Meet Sarah Bentley, founder of pop-up coffee and correspondence spot Snail Mail Café. The Brooklyn resident’s goal is to one day open a permanent space where letter writers can take pen to paper—and indulge in an ice cream cone (or two). Here, Sarah talks to us about blank cards, commemorative stamps and how letters are a lot like (good) food.
When did your interest in the epistolary world begin?
Well, first off, the use of the word “epistolary” reminds me that some of the most important historical and religious texts have come in the form of letters. Like the scripture that’s read at about every Christian wedding, “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.”
That was written in a letter.
My interest, however, wasn’t quite so lofty. I was born in the early 70s, and in a way the question is like asking when one became interested in the telephone. Letters were just part of the every day way we communicated before the internet and cell phones.
That said, my love of the art of letter writing really started through a love of stationery and pens, and that was when I was working in a local gift shop in high school and college that had a stationery section. Funny enough, the “gold standard’ of the stationery we sold in the store were the boxes of Crane notes and letter paper.* They were refined and elegant, with a simple colored border here and an ornately lined envelope there. I particularly remember an envelope lining that was as beautiful as a fine china pattern. I loved all of it. Still do.
*As an aside to the reader, I want to be clear that Crane in no way asked me for a plug — this is my honest experience!
How did the Snail Mail Cafe come to be and why do you think so many high profile women are jazzed about participating?
I feel like every person probably has a hundred ideas and things they’d love to do “if money were no object.” Snail Mail Café was one of those ideas that formed over time and became the one that I couldn’t stop thinking about and dreaming about. In a way, it’s almost like it’s been asking me to open it. Right now it exists in the form of pop-up events, but eventually the dream is to find a permanent space.
I very much believe that letter writing is completely egalitarian. There’s a misconception, I think, that handwritten correspondence is for the elite, for females, or for “old people.” Anyone with a piece of paper, a pen and access to a mailbox can send and receive letters. I’ve been heartened by how many men and how many Millennials have come to the pop-ups or contacted me about the idea, wanting to be more involved. There seems to be a real longing to communicate with each other in more meaningful ways, growing out of a collective fatigue of the digital world where we live so much of the time these days.
What do you enjoy most about providing the Cafe?
As I said, the actual café has yet to find a permanent home. Snail Mail Café is also very much about what will be the other two major parts of the store—a café and soft serve ice creamery. For now in spirit, and via the letter writing pop-ups, the thing I enjoy most is providing people a welcoming place to slow down, to connect with the people they love (either live or on paper) and to enjoy a great coffee, and eventually a glass of wine or a beer and/or a cone.
The café will also have lots of community-oriented events and, as part of that, one thing we’re doing at the pop-ups is collectively writing letters to a nominated person who needs some love and encouragement in their lives. This has already been incredible to watch, and it restores one’s faith in humanity.
What is your favorite step in the process of written correspondence?
Addressing the envelope, hands down. It feels like instant gratification. I love getting out my fountain pen, calling on my best John Hancock and writing out an address with flair. I also try to write a funny little note either within the address or on the back just to keep myself amused (and hopefully the recipient). When I’m feeling extra fancy, I’ll add a wax seal.
If you could be pen pals with anyone in history, to whom would you write and what would you say?
Wow. That’s hard to narrow down. I’m assuming all of them would write me back, of course? I’d be checking my mailbox every day with anticipation, just like in the not-so-olden days.
My loftier self (see above) would choose C.S. Lewis. I’d start by thanking him for helping me feel free to expand my mind, to explore science, art, beauty and story, and to pursue a spiritual life all at the same time without fear. With the assurance that together these things, far from opposing each other, create alchemy.
My sillier self would choose Shel Silverstein. The man was a creative genius. I’d ask him to write my letter for me.
My private self would choose both of my grandmothers, who are powerful female influences in my life that I was never able to know directly. I would love to know them both directly. I’d have a million questions for both of them.
I’d also send them all (plus a few others) a gorgeous invitation to the Ultimate Dinner Party we all dream of, and we’d eat the Death Row Meal that we all have planned out just in case. I hope they like ice cream.
To whom do you most often write?
That’s a toss-up. One is my Uncle Jim, who writes the best letters on my little planet. Since we all know you have to write a letter to receive a letter, this is often a selfish endeavor.
The other are postcards I send through postcrossing.com, which is something I discovered fairly recently. It’s this fantastic site where you sign up and are connected with people all over the world who exchange postcards. I highly recommend it.
Describe the most memorable letter or postcard you have ever received.
Of course, letters can be intensely intimate. I have received some pretty stunning letters of generosity, support, encouragement and love in my life. Honestly, though, the letter that comes to mind instantly is one I received years ago in response to a letter I sent. I was young, in college and fresh out of Psych 101. My initial letter was to bring up something painful from my past in an attempt to gain some freedom, understanding and healing. The response did not meet me in that place, and it was jarring and devastating. However, part of the memory of this difficult correspondence was that it helped me grow up a bit, and ultimately to choose myself, my own voice, my own experience and to seek out more appropriate sources of healing. Letters can do that.
What makes a particular letter stand out from a stack of cards?
To me the only thing that makes a letter stand out from a stack of cards is that it has more potential to say something personal and original. I’m a big fan of the blank card, and my biggest pet peeve about a card is when it has a long poem or flowery text and someone simply signs it. To me, that’s like receiving a package, excitedly opening it and finding nothing inside. With all due respect, I want to hear what you have to say, not what Hallmark has to say! There’s one exception to this: When it contains a check.
Do you have a favorite stamp or stamp series?
Ah, stamps. Glorious stamps. I found out at some point that there were these things called Commemorative Stamps. You could go to the post office and choose from a cornucopia of great designs and themes… and they cost exactly the same! I couldn’t believe it.
If I’m not mistaken, there was a series that was released around the magical 1984 Olympics, and I think this is how I found out about them. Since then, I will admit that I anxiously await the Holiday release every year. Rudolph 2014! I will gladly trade anyone their Hermeys for my Santas.
I’ve also recently discovered that there is a Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee. I’m currently trying to figure out how to fake my way onto this thing. Anyone know?
Lastly, one of my moonshots for Snail Mail Café is to develop a commemorative stamp of our own. I’m holding off on that one, though, as I’ll likely get hit by a bus soon afterward.
What makes your correspondence distinct?
At this point, correspondence is automatically distinct if it shows up in a physical mailbox. But I would say that what makes my correspondence distinct is the same was what makes everyone’s distinct. It’s like sending a little piece of yourself, a little piece of art: The paper you choose, the stamp you choose, your handwriting (your very own organic “font”!). Most importantly, though, it’s what you say and the words you choose. In my case this surely means moving the recipient to tears and to laughter, all within the same letter. I like to set a high bar.
What do you think classic correspondence will look like in a decade or two?Things have changed so much in my own lifetime that it wouldn’t entirely surprise me if email and texting are considered “classic correspondence” in a decade or two. I rue the day when we’ll all be nostalgic for the carefully chosen emoticon. 😉
In all seriousness though, I think this resurgence of pen-to-paper correspondence will continue to grow, and I’m excited to see where it goes. I like to call what’s happening the “Slow Communication Movement,” akin to the Slow Food Movement. To play out the metaphor: There is absolutely a place for the fast food drive thru of a text, but taking one’s time constructing the gorgeous, home-cooked meal of a letter to be shared with friends and family just cannot be replaced and is becoming similarly valued. My hope for the Snail Mail Café is to in any way help add handwritten correspondence back to the menu, as it were.
Follow the Snail Mail Cafe on Twitter for info on upcoming events as well as general epistolary fanfare.