Sunday, December 20, 2015
It’s a rainy Sunday afternoon in East Lawrence, and outside Decade coffee shop, things look pretty bleak.
Large, angry-looking clouds move slowly across the sky as Meredith Moore glances through the window at what appears to be a small “lake” a few yards away. She can’t be absolutely sure, but she doesn’t think it was there yesterday, before the rain.
Conditions are noticeably cheerier inside Decade, where Moore and a dozen women of various ages — plus Moore’s husband, Paul DeGeorge — are geeking out over a stack of truly bizarre Christmas cards.
“I have a bunch of these creepy, '80s punk kids,” Moore says, brandishing the cards with some moderate fanfare.
The (illustrated) kids in question are reminiscent of Cabbage Patch Dolls, though much edgier (leather jackets and neon hair) and yes, creepier. The Wonder Fair Letter Writing Club loves them.
Moore and DeGeorge — who own the gallery and art store at 841 Massachusetts St. — have been hosting these get-togethers for more than a year now at Decade, where a core group of about 15-20 members gather on the “teenth” Sunday of every month to write letters, admire each other’s stationery, and just hang out, generally speaking.
Born out of “the crush of digital connectedness,” according to Wonder Fair’s website, Moore believes her Letter Writing Club to be one of only a handful in the United States. It’s certainly the only group of its kind in Lawrence, she says.
"My theory is that there aren't a lot of social things to do in Lawrence that are very casual where you just go and enjoy yourself and do something that's about you," Moore says, offering her explanation of the club's endurance. "A lot of social situations are about consuming art or culture that's produced by someone else. And this is more like just hanging out, and you still get work done."
The Letter Writing Club is free (participants are asked to bring their own writing utensils and stationery, though stamps and Wonder Fair stationery are also available for purchase), but elsewhere in Lawrence, Ruff House Art is hosting similar workshops.
Though they concern skills that are undeniably old-fashioned, the workshops have been wildly popular since the first hand-lettering class led by Cathy Ledeker was offered in May, says Ruff House founder and creative director Jill Shephard.
“The very first class we offered sold out in two days,” Shephard says. “It was insane.”
She’s since added others — calligraphy and chalk lettering — but hand lettering (which is not the act of writing correspondence but the art of drawing letters) seems to be the most popular. In addition to the one-night workshops, Shephard is launching a “more studious” four-week class that will take place in February and March 2016.
That this sort of stuff is “trendy” right now, in a time when schools have stopped teaching cursive and increasingly advanced technology has made it less a necessity and more a hobby, is not a coincidence, she says.
“I think there’s a big resurgence,” Shephard says. “People are wanting to step away from their computers and tablets, and do something with their hands again.”
Moore agrees, though attendance has ebbed and flowed at the Letter Writing Club over the last year, with new members showing up every so often. Occasionally, Moore will encounter a stationery enthusiast at Wonder Fair — or a curious Decade customer during club meetings — and invite them to join.
Everyone’s welcome, she notes, but for now, she’s happy with the group’s “manageable” size.
Allison Puderbaugh, an industrial hygiene project administrator from Lawrence with a “hardcore postcard habit,” is one of the Letter Writing Club’s original members.
“I’ve been here since the beginning,” she says with a hint of self-aware pride in her voice. “I actually won an award for ‘Most Consistent Member’ until I stopped coming.”
Work got busy, Puderbaugh says in her defense. But she’s here now, and so is her mother, Bobette, who at this moment is talking shop (about stationery, naturally) with one of the club’s most avid enthusiasts, Renee Whaley.
Whaley has brought a plastic storage bin filled with stationery, all organized by category — Christmas cards, birthday cards and the like — and clearly, unabashedly loves this stuff.
She’s a self-admitted stamp nerd (and, Monday through Friday, a state-certified water and wastewater operator) who seems to enjoy writing letters just for the heck of it. Whaley writes to her grandmother, her best friend in Washington, D.C., and her cousin — who is currently serving time in prison and, to Whaley’s delight, is pretty good about writing her back. The two have grown closer because of it, she says.
“I don’t know what he’s in there for, but it was literally like, his sister posted on Facebook, ‘Hey, Dustin’s in jail. Here’s his address if you want to write to him,’ and he writes me back,” Whaley says. “It’s really weird, though, because he’s part of my family that I don’t really talk to very much, so he’s the one person I talk to the most, and I talk to him through letters.”
That’s the odd thing about handwritten correspondence, Whaley points out. She’s gone years without physically talking to some of her letter recipients, but she still writes to them just the same.
On this day, she’s just received a letter (or, more accurately, a series of scribbled-upon sticky notes) from a new pen pal. His name is Lynn, and he lives in Bowling Green, Ohio.
The sixtysomething retiree originally contacted the Letter Writing Club several months ago after finding it on Facebook, Moore says — after all, there aren’t many organizations like it in America, and he was curious to see how it all worked.
“It’s just nice to write to somebody who’ll write you back, because my return rate’s maybe less than 10 percent,” Whaley says good-naturedly.
Whaley seems to be the only member with whom he’s keeping up correspondence. She’s not sure how long it’ll last, but for now, on this Sunday afternoon, she seems happy just to see where it goes.