A Gift Guide, Some Music, and A Way To Pay It Forward

Dear Penpalooza Members,

Hello! We made it (almost) to the end of this long, exhausting year. Can you believe it? And, as of this month, there are now almost 8,000 of you signed up to the official Elfster group, which is (I think, anyways!) a pretty wonderful outcome for a project that started with an exploratory Twitter prompt and the vague hope that a Secret Santa site could bend its algorithms to accommodate a bunch of letter-happy individuals who wanted to fling paper back and forth through the postal service. I continue to be amazed and heartened by the enthusiasm for this project, and everything you all bring to it.

I know I thanked you all in my last dispatch, but I do want to repeat it again: THANK YOU. Thank you all for taking part in this project this year. Every single one of you who wrote a letter and jammed it into an envelope and slapped on a stamp and shoved it in a mailbox performed an act of hope in this chaotic time; you dared to reach out to a total stranger with the modest and yet also mountainous goal of connecting across time and space. Even if your letters were never answered, or your once-fiery correspondence eventually fizzled, you may have done more for someone else than you know; whenever I send something out into the void, I like to think of the infamous aphorism from the philosopher Jacques Lacan that “a letter always arrives at its destination.” What I take that line to mean is that if you send something out with good intentions, those intentions will be received, and even boomeranged back your way by the universe — even if a return letter never arrives. In this chaotic, scary, destabilizing, bizarre, and altogether unprecedented year, you never know what someone could be going through on the other end of your letter’s journey. But perhaps your note still arrived at the perfect time; maybe it landed when someone was feeling terribly lonely, or when they needed a sudden boost of bravery. Even when the post office lost your letters (and given the gutting of the USPS earlier this year, that scenario is more common than ever), those missed connections led to some new pairings that I can only think of as fated: I have matched many people this year whose pen pals ghosted them and who then went on to have robust correspondences born out of a true desire to make the second chance count. What I am saying is, if this service has brought brightness to your year, I’m so glad that it did. And if you are still waiting for your mailbox to feel glowy and full, please don’t hesitate to email us at hellopenpalooza at gmail dot com, and we will help you try again (we try to get to all e-mails within a few days). 

I hope you all keep writing one another into 2021 and beyond -- #Penpalooza won’t be closing or going away, even if/when the vaccine arrives. So many people have told me in lovely e-mails and letters how this project has cracked open something for them they didn’t realize was dormant; that they didn’t know how much they missed the act of writing, or doing crafts with their hands, or even the spontaneous feeling of taking a chance on someone halfway across the world. So don’t worry -- we are here as long as you want or need us to be.

The Penpalooza Pay-It-Forward Pool

As for this second dispatch, it contains a little gift guide, as promised (though many of these are gifts I imagine you will want to buy for yourselves -- or pass along to someone who can buy them for you -- and that’s great; you deserve it).

But first, I’d like to take a pause at the end of this season to ask you to consider tossing a few bucks into the Penpalooza Pay-it-Forward Pool on Paypal when you are opening your wallet to buy new paper goods. It is a season of giving, and I think we can do some good. This year, the pool will be split two ways between organizations that reflect the #Penpalooza spirit. Half will go to Girls Write Now, a NYC-based nonprofit that pairs young women and gender-nonconforming individuals who have big writing dreams with literary mentors and gives them opportunities to publish their work. The other half will go to Black and Pink, a Boston-based organization that advocates for incarcerated members of the LGBTQ community and pairs them with supportive pen pals. Your donation there will help to fund the cost of stamps and other writing supplies that many of us take for granted when it comes to being able to communicate via mail (you can also visit their site and learn more about applying to become a B&P pen pal yourself; they are currently in the middle of a big holiday card campaign). So, if you do want to help support these causes, here is the link again to DONATE. The pool will remain open until December 31, and I’ll send out an update on how much we have raised in the next newsletter. Also, as a little extra bonus, the first FIFTY people to email with your address and a screengrab of your donation of $25 or more will receive one of the laminated matchbookmarks that I have been making from vintage matchbooks (sorry, I can’t make more than that!). :)


From here on out, I plan to put together a little #Penpalooza Playlist every month to go with these letters -- just an hour or so of writing music that you can put on as you catch up on your correspondence (we may also have special guests curate playlists in the future!). The theme for December’s playlist is jazzy, wistful, and a little sad -- a mix of modern and vintage songs by women that sound to me like staring out a window on a snowy evening with a hot cup of tea in your hand. There is something merry and desperate about all of these songs -- and what is December, if not a bit merry and a bit more desperate.

AND FINALLY: THE 2020 #PENPALOOZA GIFT GUIDE it is...drumroll...the first annual #PENPALOOZA GIFT GUIDE! I’ve broken it down into sections for easy reading and linked to indie bookstores rather than any conglomerates; and know that this is not an exhaustive list at all. There are many more suggestions to come in the future. That’s what this newsletter is for! These are just some last-minute, totally arbitrary ideas for things that might delight you or step up your postal game (and yes, there is a section at the end for things that mail flat, should you want to pass the bounty on to your matches). Also, a note that this letter is long and exceeds Gmail’s limit (lol) so you may have to click through to the web version to read it all!

Fanciful Paper Goods

As you all know by now, letter-writing begins and ends with the paper you use. I am always one to say that you should not let a lack of fancy stationery stop you from continuing your correspondence -- the back of a gas station receipt will do if it gets you writing -- but I do think that paper you want to write on is paper that will encourage you to write. Everyone has wildly different paper taste -- twee, classic, modern, baroque, minimalist, vintage -- and I would encourage you to trawl Etsy for an indie paper maker (and there are THOUSANDS) who fits your aesthetic. But for now, here are a few paper sets and notecards that might excite your eye.

- If you are in the market for hand-drawn paper sets, you might want to look at the cheery wares of Paris-based illustrator Sonia Cavallini or at the adorable, wildlife-inspired sets from the British purveyor Howell. I am also partial to the old-fashioned designs of the Little Print Company, whose floral sets, which come in their own ornate envelope, make you feel like you are writing on your grandmother’s stationery in the best way. Other indie shops to check out: Anchorless Prints (where you can also order custom stationery), Sleepy Bee Studio, Blue Leaf Shop, Yours Truly Brooklyn, La Papierre, and La Paper Lover, whose set called “Not Your Granny’s Airmail” is downright charming.

- If you have access to a printer and color ink, many designers are making it easier than ever to print your own stationery and envelopes without having to wait at all for an order to show up on your doorstep. The Rosie Elm Ridge Paperie is a great source for PDF designs, which you can purchase for $5-8. You will be supporting an independent artist while being able to print as much writing paper as you want -- it’s a bold new digital world.

- Most museums are closed to the public right now, but museum shops are still one of the best sources of lovely stationery you will find. I encourage you to go to your favorite museum’s online gift shoppe and support them by scooping up a box or two of notecards, but here are a few suggestions: these Women and Abstraction cards from MoMA, these chirpy cheeky C.F.A Voysey cards from the V&A in London, these Maya Angelou cards for every occasion from the Detroit Institute of Arts, these colorful lepidoptery cards from the AMNH, or these cards cut to look like Victorian teacups from the Met.

- Maybe you prefer the classics. If so, what about some beautiful, hand-marbled paper from Italy, or this deckled-edge Amalfi set? Or maybe you want some traditional, thick stock from the legendary G.Lalo paperie? Or maybe you are looking to go lighter: what about some whisper-thin, almost fluttery onion skin paper that you can then tuck into some old-school airmail envelopes?

- Speaking of envelopes, why don’t you zazz up your correspondence with some colorful, almost-transparent vellum envelopes? I’ve been ordering vellum all year from JAM Paper, and there is nothing like slipping your letter into a silky outer coating, like it is settling in for the night in good pajamas.

- Maybe 2021 is the year you finally take the leap into personalized stationery. Allow me to be the millionth person to tell you about Papier, a site where you can design and order your own notecards, letter papers, planners etc. Earlier this year I bought myself a set of creamy paper with blue jaguars on them that said “From the Desk of...” and I have never felt more like a glamorous authoress sitting down to answer reader mail every time I took out the box. Once you go custom, it’s hard to go back. 

Postcards With Pizzazz

Are you sending enough postcards? There will be a whole future newsletter about this, but the long and short of it is: 2020 is the year I learned to love and embrace postcards. I used to think that they were just a way of marking travels and didn’t have much purpose beyond dropping a line from some faraway place. I thought, what is the use of a postcard in a year when the farthest I’ve traveled is the twenty block radius that surrounds my apartment? But as I’ve started writing to people through the mail, I’ve found that postcards are a vital tool in keeping a correspondence going. They can be a placeholder for a longer dispatch that is coming (I personally love to send an “I’m slammed this week but your long, luxurious bubble bath of a letter is coming!” update), or they can be a short, playful volley in a longer game. They can be a great first note to drop in the mail, the postal equivalent of a “Hello My Name Is” sticker or a team-building icebreaker game. They cost less to send (35 cents in the USA right now; a great use for your vintage stamps) and there are more varieties to choose from than there are species of bats. Also, if you are looking for more people to write beyond #Penpalooza, I cannot say enough good things about Postcrossing, a long-running service that allows you to send postcards all over the planet and track their arrivals (there is nothing so satisfying as seeing just how long it takes a card to get from New York City to say, a small rural hamlet in the Swiss Alps). There are SO many great postcards out there that it will take a whole other newsletter to list them (coming in 2021, I promise!), and mostly I think the best call is to buy vintage ones off EBay, but here are a few favorite collections to inspire you. A box of postcards is always a welcome gift around here.

- This Night Sky box from Princeton Architectural Press (a wonderful source for postcards in general). This box featuring Erin Robinson’s lovely illustrations of Black women trailblazers. A collection of vintage Penguin book cover cards. Sunny Marimekko prints. A collection of William Morris cards that look like beautiful wallpaper. A collection of New York City cards from the Tenement Museum for those who are homesick for the Big Apple (even, sometimes, while still living in it). A hand-drawn collection of literary icons. Tom Hardwick’s fairy-tale drawings of foxes and sunsets. A pack of Paris pen-and-ink drawings to sate your inner Emily. Even bad puns can make for good mail. And finally, I find that Where’s Waldo cards travel extremely well and give your recipient at least a few seconds of good fun trying to locate that tell-tale stripey sweater in the melee. There really are endless options out there. Go nuts.  

A Starter Fountain Pen, and a Calligraphy Class

Fountain pens are no longer just the provenance of bar mitzvahs and soulless corporate life; thanks to the Internet the humble fountain has found a rabid (and often ridiculous) fanbase. One day I will write about the many online fountain pen forums, where people spend ALL DAY arguing about whether or not the Parker 51 is the best writing instrument ever invented and write thousand-word posts rhapsodically describing the re-fill process for vintage bladder cartridges. It’s a wild and wooly world out there, and I don’t recommend diving into the forums unless you want to be lectured about how you clearly know nothing about Pilot Falcons. That said, the webby fountain pen revival over the last few years has led to a proliferation of good resources for getting into them and, more importantly for this list, buying them. When I knew I’d be doing a lot of handwriting this year, I decided to take the plunge and bought my first fountain pen from the good people at Goulet Pens, a shop based in Virginia that has quickly become one of my favorite places for impulse click-purchases at 2 a.m. (I am partial to ordering the little vials of ink samples they sell for between $1-3). The nicest thing about Goulet is they have miraculous customer service; you can e-mail them with any pen question under the sun and they will get back to you with answers. My entry-level pen was the Noodler’s Ahab, a flex-nib that costs only $23 and serves as a kind of gateway drug to an extremely dangerous hobby (I will not share how dangerous this hobby has become for me, because it is embarrassing). If you want to step-up from there, Goulet has a section for entry level gold nib pens (gold nibs, I regret to inform you, really do make a difference; it’s like switching from margarine to freshly-churned butter). 

I also got quite into dip-pen calligraphy this year when I wanted to spice up my envelopes, and I find the hobby both soothing and stymying in equal measure. My skills really stepped up when I took an online course from The Postman’s Knock, which costs $25 and can be completed on your own time. There are so many great calligraphy courses out there right now -- I recommend following calligraphers like Shinah on Instagram, who often announce courses and tutorials on their feeds -- and a lot of starter kits (this one seems to have everything you really need). And, once you fall down this rabbit hole, there is no better source for all your calligraphy needs than John Neal Booksellers, a site I have to visit sparingly lest it become a problem.

All The Stickers

If you are a Bow Girl like I was (a Bow Girl is basically any child who longed for an American Girl Doll or read a lot of Frances Hodgson Burnett novels), you likely spent your early years obsessed with stickers, dutifully collecting them in those re-usable albums that had glossy, Teflon-like pages. I found that when I started writing letters, this long-buried love came roaring back, and now I am officially a Sticker Person. I’ve recommended it here before, but the Violette Sticker Club, which sends a chonky envelope of stickers to your door every month, is a blessed thing. Lately, all the cool #Penpalooza people seem to also have this exquisite book of Antiquarian stickers. If you want to include larger, vinyl stickers in your letters as extras, I quite like these vintage travel inspired ones that remind me of old suitcases you only see in the movies. 

Ephemera Kits and Flat Extras

If following a bunch of mail art makers on Instagram has taught me anything besides the fact that I’ll never measure up, it’s that the savviest letter artists these days are including a bunch of random ephemera in each envelope they send. This is not a requirement, by any means, but should you want to tuck old recipe cards or photographs or bits of sheet music into your letters, Etsy makes that easy with pre-made ephemera packs galore (seriously, just search “ephemera pack,” it’s a bonanza). If you are looking for other things that mail flat that you want to tuck into envelopes as little bonus items, there is always tea (I like these foil-wrapped bags from the Baltimore Tea Company), cloth patches, and K-beauty face masks. I also love to laminate old things (see the matchbookmarks above) to send along, and if this is the year you want to get into laminating, you can find pretty decent machines for under $50 to get started. 

Letter Storage Boxes

Where do you keep your letters? I was going with “old shoe box” until recently, when I bought a 1950’s hat box off of EBay that now gives me great pleasure to open whenever I file a letter away. There are also these understated grey heather boxes that would work well, or this gorgeous Anna Griffin floral box that I covet at the moment. Yes, this year has been so topsy-turvy that I now covet a box. Also, if you are into vintage stamps at the moment and are looking for a good storage option for those, why not try a tackle box?

Liz’s Gifting Corner

The great Liz Maguire, who helps to answer Penpalooza emails/make matches, has three gift suggestions of her own! Here they are!

“I loved this Christmas Pukka Tea Calendar -- it's 24 sachets of different teas -- for days where I felt like matching a description to a pen pal or just randomly plucking a colorful little envelope to slip in! Also spoiler! If you're my pen pal, look away...I got these super cute Christmas Notepads to slip a few pages into my Holiday Cards this year. A pen pal from Georgia, U.S.A. sent me a few sheets of letter paper this summer and I got hooked on the idea that a sheet of paper from my notepad could get to someone else's desk and onwards to another person from there! Finally, vintage things and letters aren't often far from my mind as curator of Flea Market Love Letters. So when I saw these love letter stickers I knew they had to go into my letters!  Love to see them pop up on Twitter from time to time.”

AND LASTLY: A #Penpalooza Mug!

There are many more things I could put in this guide -- embossing tools, scented candles to write by, incense papers you can mail, a tiny camera that will allow you to print out snapshots instantly and mail them -- but I will expand on those things in future letters. So, I will just leave you with the ultimate gift for #Penpalooza devotees, this mug designed by the intrepid illustrator Sara Crump. She had to briefly close her Etsy shop, so the best way to get your hands on one (she is selling them for $20 plus shipping) is to email her at sara.crump at Sara wanted me to say that she may not be able to get you a mug by Christmas, but she is making them (on her very own mug press!) as fast as her hands can go :)

OK -- that’s it. You made it to the end!

See you all in 2021. A note that this newsletter is going to likely come out only once a month in the new year, as I begin to work on an upcoming coffee table book for Penguin Random House called Women of Letters, which will chart the history of women’s written correspondences and will include original, tear-out stationery at the end a la Griffin and Sabine (I can’t wait! My most sincere dream was to one day have my own Griffin and Sabine). In the meantime, THANK YOU ALL AGAIN for taking part in #Penpalooza. Please keep sharing your letters and experiences with the tag. I look at every post and my heart swells three sizes.

xoxo, Rachel.