This was a long time ago, but I still remember how those blank pages made me feel. Something cool was about to happen and, even better, I was in charge. I would open the notebook, grab a freshly-sharpened pencil and write my story.
I shared that memory with writer/entrepreneur Vito Grippi a few weeks ago.
“That was my favorite part of school,” he said.
And that may be all you need to know about Story Supply Co., a craft stationery business that Grippi and his partner, Gabriel Dunmire, have started in York, a small city in central Pennsylvania just north of the Maryland line. But of course, there is more: Crowdfunding. Respect for the right tools. A desire to inspire. Even a tangible nod to the school kids we once were.
Grippi and I are talking in a coffee shop in downtown York. As he tells me his backstory, he has set his phone screen-side down on the table so texts and messages can’t interrupt us.
In the early 2000s, Grippi was a lecturer at York College of Pennsylvania, looking for a long-term fit for his interests. A poet and writer himself, he was trying to make his own notebooks, breaking down old hardback books to learn how they were put together. One early thought was to use the pleasingly-worn covers to create new blank notebooks, but that was scrapped as being too work intensive.
He kept toying with ideas. In 2015, he filed legal papers to start Story Supply, a company that hopes to provide people with tools (notebooks, pens and pencils, paper) and along with them, maybe the inspiration to be creative and tell stories. Later that year, a Kickstarter campaign got him launched. The original ask was for $5,000 in seed money; Story Supply was 100-percent funded in 24 hours, and eventually had more than $11,000 pledged.
“I thought, ‘I guess this is a real thing now,’” he tells me.
Grippi, 40, is a member of a generation with one foot comfortably in the digital world and another happy back in analog. In addition to his cell phone, he carries a hardbound blank book where he writes ideas that come to him as he reads, teaches, or talks with people. He also carries one of Story Supply’s small Pocket Staple Notebooks for more serious-minded creative writing, bits of poems, thoughts for essays.
As he built the company, he connected with on-line stationery communities. Geeky on-line stationery communities with conventions, podcasts and message boards that host discussions about pens and paper. Communities of people who know that writing tools matter, and that analog outperforms digital for some things, which research confirms. Those communities might include more of us than we realize.
Confession: I bought a pack of 18 retractable pens the other week. I found them hanging on a pegboard display at Target. They weren’t expensive, and have comfortable, rubbery grips. It had been years since I used retractable pens; I usually default to the even cheaper ones that come with plastic caps — which I instantly lose.
But here’s the kicker: I like these so much that, although I haven’t used most of the original 18 yet, I’ve been back to Target a couple times to try to buy more. Each time they’ve been out of stock, and I’ve had to leave the store sad and empty-handed, then remind myself that this probably doesn’t really qualify as “sad.”
(Hello, my name is Greg and I have a pen problem.)
I didn’t share this little story with Grippi, who would, no doubt, laugh at my little gateway addiction.
But the yearning for analog seems widespread. Moleskin notebooks are akin to a status symbol these days. The company even has a “smart writing system” that bridges analog and digital. New York Magazine sparked a social media debate when it rated the 100 Best Pens just before the Christmas holidays. (My Bics from Target did not make the list.)
Several years ago, Iko’s Music Trade, a used music store in York, made the transition from vinyl to compact discs — pushing the old records into a back room. Now the store has made the transition back to vinyl. If you want a CD, you have to find your way to the back room where the vinyl used to be exiled. My own son surprised me when he asked me if he could have the old boxes of vinyl records that I had stacked in the garage.
When I taught journalism at the University of Missouri, I was surprised to find that my students — who had grown up as digital natives and were bonded to their phones — actually seemed more excited about seeing their bylined stories in print than posted online.
There is something here. The trend to re-embrace analog is hard to argue, even when a quick look around the coffee shop shows more thumb-typers than pen-on-paper writers.
Joan Snyder is a graphic designer and owner of Pippi’s Pen Shoppe near the coffee shop where Grippi and I meet. She calls her store a bucket-list shop, something she’d always dreamed of opening.
It’s a small store, jammed with higher-end fountain pens, notebooks and writing paper, including some of Story Supply Co.’s products, which are primarily sold online. Snyder says that her customers include everyone from professionals to students: “There’s all kind of people — college students, attorneys. People who want to collect these writing instruments. People who actually use them. The young people are intrigued with the fountain pens. They like them because it attracts attention to them when they use them in class.”
Grippi says his children are fans of analog tools, and have picked up his habit of wandering through stationery sections, even in places like Target or the grocery store. That awareness, and the desire to inspire young people with tools that feed the imagination, is embedded in the Story Supply story. Every product purchased results in another product donated to national groups like 826, the national network of youth writing centers, or local groups like York area libraries and York City Schools.
“They’ll send us a picture of students using our stuff, or elementary kids decorating our notebooks to make them their own,” Grippi says. “You have a voice and this is just a little tool to get you started. Put a notebook in their hands and see what happens.”