On the Hunt for Boorum & Pease

By guest contributor, Josh Rex           

I love to handwrite, which is useful since I write fiction. In grade school, I used to bring home a stack of rag paper with those fat horizontal lines resembling highways and practice my cursive letters with the care and devotion of a medieval monk working on an illuminated manuscript. There was something about the wand-like holding of a pencil or pen, the transference into script of the flow of idea into something cohesive and comprehensible (at least most of the time), the tactile and audible scratch of lead or nib on a fresh crisp sheet.

When I began seriously writing fiction about a decade ago, I started with the keyboard, which was fine for a while, but I missed the physical interaction with the page I’d come to love as a child. So I bought a few yellow legal pads and sat down at an antique desk to begin my new novel in earnest – in longhand – with No. 2 lead pencils that are in need of sharpening every few paragraphs. This turned out more interesting, and also more distressing, than I had anticipated. My cursive had deteriorated to the point of illegibility. Also, strange things happened when I tried to form those elegant letters. My upper case Zs and Es resembled String Theory diagrams, or characters from some alien language. The speed of my modern, computer driven thought was no longer in time with the increasingly old fashioned art of handwriting. I pressed on, and discovered something surprising: the more I actually wrote, the less scattered and fragmented my initial drafts became; they improved in both lucidity and quality, which of course made the successive drafts that much easier. The process was, and is, slower, but I’ve found that the art of writing has actually improved my fiction, and made writing it even more enjoyable.

Thus I was reborn, as it were, as an author from the days of graphite stained fingers and blotted parchment. This coincided with the gift of a Boorum & Pease notebook a family member had found at a garage sale. I loved the quality of the paper and the durability and after filling it, I wanted another. An online search revealed that the one I’d just written my new novel in was actually quite rare. Boorum & Pease is a brand with roots in 1840s Brooklyn, New York. The Boorum & Pease Company was founded in 1870, and produced notebooks and loose-leaf devices as well as other office supplies in the United States for over a century.[1] They were bought in the mid 1980s by Esselte Pendaflex, which was itself acquired by TOPS products. Despite all these changes, somehow B&P books continue to be made in the USA, which is something that has become increasingly important to me. They may cost a little more and take more work to locate, but I figure it’s a fair exchange compared to the indifferent purchasing of outsourced goods produced through third-world labor exploitation…  

           

On a recent trip to New York City, I googled “vintage stationery nyc”, figuring that if anywhere in this country would have old American made notebooks/supplies it would be there. I was not disappointed. Third down on the list of results was a place called Phil’s Stationery, “the last of the mom and pop stationers” as their website declares. I walked the thirty or so blocks from my hotel with a friend to E.47th St, and as soon as I saw the storefront, I knew I’d struck oil (or ink, if you will). Remember when Cher is walking around Manhattan in the film Moonstruck? That’s what we’re talking. Bright yellow plastic signage advertising “Zerox Copies” and white panel hook board in the windows backdropping a stockpile of items quickly becoming archaic in the age of iPhones: memo pads, accordion files, expensive fountain pens, paper desk calendars, deluxe leather-bound planners, etc. I was enthralled, though my companion was less impressed; he referred to the place, with an expression of disbelief, as “the land of the dead”.

Almost immediately I located an entire wall of B&P ledgers and notebooks – a few of which were nearly identical to my vintage one. When I inquired about the price, I was told that they were “very expensive….really expensive” which translated to $55 for essentially an updated version of what I had. Pricey indeed for a notebook, but the quality appeared the same. Then I found some smaller B&P composition books on a lower shelf – plain grey, with numbered pages, made in the mid 1990s – and only $15. Huzzah! I grabbed one and continued exploring the store while my companion smoked outside on the curb, apparently seeing all he needed to see. In one way I couldn’t blame him, as the stench of a deceased rodent pervaded the stationery aisle.

The front half of the store was well ordered, but as I walked, the shelves became increasingly messier. They were heaped with indistinct boxes of assorted paper stock, Rolodex cards, binders, manila folders, and the like. Out of this secretarial mélange I scored a package of vintage Eaton Berkshire letter envelopes ($3.50) and a mysteriously coverless and backless pad of lined paper ($1). The staff at Phil’s Stationery was kind and helpful, and I was thrilled to find subsequently that they have an active Amazon storefront when I’m in need of re-orders.

As for now, off to start a new short story in my grey Boorum & Pease comp book, and maybe a letter or two.

Joshua Rex

Joshua Rex writes speculative fiction in Providence, Rhode Island, where he lives with his partner, the poet Mary Robles, and a large black cat. Visit him at twitter.com/jrx80 and goodreads.com/joshuarex


[1] Source: https://www.waltergrutchfield.net/boorum&pease.htm

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