Early on, I made note: most kids don’t look forward to much of anything that follows the words “Back-to-School.” It often seemed I was the one student who enthusiastically embraced the prospect of back-to-school supplies: three-ring binder, loose-leaf paper, marbled composition books, pocket folders, fresh pens and pencils, and, of course, the pouch to store them in.

made in california seal
Michael Schwab

Back then, nothing signaled a new beginning quite like the full sweep through the stationery aisle and choosing my statement for the year: Op art? Earnest ecology? Basic blue canvas binder?

This article appears in the Fall 2022 issue of Alta Journal.
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Those once-a-year browsing trips are the bedrock of my pen-and-paper obsession, an infatuation that continues to this day.

I spend a large amount of time at keyboards, filling up virtual pages; it’s the format in which, as a journalist, I file my finished pieces. But my old habit of writing longhand, which has always been a way to tap into how I feel—and sound—is still very much part of my process. It even survived the reproach of a long-ago editor who blanched when he saw me scratching out a lede on a yellow legal pad in pencil. On deadline. “No time for that!” I never repeated the outrage—in his presence.

Nowadays, free of a newsroom setting, I find that if the topic is complex and my thoughts are fast-moving, my impulse is still to step away from the blinking cursor and reach for my tools of choice—a favorite pen and notebook.

A few years back, I was searching for a special notebook on the shelves of my neighborhood bookstore’s stationery section—something more grown-up, elegant but sturdy, different from my default college-ruled, wire-bound workhorses. I was beginning an important project, and those new, crisp pages would be its designated workspace.

The simplicity of what I found called to me, made me almost wistful: a notebook with a plain brown-bag-looking cover, brass-tone wire rings, off-white paper. Its lightweight yet firm back promised durability, everyday-carry potential. Centered low on the back cover, the embossed logo announced, “Iron Curtain Press/Los Angeles.” If I had been wavering, this hometown declaration would have decided it.

shorthand note book
Christina Gandolfo

Some months later, I learned that Iron Curtain Press, the printshop and maker of that eye-catching notebook, had opened a brick-and-mortar store in L.A.’s Highland Park neighborhood and had named it after the press’s stationery line, Shorthand. The news arrived via a friend’s brief text: “OMG, I thought of you immediately!!!!” She followed up with snapshots of a sweet storefront—its hand-painted window sign and a sidewalk sandwich board announcing Shorthand’s grand opening. I was there in days.

Inside, I found an eclectic range of unique, made-in-house letterpress cards, notebooks, and task pads alongside all manner of stationery-store staples from the world over—erasers, scissors, calendars, pouches, binder clips, all in a rainbow of colorways—catering to a clientele ranging from intrigued beginner to veteran professional. It was a blast of nostalgia. I lingered over the options, then purchased a pack of Blackwing pencils; a delicate wooden micro-tipped, Japan-made ballpoint pen; memo pads; and squat reporter’s notebooks, for writer friends who also puzzle out their first thoughts on paper.

That first love, Shorthand’s Standard Notebook, still provides a perfect launchpad. There is no rigid spine, allowing it to lie flat. The paper’s surface is smooth yet sturdy enough to handle a range of writing instruments and media: pencil, fine-point felt-tip, gel roller, fountain pen—all of which can be found at the shop. And if you time your visit right, you can catch a glimpse of the staff in the back, working through orders and inventory on their beautiful letterpress.

Those old-fashioned stationery stores, once plentiful, now rapidly vanishing, have always symbolized possibility to me: a brand-new season, a brand-new page, a brand-new chance. With the right tools, you can create something with the flourish of your style, in your own hand.

That tactile connection was important for me, especially during the earliest weeks of the pandemic, when, like so many others, I felt marooned on an unfamiliar island. I needed to take a break from the various screens upon which I’d begun to train—and strain—my eyes. I wanted to connect with loved ones, but without the interruption of adrenaline spikes of breaking news and deadline demands. Instead of texting or emailing, I crafted handwritten notes, attempting to untangle the enormity of what I was feeling. Shorthand had acquired a limited batch of handmade stationery that perfectly fit my needs—envelopes made from old Thomas Guide street maps of Southern California, the navigational bible of my childhood. Sentence by sentence, I was able to get my bearings. As I reminded loved ones of their place in my heart, pen to paper, I reminded myself of the deep source it all comes from.•