Ad Astra Par Avon

We are all hunters and gatherers.  That has never changed, only the tools, techniques and territories have changed. The knapped spear exchanged for the razor-edge of a Visa card, the minute examination of spoor and trail for internet searches and advertising, and the wide savanna for the dark forest of the modern mall.  I have been hunting a strange and magical beast, a fine and rare descendant of the unicorn and the white stag.

I have been looking for air mail paper.

My quarry is as anachronistic as our need to hunt. Why should anyone bother with a special ultra-light, ultra-thin paper when you could just as easily send an email?  If you did go to all the time and bother, would you actually save any money on postage once you found it?

Well, no, of course you wouldn’t. That isn’t the point though.

The point is about connection. Just as shopping satisfies a primal need to go out and gather stuff for a winter that never comes, my quest is about satisfying the need for an analog connection in a digital age. As the shopping mall can only be explained by the childhood of humankind, my unusual need for a thin, lightweight, blue-tinted handwriting medium goes back to childhood.  Specifically, when I was twelve and I hated writing.

It hurt my fingers and was too slow for my thoughts.  It was a mess.  It was boring.

Then, tired of decoding thirty 6th grade reports on raccoons that might have been written by them, my biology teacher started excepting typed assignments. Then English teachers.  Then every class but math required typed pages, and I would happily toil at the family Commodore 64 for hours.  All over the nation, the clacking of keys and the machine gun of dot matrix printer replaced the scratching of the scholar’s pen. Handwritten letters became a curiosity, a mysterious artifact associated with the bizarre pad of unlined paper underneath grandmother’s sewing basket.

Her pad of air mail paper.

Flash forward 10 years. I know what email is, but I can’t afford an account. My printer is still a dot matrix, and my computer goes to the land of dividing by zero with a puff of blue smoke and a stench of burning electrical cable.  A new computer costs more than my (very) used car, but a pack of lined paper is a buck, and there’s usually a cheap ballpoint or the other somewhere in the sofa cushions.

That’s how it started.  Flash forward 10 years. Again.

I’m walking through the deepest of deep forests. Fabulous creatures jostle, laugh and greet each other in the most beautiful of the Germanic languages. They are all hunters here, in the great Kalverstraat shopping district, natives who know their quarry well, upscale fashion, accessories, electronics, the glaring white of the local Apple Store ™.  My feet slap ancient cobbles, steering towards the last address on my list, a store recommended by online antiquarians.

I cross the Singel at Huidenstraat, and by Wolvenstraat I’ve escaped the hyperconcentrated mall, into it’s forbear, the ring of concentric canals that hold Amsterdam’s hidden cafes and specialty shops. The vendors selling pancakes, vlaamse frites and ice-cream I put behind me. Cortina Paper closes at five, and I don’t want to be late.

The shop wears a 17th century mask. The entire neighborhood does. Outside of the shopping center, the row buildings link hands and make believe that they were all built at the same time, with only minor changes of facade, shades of brick and number of windows to reflect the ever changing footing of tax codes and landowners.

Inside are glass shelves and Danish Modern furniture.  Three levels tastefully decorated carry the entire Moleskin ™ product line, from the smallest pocket cahier to large folios of specialty paper marketed towards the professional watercolorist.  The basement filled itself with arabesque fantasies in wrapping paper, the upstairs held bound blanks of varying type, in Italian leather and English cloth, lying flat or bound tightly, for diaries, journals and photographic albums.

And set into the rear wall, were shelves of calligraphic papers in various thicknesses, weights and qualities.  I recognized brands previously known to me only by Ebay posts advertising yellowed half-empty boxes found in disused attics and estate sales. Here they are ready for the calligrapher’s pen or the typewriter hobbyist’s gilded age Underwood.  None of it, as far as I could tell, bearing the distinctive blue tint of my quarry, so I waited as the owner wrapped expensive German-made business calendars and answered extensive telephone calls in Dutch.

It was closing time when I asked him, “do you have anything like air mail paper?”


“It’s very thin and light, about 30 grams per square meter,” I was distracted, remembering the metric equivalent of nine pound bond.

“Yes, I do.”

“For saving on out of country postage”

“Right this way.”

It was right there, on the second floor, at the back, on one of the glass shelves, reflected in the mirror. My eyes had played over it a hundred times while I had made the rounds, waiting: Pelletier. Air Mail Paper. A picture of a Concorde. The top several packs where white, but on the bottom there were four in the traditional sky-blue.

“I am sorry, the envelopes, they are gone from the earth. I found these in—“ he said a word in Dutch. “In the Waterlooplein?”

“The flea market?”

“Yes, the market. Another shop closed and sold this, their remaining old stock.”

I bought them.

The commercial portion of our relationship concluded, we got to talking.  He told me how ten years ago, there was only two shelves of paper meant for correspondence, for the formal occasions of weddings and graduations.  There were eight shelves now, and he carried hand-tooled Italian leather journals, stitched by a master bookbinder. He could only order two a year, they went for €200 each and were sold out.

“There is something different, something special about writing on paper, with your hand,” he said. “Something that people like.”

“Something more real?”

“Something more special.”


About netherlanders2010

We are 21 students, one teacher, and a few info-groupies on a study abroad program in the Netherlands from August 22-September 17 2010. We will be working with faculty and researchers from the Virtual Knowledge Studio, the Erasmus Studio, and the Continuous Access to Cultural Heritage (CATCH) in Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and Hilversum, to study the ways in which research informs design in information systems and practice in the Netherlands. Plus, we'll spend a lot of time wandering around, going to libraries, museums, and the Oude Sluis, and doing whatever strikes our individual and collective fancies. Alstublieft!
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