Magazine June 8, 2009, Issue

Office Manners

The question going round the dinner table was: Do you have any secret pleasures of a mentionable kind? The subsequent confessions displayed various degrees of weirdness: the lady who sings show tunes in her car, the middle-aged man who climbs trees when no one is looking, the book-sniffer. (Some people go to bookstores to buy books; others, apparently, just want to smell them.) When my turn came, I knew this was a heaven-sent opportunity to unbosom myself of my own secret passion.

“Stationery,” I declared.

An odd sort of silence fell. Then the tree-climber ventured: “With an ‘e,’ right?”

That’s right, stationery with an “e.” (The difference was immortalized, at least in England, on one of those vulgar comic postcards George Orwell wrote a famous essay about. A gorgeous female store assistant is being addressed by a callow-looking young man. He: “Excuse me, Miss, do you keep stationery?” She: “Well, sometimes I wriggle a bit.”) Stationery! I love the stuff. Paper, pens, notepads, folders, envelopes, markers, erasers, staples, push pins, paper clips, bulldog clips, poster board, display board, foam board, desk furniture . . . A stationery store is to me — what? Aladdin’s cave? Pah! What did Aladdin know? You can’t do anything with a mess of rubies. 

The Staples chain of home-office suppliers has an outlet a couple of miles away. It needs an effort of will for me to drive straight past the place without pulling in. The store layout is uninspired, but what a variety of items to peer at, fondle, or puzzle over! For my mellower moods there is an “independent” in the village, within walking distance. Their prices are a tad higher than the chain store’s, but the arrangements are less utilitarian, and for some items the independent is the only place. They have high-quality letter paper in every conceivable thickness, tint, and degree of smoothness. Watermarked? Yes! The only thing missing from those particular shelves, I find myself thinking, is a sign saying: exclusive, for the carriage trade. 

People don’t realize how much ancient lore is hidden here in the stationery-store aisles. For example: No true stationery buff would speak of the “thickness” of paper, as I just did, unless condescending to an audience of the unenlightened, as I just was. It’s always “weight.” Then you have the quantification tables. How many sheets in a quire? Quires in a ream? Reams in a bale? There are actually three different systems. What do they know of paper, who only paper know? Long, long ago — it was 1976, I think — my employer sent me on a course to learn about “the paperless office.” Ha! Immanentize the eschaton, would you? Today, a third of a century on, one whole zone of Staples is filled with crates and boxes of paper. See hubris brought low! 

When the paper is printed up with lines on it, you enter a separate realm of wonder, an annex to the cave of delights. One of my earliest adventures in papyrophilia (papyrasty?) occurred in my early teens. I discovered, from a book a kind teacher lent me, that a point on the mathematical plane may be defined not only by humdrum x and y according to the Cartesian scheme, but also by r (straight-line distance from a given point) and theta (the angle separating the two points from a given line). I at once wanted to know whether there was some r-theta graph paper, equivalent to ordinary square-ruled x-y graph paper. Diligent enquiries around my small English country town turned up a business-products supplier who did indeed stock “polar” graph paper, heaven only knows why. I spent a week’s allowance on a pad of the stuff, and lost myself for hours plotting cardioids, lemniscates, and equiangular spirals. And that same store stocked logarithmic graph paper, too — both log-linear and log-log!

There were at that time no real stationery stores for the ordinary consumer. Mum and Dad bought writing paper from the store that delivered their newspapers and sold candy and cigarettes. Anything more elaborate, like the drawing instruments required for school geometry, came from a bookstore, or from the five-and-dime. Businesspeople had specialty suppliers working out of cluttered back-street lofts, like my graph-paper guys. 

It was the rise of the home office in the 1980s that brought the joys of promiscuous stationery-buying to a mass public. Ryman’s was the first British chain — still in business, the Internet tells me. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive! — to roam untrammeled between racks of ring binders and loose-leaf folders, Scotch tape and glue sticks, pausing now and then to caress a particularly well-formed desk-lamp, or to part with trembling fingers the soft pink folds of “specialty” note-paper. What the 1960s were for the rest of Western humanity, the 1980s were for us stationery hounds — liberation!

It turned a bit sour, of course, as those things always do. With retail commercialization came uniformity and some loss of mystery. Staples does not stock polar graph paper — nor even the older, bolder style of air-mail envelopes, with blue and red flashes around the edges. The personal computer seems to have put the kibosh on templates, too — those plastic sheets you could lay on a page and trace shapes through. I have one here from my programming days, trademarked — yes! — the IBM Corporation, with cutouts of all the common flowcharting symbols (don’t ask). I have geographical templates, too — one for Great Britain, and another for Europe. What do they avail me, in this gloom of exile?

To Staples, then, to cheer myself up. As always, I linger longest at the “notions” shelves, looking at those things I don’t really need but might just buy anyway: optimizers and organizers — their very names suggesting they will do the work for you! — and letter trays and sorting racks, penholders and bookends, gizmos for cutting paper precisely or extracting unwanted staples. Hole-punches are, alas, a closed book. I bought one last year, a magnificent vertical model with a mighty handle, that will punch through thirty sheets at a time. My kids, who use it far more than I do, call it The Beast. My hole-punching needs are satisfied for a while. I do rather like the look of those rotating desk organizers, though . . .

John Derbyshire — Mr. Derbyshire is a former contributing editor of National Review.

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