The financial crisis is changing the landscape in ways that I have yet to hear anyone talk about. Yes, Borders is gone, and God knows how many other mega chains have been hard hit. There are plenty of those left though. The real toll is on the small, independent merchants.
I took art classes at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education the year my husband was a visiting professor at Boston University’s law school and I was on sabbatical. I loved hanging out in Cambridge, not only because it’s an attractive little town with, as one would expect, several excellent bookstores, but also because of Bob Slate Stationers.
I’ve always loved office supply stores. I shop for office supplies like some women shop for clothes. I love to look at all the different fashions in legal pads and the more esoteric sorts of notepapers. I love files and pocket folders and binders, stamp pads and inks, the little rubber things you put on the end of your fingers to make it easier to turn pages. I love pencils, especially the red marking type that I use for highlighting text, so I can erase the highlighting later if I change my mind. I have a wonderful Faber-Castell pencil with a built in sharpener (not the expensive silver one, but a cheaper, more utilitarian green plastic one of the same design).
Fountain pens are my special passion though. I have a Montblanc, several Namikis and Pelikans, both new and vintage, a couple of Sailors and a no-name vintage pen that I got for $12 from an antique dealer and which had a real, honest to goodness 14K Bock nib. I have a rocker blotter and blotting paper. One would think that I already had every conceivable bit of paraphernalia related to writing, or to office work more generally. Yet I still love spending hours in office supply stores just to make sure that some new item hasn’t surfaced that I would want to add to my collection.
Bob Slate was a real, old-fashioned stationer. It had been a family owned and run business for more than 75 years. Not only did they have all kinds of beautiful laid paper and card stock, they had every type of pad paper in every color and ruling (as in “wide-ruled” and “narrow ruled”), including my favorite, that I could find nowhere else, a white, narrow-ruled legal pad sans the red vertical line that most legal pads have toward the edge of the left side. Bob Slate didn’t merely have Hemingway notebooks, they had every type of notebook and journal and a complete line of Rhodia paper products. They even had refill staples for my miniscule stapler that is about half the size of a Tot stapler and thus very handy to carry with me to class for those occasions when I give in-class essays. Best of all though, they had fountain pens and a staff who understood them. It was the only shop I had ever been in that stocked Pelikan nibs.
I remember thinking, after I discovered Bob Slate, how nice it must be to teach at Harvard, to be able to walk out of one’s office and over to Bob Slate in a matter of minutes! I’d never harbored any ambitions to teach at Harvard. Not that I’d turn down an appointment there, of course. It’s just that I’m a philosopher and jobs for us are so scarce that we tend to be happy to have any kind of teaching position at all. After I discovered Bob Slate though, I began to fantasize about getting a job at Harvard. I’d even take something in theology. That wouldn’t be too much of a stretch. I’m a Kierkegaard scholar, after all. The thought of working in such close proximity to Bob Slate was intoxicating!
I made my usual trek to Bob Slate a couple of years ago when I happened to be in Cambridge. I didn’t go to the main store, but to the one on Church Street, one of the two smaller satellite stores, just for a change. After satisfying myself that there was nothing new I needed, I bought some tiny staples and several of my favorite legal pads. I was surprised, however, when the woman at the register stamped “No Returns” on my receipt.
“Why no returns?” I asked.
“We’re closing,” she explained.
“Closing?” I said still dangling my little paper bag of purchases in midair. “Is it only this store that’s closing?” I asked hopefully.
“No,” she said, “they’re all closing.”
So that’s it. Bob Slate is gone. And now, suddenly, the idea of teaching at Harvard seems less attractive. I still wouldn’t turn down a position there. I’m not a blithering idiot or anything. But the idea of teaching there no longer has the romantic associations it had for me when I could imagine myself doing my weekly shopping for office supplies at Bob Slate, treating myself occasionally to Rhodia’s luxuriant version of the Hemingway notebook, chatting with the person behind the pen counter about the relative merits of rigid versus flexible nibs.
I’m afraid I may be coming across as flippant. I’m not. I’m devastated. Bob Slate is gone and I fear it may have been the last shop of its kind in existence, or at least the last on this side of the Atlantic. I don’t think I’ll ever get over the loss of such shops. They’ve been gradually disappearing for many years, those little stationer’s shops I remember from when I was a child. It was hugely important to me that they weren’t all gone yet, that there was a least one that looked as if it stood a good chance of surviving into the indeterminate future, surviving perhaps as long as I would. It was hugely important to me that there would be at least something left of the world of my childhood, something that could still have meaning for me as an adult.
This post appeared originally on the blog on my old website on April 16, 2011. I learned today, however, that Bob Slate was purchased by Laura Donohue, a longtime customer of store in the summer of 2011. The store has a new location. It’s now at 30 Brattle Street. Judging from the write-ups it received on its reopening, it appears to be doing well. Still, I figured a little PR wouldn’t hurt, so I decided to repost this piece.