paper. As spokeswoman for Kate's Paperie in New York, one of the country's pre-eminent paper stores and Internet sites, Nerenberg should know.

Sales of papers and cards are up more than 200 percent over last season, she says, and last year the numbers had already jumped 200 percent over the previous year.

The paper of which she speaks is not the workaday sheets that you buy in bulk and feed through your copier. This is the good stuff known as "fine paper" -- the high-cotton, archival-quality, watermark-embedded notepaper indigenous to high-end stationery stores.

The trend may seem surprising, given our penchant for e-mailing, BlackBerrying, and texting our greetings these days. But there is something about the holiday season that inspires us to resurrect our rusty cursive, to dot "'i's" and cross "'t's," to splurge on high-end cards and papers with ragged edges and satiny-lined envelopes made of velvet or embedded with flowers.

"I get such a thrill out of just looking at papers," says Christa Hawkins, an avowed paper addict who lives in Chestnut Hill, Mass. Clearly, though, people are doing more than looking.

Consider the fact that Crane & Co., the nation's oldest paper company, is 206 years old, and "this is our biggest year for personal stationery," says Lansing Crane, chairman and CEO of the Massachusetts-based papermaking business that was started by his great-great-great-grandfather.

Consider the burgeoning number of paper stores in cities such as Boston, and consider what people are willing to spend at these stores. "We've had steady double-digit growth for the last five years," says Megan Kutze, spokeswoman for Crane & Co.

At Boston's Rugg Road Paper, owner Casandra McIntyre says customers ask for the finest she has, "and then I show them my Czechoslovakian Bohemian watermarked paper with a great texture and handmade edge." A boxed set costs $140 for 50 sheets and 25 envelopes. And they buy it.

"Boston," she says, "is a very big paper town."

"Paper is an extension of who you are," says aficionado Marci Katz, who works for Rockport, the shoe company. "Paper becomes part of you, just like fashion, which I love as well. It's an additional accessory."

Others say that a passion for paper -- especially high-end writing paper -- is a tangible (if subtle) manifestation of a larger social concern: e-mail overload. "It's a counter to the so-called paperless world we are in," says Leonard Flax, co-founder of Kate's Paperie. "People are reacting to the impersonality of how we communicate."

"I see this as a reaction to our super-stylized world," says Elena Salij, a New York marketing consultant and trend spotter. "We have children who can't write cursive. We have people with iPods made out of a material that we don't even know what it is. Nothing has texture. Nothing has our fingerprints on it. We live in a world that feels materially depleted."

Boston calligrapher Margaret Shepherd, who for decades has dwelled in the world of pen and ink and fine paper, is not surprised that others are finally starting to appreciate its appeal.

"I think we are starved for texture when we are tapping that keyboard," she says. "There is something basic about paper. It taps into the same kind of creature instincts that fabric does. There is something unquantifiable about paper."

Linda Matchan writes for the Boston Globe.

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