Columbus, Ohio USA
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On Paper
Call it an oasis, call it breathing room...

March 2006
by Karen Edwards

Photos by Gus Brunsmann III

Joan Schnee, owner of On Paper, 737 N. High Street.

On Paper, the small, narrow store at 737 N. High Street, is a retreat from laptops and desktops, from cell phones and iPODs. Instead, it’s a celebration of human connection, the kind that comes through heartfelt messages scribbled on paper with personality – as opposed to documents spewed from printers. It’s a place for writers, artists, lovers, and everyone who values authentic communication.

Start with the paper. Owner Joan Schnee did.

Although Schnee, a New York native, has a degree in Fine Arts, majoring in set and costume design, she built her career in retail, where she designed store space and displays for major players like Macy’s and the Limited. But it was the paper she lived for – the paper she handmade at home, then turned into collages and greeting cards to give to friends.

She came to Columbus as a Limited employee, but eventually left to open On Paper.

“It’s the classic model of taking something you love and doing it for money,” she says.

On Paper opened its doors in August 1997, and although she received plenty of disparaging words from friends – “no one in Columbus is going to pay eight dollars for a greeting card” – the shop was instantly successful.

She attributes much of that to the Short North clientele, which, she says, has a strong, aesthetic sense. But it could just as easily be attributed to a society that hungers for paper, real paper that has weight and texture and color and design.

The paper
So start with the paper.

At On Paper, it hangs from the walls and fills slots and compartments all over the store. Exquisite handmade paper from around the world shares space with stationery in technicolor and sherbet hues. There’s wrapping paper and journals, invitations and those one-of-a-kind greeting cards that sell for eight dollars, more or less.

“The card prices run from about three dollars up to fourteen,” says Schnee. But that’s a reasonable price to pay for an original work of art.

“Some of my clients take the cards home and frame them,” she says.

You may even find one of Schnee’s cards among the mix, although she says these days she’s really too busy to pursue the hobby that brought her to On Paper.

The large art sheets that hang from dowels on the wall – most of them imported – are breathtaking works of art as well. Lacy, filmy looking papers, glittery papers with metallic threads, flower-infused papers – all add a touch of exotica to the paper landscape.

Schnee says she has lately, reluctantly cut back on the number of art sheets. “They’re just not big sellers,” she notes.

And, like any shop, On Paper’s merchandise is necessarily market-driven.

That means the cards, thank-you notes and stationery take center stage, yet the store’s real bread and butter comes from sales made in two private rooms located off the main selling floor.

For brides
This is bridal territory.

“We carry wedding invitations from some of the top name designers,” she says. Large albums filled with samples from Crane’s, Julie Holcomb, and Arak Kanovsky among others are at the bride’s disposal.
Yet it’s the store’s in-house, On Paper Press that generates many of the orders.

“We have an in-house graphic designer who can work with the bride to produce a customized invitation,” says Schnee.

With such selection, it’s no wonder that one-on-one private consultations with a bride can last anywhere from two to five hours.

“We want the bride to be happy with what she’s ordering,” says Schnee.

These days, more and more brides are designing their own wedding invitations. Schnee attributes it to the influence of Martha Stewart and a new freedom to veer away from tradition.

“Typically, the Midwest is more conservative, but we’re starting to see brides injecting color into their invitations,” she says.

The colors reflect the latest fashion or home color trend – fuschia, for example, or blue-and-brown combinations. Some brides opt for bold, primary colors.

It makes the invitations unique, says Schnee – and in today’s automated, technologically driven world, that individuality is important.

It’s what drives customers to her shop.

Internet’s downside
The downside of Internet buying – one of her chief competitors – is that the medium is so one-dimensional. You can see what an envelope or a thank you card looks like, but you can’t really tell how creamy the color is, or what it feels like in the hand. Is it smooth, or is there texture? Does it have some weight, or is it ethereally light and delicate? That’s the kind of sensual experience a store like On Paper provides.

Besides, says Schnee, shopping on the Internet is so, well, anti-social. If you’re looking for some way to communicate your style, your grace, your individuality, how much better to work with another human who can help you define that, than to order off the impersonal Web site of someone who doesn’t know you, or even cares to know you.

“We’re selling more paper than ever before,” says Schnee, “and there is more demand for paper and paper products than ever.”

Stationery, notecards, business cards, and invitations can all become personal extensions of you, your tastes, and your aesthetic style, so, if there is more demand, as Schnee says, chalk it up to an increasing number of people who yearn to be seen as unique.

“I think we’re seeing the affect of too many China and Asian goods flooding the market,” Schnee points out. “Items can be reproduced so quickly and easily that handcrafted goods are becoming more appealing. It is an ever-growing challenge to be unique.”

Paper related
While paper composes the bulk of the store’s merchandise – it’s by no means the only product available.

Anything that relates to paper can be purchased here. And, like the paper, these items can also be intensely personal.

Beautiful fountain pens, for example – along with other items picked up by Schnee at London antique shops, such as vintage inkwells and carved lap desks are examples of merchandise you’re not likely to find elsewhere. On Paper also carries scrapbooking supplies, antique silver letter openers, and sumptuous photo albums, produced by an Italian family that has been handcrafting them since the Renaissance.

Merchandise changes frequently, so if you’ve been to On Paper before, but not recently, it pays to return again and again.

Certainly one way to keep a finger on the store’s pulse is to browse its window display whenever you’re in the area.

“I change the display monthly,” says Schnee.

This is where her artistic, stage-set background becomes obvious. The windows are among the most eye-catching in the area – often built around a season, or a special product.

“One of our windows always features wedding invitations,” says Schnee. She wants to let passersby know she carries them because they’re not visible on the main sales floor.

The displays obviously attract the attention of brides, and women in general. That the store attracts plenty of male customers as well goes back to the argument that everyone today is looking for that ability to communicate a piece of themselves to others.

“Men are just as careful in choosing business cards that express who they are,” says Schnee.

There’s no question that her customer’s search for uniqueness and individuality makes her job as buyer a challenging one.

“It’s the most interesting part of the job for me,” says Schnee. “Because it is such a personal business, and customers have such specific needs, it’s difficult to know exactly what they’re looking for.”

That’s why On Paper’s collection is so eclectic and so broad. Schnee tries to appeal to as many tastes as possible.

Ahead of the curve
In her travels abroad and to gift shows nationally, she says she tries to stay ahead of the curve.

“I’m always looking for ‘what’s next’ – what’s new.”

She says her staff helps. Many who work or have worked for her are connected to the paper arts themselves – card designers and calligraphers.

Perhaps the shop’s most notable personality, however, recently retired.

For years, a black cocker spaniel named Savannah wandered the sales floor, greeting customers as they entered and making them welcome.

“Savannah is alive and well,” Schnee reports. But at 13 years old, her hearing has gone, and naps have become frequent.

“Customers would stop to pet her as she napped and she’d wake up, startled,” Schnee says. So she stays home now – where her naps are uninterrupted.

Although Schnee has toyed with the idea of expanding On Paper to other locations, she’s content, now, to stay the course with just one Short North shop.

“I want to focus on the store, and continue to develop the On Paper Press,” she says.

She envisions On Paper’s own designs for boxed stationery and baby announcements in addition to the wedding invitations they now produce.

It’s reason enough to plan a visit – should you need an excuse.

But you shouldn’t need one. Just go. Browse and breathe in all the colorful ways you have to express yourself to others.

On Paper, 737 N. High Street, Columbus, Ohio • 614.424.6617 • • Hours: Monday - Saturday 10am to 6pm
Paper • Invitations • Personalized Stationery • Fine Writing Instruments • Birth Announcements • Wedding Gifts/Accessories • Embossers and Seals • Personalized Journals/Albums • Custom Printing • Custom Design Service • Calligraphy • Workshops • Corporate Gifts

© 2006 Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio. All rights reserved.