The art of handwritten letters is alive and well, thank you

Megan Johnson, left, of Los Angeles, writes a letter to her mom, who lives in North Carolina, at a gathering of the L.A. Penpal club at Paper Pastries Atelier in downtown Los Angeles.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Old-fashioned is very much in fashion these days.

People are choosing to do the things their grandparents once had to, though perhaps in a more studied way.

Some grow and can their own vegetables and some sew their own clothes.

Some even — don’t be shocked — write letters. The kind that need envelopes and postage.

Not plain white envelopes. Not Forever flag stamps. These modern correspondents go to far greater lengths.

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They hunt down and stockpile eye-catching, uncanceled vintage stamps. They practice calligraphy and learn to make lovely swirls. They seek out small-batch letterpress stationery. Their artfully addressed envelopes, adorned with enough old postage to meet today’s rates, is fit for a hotel bellboy’s tray in a Wes Anderson film.

One evening a month, the L.A. Pen Pal Club meets on the eighth floor of the Spring Arts Tower downtown, in a stationery store festooned with red, white, pink and purple paper hearts.

Paper Pastries Atelier is the studio and shop of Margaret Haas, 30, who launched the club in 2010. Her love affair with letters, she says, began when she was 5 years old in Norwalk and she started making birthday cards — heavy on stickers of kittens and rainbows — that her mother sold to co-workers at her factory job.

Now she does custom calligraphy and stationery design. She uses a laser engraver to create rubber stamps. She sells pens and pencils and a chic array of cards — some made by her, some by others.

She sees it more as vocation than job.

Haas has seven active pen pals in this country and abroad, only two of whom she’s met. One is a founder of the Chicago-based Letter Writers Alliance, dedicated to keeping the art alive, in part by connecting people online.

The group, which has more than 7,000 members, encourages gatherings such as letter-writing socials and envelope-making workshops. It even has a letter-themed book club, whose far-flung members meet via video chat.


Haas says she was nervous recently when she had to lead the discussion on screen about “Ella Minnow Pea: A Novel in Letters” — say it out loud: L-M-N-O-P.

“For a $5 lifetime membership, they’ll set you up with as many pen pals as you like,” she said of the alliance.

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Pen Pal Club co-organizer Victoria Vu met Haas at her club’s very first session, in a Silver Lake shop.

A kindred spirit, Vu says that as a child she used to haunt the greeting card aisle on family supermarket trips. Now she runs a graphic design company called Paper & Type and makes ledgers for people to record, in ink, when correspondence is sent and received, what ground was covered and ideas for replies.

One recent night, they laid out greeting cards, postcards, paper, pen, pencils, rubber stamps, stickers, decorative tape and three of Haas’ five manual typewriters. In the building’s hallway, they arranged a table of snacks: Rice Krispies treats, apple slices, grapes, lemonade.


Soon people were seated at two long tables, busy at work.

Nariné Riley, 25, of Pasadena — who found the club on Instagram — was writing one of numerous cards she would mail to her husband to celebrate his birthday week. In a stylish, striped pencil case, she carried multiple ink options, as well as correction tape for when she made mistakes.

Lydia Clarke, 38, came straight from a long, hot day at Grand Central Market, where she’s a co-owner of DTLA Cheese. She brought Erika Mulan, who tends bar in Pasadena.

Mulan, 33, has a pen pal who used to work at her regular coffee shop. They started writing when he moved to Atlanta, and soon his girlfriend joined in.

At Paper Pastries, Mulan chose light blue stock to send them a postcard and stamped it with the words “snail mail.” From dainty glassine envelopes, she pulled out vintage postage she thought her pen pals would enjoy: a 6-cent pair of ducks in flight, a 15-cent owl.

“They make their own envelopes out of newspaper, sometimes with coffee stains on it,” she said.

For her, letter writing is like keeping a journal. She shares thoughts and experiences that otherwise might go unvoiced. In return, she says, she gets gems, like her friend’s description of the moments just before a tornado touches down.


“He said it gets super quiet, eerie quiet, and the sky turns green. It was really beautiful. I could see it. It stayed with me.”

Clarke sat across from Mulan, armed with sheets of her shop stationery, and practiced a sign off — “Cheers & Cheese,” which she penned right above a stamped golden image of a French bulldog. She said the design by Haas looked just like her dog.

Her hope was to get in the habit of mailing out short notes.

“When you get a letter, it’s not something minimized or clicked away,” she said. “It’s like a breath, a respite in the day.”

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