[Chandra Greer] A few years ago, while in New York City for the National Stationery Show, we headed to the West Village to check out Greenwich Letterpress, a stationery shop we’d long admired from afar. Owned by Beth Salvini and her sister and brother-in-law, Amy and Pete Swanson, it is an indie design paradise reflecting their desire to nurture this segment of the paper goods market. We saw a lot of things we’d never seen before, and when it comes to stationery we’ve been around the world three times and back.
We also fell in love with their eponymous line of unique cards and invitations. And we fell in love with Beth, who, when we introduced ourselves, couldn’t have been more warm and welcoming, even going so far as to point out things she thought we should carry at Greer! That was the beginning of our friendship and we could not wait to interview this generous, brilliant and provocative entrepreneur.
You’ve owned Greenwich Letterpress for seven years. How old were you when you opened the store?
We have shoes older than that. How did you know at such a young age you wanted to be a stationer?
I always liked paper everything. So did my sister. I remember our parents taking us to paper shops when we were kids and always receiving journals, notebooks and little stationery gifts from them. Somehow stickers and sticker books and all of that Lisa Frank child-of-the-’80s stuff spoke to us. When my mom took me to Staples as a kid, all I ever wanted to buy was paper office supplies. Especially those pink message pads for missed phone calls, I loved those even though no one was calling me. Ha!
Before we decided to open Greenwich Letterpess, I was trying to be a professional painter, and Amy was working in graphic design. We both found ourselves still uncertain about what we really wanted to do with our careers when our mom — a trained painter and designer with a great eye — tore out an article about a letterpress printer in California and passed it along to Amy. Done!
Originally it was going to be just Amy, a letterpress and a wedding book. Then I decided to give up my painting studio and dive in with her, which is when the retail part came in. What’s astonishing is I can hardly tell you how the rest of the details came together. It was a whirlwind. I equate the opening of the shop to this scenario: turning to your best friend in the world and asking when you first met, and you both have no idea. All you know is it’s one of the best decisions you’ve ever made.
I also have to mention that my father is the third or fourth man in his family to run a print shop. It’s in the DNA, it just has to be! Cosmically — yes, I’m holding a crystal — we are carrying on the family printing legacy. In general, our parents were extremely supportive in the beginning, and they still are.
What’s it like partnering with your sister and her husband? Some people can’t even handle that equation at Thanksgiving dinner.
You want to know how is it to work with a married couple that happens to include your sister? Every time I tell a new person in my life about this setup they look appalled. But the three of us are equals, and I can’t imagine anyone else I’d want to do this with. There’s a security with family, nobody’s walking away or emptying the bank account and fleeing to Ibiza. The reality is that it’s great. We respect each other and know each other so well that we can operate in more efficient ways. I know how Amy’s brain works and vice versa. Then I just ask her how Pete’s brain works and we go from there.
You do custom work and wholesale and retail. How do you keep all of this going?
At this point we have accepted that it’s probably too much, but there’s no turning back. We all drank the Greenwich Letterpress Kool-Aid, it’s just our way of life. We are in charge of different aspects of the shop and then we sort of overlap when necessary. There is a feeling that it’s all work all the time, but that is the nature of running your own business. With both our father and Pete’s father owning businesses when we were kids, none of us are strangers to seeing the work and sacrifice that go into this kind of lifestyle.
One of the things we love most about you is your passion for supporting independent designers.
Independent designers, for the most part, have the ability to make more exciting, cutting-edge, fearless work. I know it’s not saving lives or jumping out of planes, but the ability to take the risk of self expression is pretty important in our field. You and I share a similar sense of humor, so you know how exciting it is to see imagery/humor/writing on a card that is shocking or unexpected or at the very least original.
When people ask why “these cards” and not the endless wall of cards at The Big Drugstore, that’s why. It’s hard to find something there that takes a risk; they tend to be more mainstream with words somebody was paid to write. Indie designers don’t usually put greetings in their cards, so what starts as a cost or manufacturing issue actually puts the buyer in a great position by default. They have to write their own message, their own greeting, their own feelings inside that blank card. Blank canvases are terrifying to some people, and those people should definitely keep frequenting the card aisle at Duane Reade, where the work is done for you. That’s just not as interesting to me, and I think the people who buy indie cards feel the same way.
How does a designer get your attention?
I panic when people walk in with their cards to show me; I never want to tell people no. When we first opened, I looked at Etsy and design blogs every day all day. I went to all of the craft fairs. I would e-mail people who had cool stuff I’d never seen before, stuff I knew wasn’t in NYC. I think that was a good time to buy that way, but now those venues are all heavily saturated, making it a bit harder to see clearly — know what I mean? Those sources are very overwhelming to me now. The past few years we have really stayed with designers we love, and we support all of their new releases. From time to time we bring in new lines, but now I find them in more obvious places like trade shows.
And how do you decide what to buy at those shows?
I just buy what I like. I can’t see doing it any other way.
We’ve heard you say that if you start to see any of your designers “everywhere” it makes you less likely to carry them. Tell us about that.
This is a tough one. I have had this conversation with some of the designers you are referring to. This dilemma is a product of our culture: You can get anything, anywhere, at any time. In the beginning we were able to have things that were unique, that I knew you couldn’t buy in any other shop in the city — not an easy feat. It’s not surprising that large chains have caught wind of these talented, small designers and are bringing them into their stores. For us, though, you start to feel like how can we maintain offering special things to people if they can walk into a big store and see them there too? I love these stores, but it complicates what we can or will continue to order. I have heard the disappointment from friends who have designed items that wind up in sale bins in larger venues but remain a hit in our shop. I worry about special, handcrafted items being cheapened. That is the real issue.
What do you think is the current and future state of the stationery industry?
I don’t know if we are in a unique spot in NYC, but given the enthusiasm and support of our customers, I would say stationery has a pulse and maybe it’s growing stronger. I hear people talk all the time about technology fatigue and how buying cards or having notecards made sort of gives them room to breathe. When people fill out cards in the shop on the go, if you just watch them for a moment they are calm and thinking and writing. It might have been the first moment they “stopped” all day like that. It might be the only thing they wrote by hand all day. As much as we love and use technology at the store and at home, I hope there is a time when it stalls, and people remember how to use a pen again.
How is having a store in the highest of high-profile cities?
Because the shop is in the public, and even when we are closed it’s out there for people to see and look into the windows, I feel a lot of pressure for it to look good all the time. It’s exhausting. When you are in the public eye, you have an obligation to be at the top of your game. If you slip, especially in a place like New York, people will let you know.
On the flip side, when you do great work there are a lot of really supportive and interesting people around that see it. We have many very cool customers who get the shop and like what we do and that’s the big payoff, not $$$. At the end of the day it’s what keeps us going and makes us want to be better, make better work, give people a better experience in our shop. I think Amy and Pete feel the personal successes differently, but I know when I’m chatting with customers who’ve been coming in for years, that’s my biggest accomplishment, the relationships you have to earn and build.
So, speaking of high-profile and customers, while we were doing this interview your sister told you Sean Penn just walked into your shop.
I cant believe I just missed Mr. Madonna!
Boy, you are a child of the ‘80s. What’s your favorite celebrity shop story?
Louis CK came in around the holidays with Parker Posey. He tried to ask me about a gift card for his daughter, and I couldn’t look him in the eye because I have a huge crush on him. Then he wanted to buy something “plain,” and I said while staring at the floor, “We don’t really do plain here,” and he said, looking around, “No, I can see that, it’s really cool.” Then I ran away.
Not everyone can say they ran away from Louis CK. You’re active on Twitter and Facebook. Talk about the paradox of being a stationer who knows her way around cyberspace.
Social media is tough. I think striking the balance between supporting all of the great online venues for expression while not being hypocritical in regard to owning, making and selling stationery is a tricky one. Sometimes I think, what if people had to physically write down all of the things they type so thoughtlessly and effortlessly on Facebook and Twitter or in text messages? It would make people pause and ultimately rethink and discard the majority of those thoughts and feelings. You can see how heavy the weight of the written word is if you watch anyone fill out a greeting card or write a letter. You just don’t get that level of concern when it comes to using social media. Everything winds up being a potential throwaway.
You aren’t going to print out and keep your favorite text or tweet, but if that same idea was written and mailed to you, suddenly that physical object means so much more. I have boxes of notes and letters my friends and I passed back and forth all through high school. Every now and then I look through them, and there is an energy and feeling that scrolling back through years of comments on Facebook could never match. I guess at the end of the day I don’t like that social media means no more boxes of notes stashed under beds, just lots of potentially excessive, meaningless and unnecessary words stored in computer chips. How sad.
We’ve talked about merging our businesses into one stationery behemoth, but until we work that out what are your immediate plans for growth?
Why yes, we have. Was there alcohol involved?
There may have been.
Ha! We are continuing to grow our wholesale line and adding new kinds of products to it almost on a monthly basis. We are also working on launching new wedding designs — very exciting! Amy designs our wedding invitations and has been so busy with custom design, we haven’t added new work to our in-stock wedding book in years. Our newest little project is that we now have a tabletop press in the shop and are making short run letterpress notecards on the spot. The turnaround is a day or two: You could be on vacation in the city and go home with personalized stationery. We are very excited about this! We have wanted a press on site since we opened.
You’re young enough to have a second, even a third act. Anything come to mind?
I think one day having a second shop, maybe outside of NYC, somewhere quiet, could be a nice way to spend some years.
And if you’re in New York, you need to spend some time at Greenwich Letterpress, 39 Christopher Street, or visit online.
On the Wire is a series of monthly conversations with up-and-coming stationery designers who, while tiny in size, are titanic in talent. Our interviews are hosted by Chandra, the owner of Greer (@GREERChicago), an independent stationery shop and website with a longstanding commitment to seeking out and supporting independent designers.