July 1, 2019 • Sarah Schwartz
Oblation Papers & Press: A Paper Passion Project
Born on a honeymoon, Oblation has blossomed into a couple’s labor of love
Oblation Papers & Press is many things. Part stationery shop, part urban paper mill, part letterpress print shop, the sprawling Portland, Oregon, destination was founded by married couple Jennifer and Ron Rich. The first seeds of it were planted in the first days of their marriage.
“We began our life in handmade paper on our month-long honeymoon on the Oregon coast, tossing sea pods and grasses into a blender, and spreading the rough-hewn sheets of paper across every horizontal surface in our rented studio by the sea,” Jennifer recalled. “We later sold it at the Eugene Saturday Market, then at arts and craft shows across the West Coast, before opening a retail venue in Portland.”
“Opening this retail store in 1998, the focus was to gather as many beautiful papers of the world into one space and offer this to the local community. It was actually kind of a surprise to find that we were now in ‘retail’!” laughed Ron.
Portland’s Pearl District was an ideal spot in which to first open their doors. “(It’s) an evolving arts-industrial neighborhood in downtown Portland,” described Jennifer. “When we first moved in, the Henry Weinhard train cars would blow by our storefront early in the mornings, hauling hops to their brewery. Now there’s a new micro-brewery popping up in the Pearl nearly every month! Along with independent shops and eateries, and of course, Powell’s City of Books, just a few blocks away.”
As the area evolved, so too did Oblation. “From our papermaking beginnings, setting up studios in chicken coops and goat barns, we discovered letterpress printing early. In 1994, we bought our first letterpress — on Jennifer’s birthday! — and learned how to print wedding invitations from a 1940s technical guide book, with me milling the tiny spacers between letters from wood, and me typesetting invitations with lead type,” Ron remembered. “In 1998 we renovated our early space in the Pearl, and opened the retail store with a view into the letterpress print shop and paper making studio, doubling our space after a few years to reach current capacity.”
Today the shop spans 5,000 square feet, with half dedicated to retail and half to production. But since the shop evolved organically, its offerings did as well.
The merchandise mix encompasses beautiful paper goods, fountain pens, a wall of vintage typewriters and lots and lots of paper ephemera. And there is truly something for every customer who walks in the door: Prices can run up to $1,500 for a fountain pen or $15 for a greeting card, but letterpress offcuts and little charms are available for just 25 cents.
Custom stationery comprises a healthy chunk of their business. To that end, Oblation Papers & Press has released a wedding invitation album every few years since 1994, with a new letterpress album slated for introduction at the end of this year. Expect to see original calligraphy, full-deckled handmade paper with gold foil, not to mention many new designs.
One well-traveled spot in the shop is the Hat+Wig+Glove kiosk, dedicated to Ron’s letterpress card range (which, like their wedding invitation album, is also available wholesale). “With the healthy collection of snarky, quirky, and unexpectedly hilarious letterpress quotes in Ron’s line of Hat+Wig+Glove cards, people can spend up to an hour in front of that thing, snickering and laughing out loud,” Jennifer observed.
With so much going on under its humble roof, staffers number between 15 and 20 at any one time. This supportive community of creative co-workers includes designers, printers, papermakers, production artisans, customer service assistants and retail salespeople.
EVENTS & PROMOTIONS
The distinctive character of Oblation’s offerings — as well as its weather — dictates what is happening there on any given day. “When Oregon rains don’t strike too hard, we place a ‘Public Typing Station’ on the sidewalk, for anyone to sit down and pour their heart out with a tap-tap-tap,” Ron detailed. “This April a new letter-writing guild will gather at Oblation, to learn the etiquette of epistolary and support each other in letter writing pursuits.”
Monthly promotions are always a big draw with its clientele. May’s for example was a generous 20 percent off all pens. And a new release is always cause for celebration, Jennifer noted. “We just had a ‘wine & watercolor’ launch party, for our brand of new vegan handmade watercolor paper! People came out of the woodwork to taste the local ‘woven wineworks’ harvest blends, and to play with watercolor paints on our deckle-edged watercolor papers.”
Meet-ups are regularly held for traveler’s notebooks, bullet journals, and letter writing. And their catalog card program gets a lot of traction too. To participate, customers pull an alphabetized card from a vintage card catalog to list their next six purchases; then they receive a 10% discount on their following purchase.
Oblation also offers a deluxe gift-wrapping service, which is especially popular with men wishing to make a splash around the holidays.
As we go to press, Oblation was about to announce the results of their wedding invitation giveaway. The lucky prize winner, who will receive 100 letterpressed invitations valued at $450, was chosen at random from those who completed an entry form after liking Oblation on Facebook and following on Instagram and tagging a friend on a post there.
LOOKING BACK, LOOKING FORWARD
Over the years, there have been a few missteps, Ron remembered. “In 2005 Oblation opened a second store, in a suburban lifestyle mall near Portland, called Bridgeport Village. The organizers were soliciting local businesses to lend authenticity to the project and draw a crowd of shoppers. Although we were told by others, ‘The day I closed my second store was the best day of my life,’ our entrepreneurial side took over, and we dove into the project. One by one, all of the local stores defected, but it was a long, difficult process, that did not end easily.”
One long-term goal is to make www. oblationpapers.com as dynamic an experience as visiting the store, Jennifer emphasized. “In five years, we would like to see the Oblation website as an equal purchasing platform in the experience of our loyal customers. We are currently curating our website to delight online shoppers with the familiar aesthetic found in our brick and mortar store, offering papers, pens, gifts and invitations in a beautiful, educational environment.”