photo credit: Linda Barrett
I was sorry to hear recently of the death of Sue Lindstrom, the creative founder of Paper Source. For over two years, I managed the bindery staff for the small in-house bindery there. There were so many great things about the company, just like the fun, funny, thoughtful, lovely products on its store shelves. The grammatically correct tag line also always appealed to me (“every day” instead of “everyday”). The culture of the company was fun and invigorating while always driving us to do our best work.
I know that Sue could be hard on people at times, but she had a way of surrounding herself with the best and most interesting of everything, and that included the people who worked for her. Paper Source had some of the most wonderful people I’ve been fortunate enough to work with, including my direct supervisor, Linda Barrett.
Linda was down to earth, yet romantic enough to believe that a store that sells fine paper should have its own in-house bindery staffed with skilled labor. Kind of stunning, but she made it happen. The bindery was already in full swing when I came on the scene around 2005. There were so many great people I remember fondly: James in the flat paper department, Gretchen, Nicole, and Tito in the third party vendors department, Cindy, Kitz, Annie in design, Luke, all around master of Making Things Happen… sooo many others as well. Fun times!
Paper Source History
I talked to Linda a little recently about Sue and about working for Paper Source. She said that Sue had started out studying textile and fiber arts at SAIC in Chicago. Sue’s father, Ross Wetzel, operated a frame shop in Wilmette where Sue often worked. She was always looking for interesting accent papers for the mats she made, which led her to develop a stash of decorated paper that couldn’t be ordered in single sheets. At that time, the only other store that carried fine decorated paper was Aiko’s Art Materials, a store that specialized in traditional Japanese crafts, books, ikebana, and tea supplies. At some point, Sue took over the frame business, and moved to the current River North location, though it was still known as Wetzel’s. River North at that time was home to many architects and designers who came to know Sue and would ask her advice in their projects. Linda was studying bookbinding at Southern Illinois University, and found she could get rare items such as Davey board and glue brushes through Sue. She remembers Sue going on a tour organized by Marilyn Sward of Japanese papermakers. During the trip, Sue made the decision that that’s all she wanted to do: focus the business on dealing in fine paper. According to Linda, that was one of the most impressive things about Sue, that she could make a decision and immediately put all her weight behind it.
Sue changed the name to Paper Source, though the store came to sell much more than just paper. Some of the things you’d find in the earlier stores are still sold at Paper Source, but since Sue stepped down from the company and moved to New Mexico, the personality of the stores has changed a lot. In the old days, there were so many unusual artists’ materials that did the job like no other! Strange fountain pen inks in hand-lettered glass bottles, unusual shapes of mop brushes in #0 and #0000 sizes that you’d never see at Utrecht, rubber stamps of puzzling images, and of course paper like you’ve never seen before (nor will again) because it was made especially for Sue. Twinrocker made paper to spec for Sue, and the store also carried St. Armand, as well as so many other fine papermakers. The annual warehouse sales, where samples, slightly damaged items, and one-offs were sold, were entirely magical. I still use the full set of Schmincke Calligraphy Gouache and the intriguingly cracked bone folder I got at the warehouse sale, along with so many red polka dot envelopes and scallop-edged cards.
One thing that always amazed me about Paper Source was that it was by far a female dominated environment. And, there were no secretaries! Linda said there were also no titles, something that always frustrated me in my own role there since I was responsible for managing the bindery staff, yet I didn’t have the strict title of Manager. I didn’t realize at the time that was the case for most departments. In any case, Linda said each department head (?) had to rely heavily on her team. I do remember Linda having to spend a lot of time sending email, working late, traveling to new store openings, and even doing some of the scheduling tasks that might be done by secretarial staff in a differently-organized company. There was a lot of pressure at the time since the company was growing fast. Each Monday morning, I got to analyze the sales data for all the stores which would determine how many of each type of book we would make in the bindery. The number of stores doubled during the time I worked there.
As far as our work in the bindery, we worked hard as well. Edition work makes you sweat, but the way I saw it, only in a good way. Doing multiples can help you develop your skills. Working in tandem with others also helps you develop. My teacher at NBSS told us that you had to do 500 of a binding to really learn it, and at Paper Source, I put in my 500 plus!
Our team of 5-ish part time binders cased in thousands of books per month, mostly blank journals and albums destined for sale at the chain’s 20-25 stores nationwide.
Working at Paper Source also helped me take a step back, and get some perspective on the context of hand bookbinding in our modern world. Learning bookbinding at North Bennet Street School was harder than almost anything I’ve ever done. I had no idea how complicated book construction could be: how many different operations there are in the making of a book, how many choices of materials there are, and how the choices at each stage affect the whole. Book conservation, as well, seemed to be continuously fraught with ethical and moral decisions that I just didn’t feel at the time I had the experience or confidence to make. The position at Paper Source was much simpler, and yet the books we sold were incredibly significant to the people who bought them. Wedding albums, baby albums, personal journals and calendars that people carried with them every day were the staple of our work.
When I got the job at Paper Source, I was really fortunate to be working under Linda Barrett. Linda had been friends with Dominic Riley and Michael Burke during her time in San Francisco working for Kozo Art, and so while she readily accepted the pressure of working in the fast-paced Paper Source environment, she also knew and appreciated the type of fine bookbinding I had learned at NBSS. Most of the materials we got to use in the bindery were terrific, starting with the main ingredient: the excellent textblocks made by Diarpell. To this day, I still use Diarpell notebooks and calendars. I just haven’t found anything better! (Full disclosure: I also have some in my Etsy store, particularly the square and panoramic shapes!) And of course, because of Sue’s love of Japanese design, we got to use fine Chiyogami and Yuzen paper when making our albums, journals, and calendars.
It was at Paper Source that I started teaching bookbinding workshops, always in the back room or stock room of one of the Chicago-area stores. In my workshops, I met people who had never made a book before. It was a transformative experience to search for the ways I could make the sophisticated aspects of bookbinding I had learned at NBSS relevant to the general public. I didn’t want what I taught them to just be a one-day fling; I really wanted people to make books forever! This started a love of teaching that still continues.
I know that Sue was tough on her staff at times, but as Linda said, “She wanted everyone to be tougher, to feel good about taking risks.” It was a great experience for me to work for Paper Source in that I got to experience a work environment created by a strong and courageous woman who also surrounded herself with so many intelligent and hard-working women.
Here is a link to Sue’s obituary in the Chicago Tribune if you want to learn more about her.
This shot, and all the shots of the warehouse/bindery/etc, were taken with my antique Sony digital camera, which took floppy discs to operate, so please forgive the focusing/lighting.