September 29, 2014 • Regina Molaro
Staying in Touch
Just like the chic, colorful paper dolls many girls play with during childhood, the fine paper and treasures at the Saratoga Springs, New York, paper and gift boutique PaperDolls of Saratoga are pretty, colorful and quite enchanting.
Cora Burns and Sarah Keefe brought the shop — which won the fourth annual Stationery Trends Trendy Stationer of the Year award — to life. The pair first met years ago when they were both employed at Quad Graphics, a printing company with a location in Wisconsin as well.
Eventually their careers took them in different directions and after stints in Wisconsin and New York City, Burns settled back in Saratoga Springs. Meanwhile, Keefe moved back home to Wisconsin and then to Boston before returning to Saratoga Springs. As fate would have it, the duo reunited at a local event and made a coffee date to catch up.
“We talked about the things we missed about living in a larger city,” Burns said. “At the top of our list was a paper store, so we decided to open one”.
In 2005, PaperDolls of Saratoga debuted on the stylish party scene. Burns and Keefe sold custom invitations via home paper parties while also setting up the brick-and-mortar shop. From the start, their mission was to inspire their clientele to reconnect with others through small yet meaningful actions.
“Whether it be a simple note, the perfectly wrapped present or just a beautiful gift, these simple gestures define us as human beings,” Burns said.
Although Burns and Keefe were both co-owners when they launched the company, Burns is currently the sole proprietor of PaperDolls of Saratoga. The change happened a few years ago when Keefe moved back to Wisconsin for her husband’s job. Of course, the paper devotees still communicate often and Keefe still assists in buying.
What’s in Store
PaperDolls of Saratoga has evolved in other ways. When the store had its debut, it targeted professional women, but those customers eventually married and became stay-at-home moms. Over the years, clients evolved to encompass style savvy brides in their late 20s and early 30s as well as professional men in the mid-40s range. These men love top-notch pens and handsome journals with the same zest women have for chic handbags and sparkly gems.
The shop encompasses 1,300 square feet on a charming street. PaperDolls of Saratoga is stocked with colorful, eye-catching items that fill every nook. Of course, the merchandise displays play a prominent role in engaging customers. To create interest, Burns tends to “up-cycle” old furniture, doors and vintage pieces such as suitcases and typewriters. Then she fuses that shabby chic style with clean, modern items such as glass candlestick holders.
PaperDolls of Saratoga boasts a vast selection of stylish stationery. A colorful wall display presents single pieces in a variety of sizes, available in a rainbow of 20 captivating colors. Boxed note cards from renowned designers such as Lilly Pulitzer and Crane & Co. are mixed with sets from Waste Not Paper and Smudge Ink.
Greeting cards from iconic brands like Sapling Press and Smock are displayed alongside chic cards from local designers such as Fawn Paper Co. Stationery and invitation albums from Crane & Co., Boatman Geller and Classic Impressions round out the assortment. There’s also plenty of pretty wrapping paper and Japanese papers. Top-selling paper brands include Crane & Co., Rifle Paper Co. and Smock. During the summer, horse-themed items exhibit great sell-through.
Stationery prices range from 30 cents for single sheets to $150 for desk sets. Although most gift items are priced at about $50, the shop offers Saratoga Springs-themed cufflinks for $80, as well as some expensive pens. Prices on flat wrapping paper range from $3.75 to $19 for Japanese Chiyogami papers, while journals range from $3 to $40. Wedding invitations average between $1,000 and $2,000 for 100.
On a mission to usher in a truly enticing assortment, Burns often attends trade shows such as National Stationery Show and the NY NOW show.
“I always find unique items when I travel,” Burns said. “My former business partner Sarah still acts as the buyer and scours the Internet in search of products that are different from what the other boutiques in town are selling. We look for classic designs such as engraved stationery and we balance that mix with trendy designs from new collections.”
Although PaperDolls of Saratoga is located in a town with a tourist season, business remains steady year-round. Burns reported that there are “no high-highs or low-lows.” During the slow months, from January through April, the wedding season is in full bloom. When the tourists start flocking to Saratoga in early summer, the wedding invitation business comes to a halt. Once the tourist season wanes in September, the store gears up for the holidays.
“Since we opened, we always had steady growth,” Burns said. “Our early years were very good to us, enabling us to pay off our loans ahead of schedule. Since the recession, we’ve still experienced growth in sales, but not as large a margin. On average we experience a 15 to 20 percent growth rate annually. Once we get our systems and procedures in place, we’ll focus on social media for more growth.”
Fostering a personal connection is always a priority and gives clients a reason to return. The staff goes above and beyond to satisfy clients. They have hand-delivered samples to clients’ homes and personally canceled wedding invitations that already arrived at the post office. They’ve even gone as far as a drive to Vermont to source custom wood boxes for part of an invitation suite.
This sense of personal attention certainly goes a long way. Through referrals, PaperDolls of Saratoga has worked with brides from coast to coast. The shop even gained a customer from Italy who ordered holiday cards after receiving one from another client.
“It always shocks me that there has to be at least 100 paper boutiques between the long distance customer and PaperDolls, but they come here,” Burns said.
Although much of the business has grown via referral marketing, the shop also promotes on Facebook and advertises in local wedding and lifestyle publications. It often lends its services and talent to charitable organizations as well.
Special events have involved promoting the wedding industry at select open houses and bridal shows, hosting in-store parties, offering special Black Friday (which is also the store’s anniversary) sales and running Facebook promotions during holiday time. It also teams up with other local businesses. At press time, Cora was participating in a “Where’s Waldo?” promotion through which several downtown Saratoga stores hide a mini Waldo in their shops for eager customers to find.
With her oldest off to college this fall, Burns has her sights set on unveiling a second location, but for now, this entrepreneurial mom is waiting to see what city her son settles in.
“I’m pushing towards areas that can support a paper store,” she laughed.
Quick Q&A: Cora Burns
Q. There are some things that are timeless — a little black dress or the perfect martini come to mind. What epitomizes “timeless” for you when it comes to stationery?
A. A great pen such as a Vintage Parker 51.
Q. With new stationery designers cropping up daily, how do you recognize the talented entrepreneurs among the hobbyists?
A. I look at how they package their products. If they invest in solidifying their brand and carry that look through to the finished packaging, then they’re serious.
Q. What are your three top-selling vendors?
A. Crane & Co, TokyoMilk and Compendium.
Q. What have you learned about running a stationery business that’s surprised you?
A. The biggest surprise is what I’m truly capable of. I have put down carpet, negotiated contracts and worked as a CEO and CFO. I am also the head of IT, payroll and bookkeeping. As I phase into the next chapter of PaperDolls, I’m surprised at what I’m able to let go of.
Q. If you were a stationery product, what would you be?
A. A letterpress gift enclosure — small, lovely and useful.
Q. What is the best buy under $50?
A. A set of embossed note cards from Classic Impressions, $35.
Q. What is the best splurge?
A. An XL Wall Calendar by One Canoe Two Letterpress, $70.
— By Regina Molaro, special to Stationery Trends