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Joan Wickersham

A love story

A family’s memories, thanks to a stationery store

By Joan Wickersham
February 18, 2011

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WHAT CAN you say about a 78-year-old stationery store that’s about to die? That it was beautiful and brilliant. That its shelves were piled with things you needed (pads, envelopes) and things you wanted (beautiful note cards, fountain pens, journals with thick creamy deckle-edged pages). That when you told your sister the store was closing she asked you, only partly facetiously, if you were interested in buying it and going into the stationery business with her.

Oh, Bob Slate!

Some stores are just stores. They’re nearby and you shop in them. If they close, you may find yourself mildly inconvenienced, or meanly happy (they had a snooty sales staff or overpriced merchandise). But Bob Slate, the venerable Harvard Square stationery store which announced last week that it is closing because no buyer could be found, was one of those rare places that inspires deep attachment, loyalty, even love in its customers.

Not to sound too much like a Hallmark card (Bob Slate was never a Hallmark-card sort of place), but the things I’ve bought there over the years are the stuff of memory. Baby books for both my sons. Card stock on which we printed birth announcements and Christmas cards. Calendars. My husband’s business letterhead. Sketchbooks, filled with his drawings of cities we’ve visited.

A small pretty notebook where I kept mud-stained notes on a long series of frustrating gardening experiments. Diaries, peppered with sporadic entries that can return me instantly to places and people I’ve otherwise forgotten. Reams of paper on which I’ve printed out manuscripts. Yellow legal pads for my husband, who still writes drafts in longhand. Advent calendars. Tiny handmade letterpress books, which I would tuck into my kids’ Christmas stockings. Poster board, on which they colored, pasted, and lettered maps and collages for school. Note cards which I sent to my mother, and then found among her papers after her death.

It is not exaggerating to say that my family’s archives are preserved on materials from Bob Slate. When the store closes, we’ll have other sources — though less delicious ones — for paper and supplies. But I do worry that the closing of what once seemed such an essential category of retailer heralds something bigger and sadder: the death of paper.

So much of what used to be communicated and recorded on paper now happens wirelessly. In some ways this is terrific — faster; less wasteful of resources — but it’s also ephemeral. Despite what we read in the news (usually during a financial or sex scandal) about how e-mails are permanent and can never be lost, the fact is that information which exists only in electronic form is getting lost all the time, because people don’t think to look for it. It is stored in devices that are constantly being upgraded, replaced, and surpassed — and in the process, the information itself becomes virtually irretrievable. (Remember floppy disks?) Paper may be cumbersome and old-fashioned, but it endures.

Libraries wrestle with how to preserve and store documents in an era when fewer and fewer documents exist as physical objects. How can websites, blogs, e-mails, and text messages — the written records of the early 21st century — be saved now for future historians, who will be interested not only in the famous but also in the mundane ways in which we all record and describe daily life?

Among the thousands of objects preserved in Harvard’s Schlesinger Library, devoted to women’s history, is Amelia Earhart’s baby book, a white leather volume with gold letters that spell out, grandly, “BABY’S KINGDOM.’’ It’s fascinating both for its importance and its unimportance: an artifact of a great woman, but also a glimpse of early 20th-century attitudes toward motherhood. Today a new mother might keep a blog. But a blog is just content, with no physical embodiment. A book can survive because the content is united to an object: paper.

Much as I appreciate the speed and convenience of e-mails, blogs, and phone calls, I will never happily say goodbye to paper, my first, and enduring, love. And while I can probably find some nice virtual stationery stores online, I will mourn Bob Slate when it closes: the actual physical store, where I used to buy the beautiful physical object.

Joan Wickersham’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Her website is www.joanwickersham.com.