Owner of The Paper Shop in Winter Park, Florida, Ellen Prague has been in the stationery business for more than 30 years. Her love for beautiful paper, however, goes back much further than that. Here, the former New Yorker waxes poetic about vintage stamps, Jackie Kennedy and the fancy 5th Avenue store that inspired her own boutique’s name.
When did your interest in the epistolary world begin?
Watching my mother write thank you notes and letters on her beautiful pale blue stationery was my first glimpse of the elegance of communication. When I went to sleep-away camp at age 8, I was expected to write at least a letter every day and I would run to mail call to receive my daily letter from mom, and sometimes from dad and/ grandparents — it was the highlight of my homesick first summer at camp, and remained so all the years at camps and away at schools.
What’s the story behind your store’s name?
Finding the name for my shop was easy. I was still a pretty private personality at the time, so I definitely didn’t want it to be “Ellen’s” anything. The main focus was paper, so it seemed pretty straightforward, but really, really, I was naming it after my very favorite place to buy stationery when I lived in New York. The original Henri Bendel had a “street of shops” on the first floor. It was run by a Mrs. Unger, and I would spend most of my salary ordering their gorgeous papers.
Why do you enjoy writing about letters and/or correspondence?
I believe correspondence is a wonderful way to express your thoughts. In some mysterious way, your brain communicates to your hand much more gracefully than it does to your mouth. Written correspondence is also a treasured memory. I still come across letters from friends and relatives, written decades ago, and I think, ”Oh, I forgot that that happened.” I love the feel and visual effect of beautiful paper, especially if it is deeply engraved in stunning color.
What is your favorite step in the process of written correspondence?
When I’m finished and step back to (proof)read what I’ve written. When it’s good and it says what I meant it to say, it’s so satisfying.
If you could be pen pals with anyone in history, to whom would you write and what would you say?
I would love to be able to correspond with Jackie Kennedy during her book editing phase, and discuss books with her.
To whom do you most often write?
Regretfully now, after 30 years in business, I rarely have time to sit and write an actual letter — it’s mostly thank you notes for dinners and gifts or sympathy notes. Letters only occasionally to my daughters and grandchildren.
What makes a particular letter stand out from a stack of cards?
It should be an unexpected color, like aqua or seaglass, and be on a different stock, such as letterpress paper. A vintage stamp also will get it opened first.
Do you have a favorite stamp or stamp series?
Vintage stamps are sometimes so wonderful to see — they just have a different vibe from today’s art and typography.
The Post Office had a wonderful Hollywood series for a while, and we just couldn’t get enough of the Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland, Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn, Frank Sinatra stamps. We also love taking a piece of “art” (with permission, of course) from a special envelope lining and ordering stamps printed with that design — it’s the finishing touch that says, “This is from ____” before you even open it.
What makes your correspondence distinct?
Unusual color combinations and envelope liners — aqua and brown and gold combinations are my trademark look, but I will combine other things from time to time, like dark grey with copper ink, or bisque paper with white ink.
What is your favorite product created by Crane & Co.?
My favorite Crane product (so difficult to pick just one!) is the LC9116 large correspondence card. It’s big enough to take a statement monogram and still have room to write.
One of our customers uses that card as a fill-in invitation, keeping them on hand for all their dinner parties and as reminders.
Another customer sends this card out to anyone to whom she has sent a gift (especially brides). We did a fill-in shell and she fills in the information — the tracking number of the package and what to do if it needs to be returned. This way the recipient knows to look for something, and if it doesn’t arrive, can get in touch (it also sort of puts the recipient on notice that a thank you note is expected).
What do you think classic correspondence will look like in a decade or two?
I think classic correspondence will be as it has always been — that’s what makes it classic! For my grandchildren’s generation, writing thoughts with pen on paper will be a novelty and a new learning experience. Their generation will think they “discovered” writing!
While there have been major shifts in our business in recent years, after 30 years in business, I still love it!