Cult Shop: the New York stationer for socialites
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
Since 1878, when engraver John Dempsey and businessman George Carroll decided to open a stationery shop on East 14th Street, any New York party that’s any New York party is likely to have been announced with a Dempsey & Carroll invitation. Providing its customers “with luxury writing papers but also advice on etiquette and proper decorum in a variety of social settings”, the business rose to prominence along with the city’s society scene – and it remains New York’s most illustrious stationer.
The hand-engraved notecards, invitations and gift tags on pure cotton paper in white, ecru, grey or Dempsey blue (a deep cornflower), have since served “Katharine Hepburn, Ronald Reagan and George Steinbrenner, who owned the Yankees”, says owner Lauren Marrus. “And Tom Ford just ordered last week. I can tell he’s not shy about it because he put it in his movie,” she says, referring to a scene in Nocturnal Animals where the protagonist’s ex is shown with D&C engraved stationery.
“Our history, our heritage, our craftsmanship” is how Marrus sums up the continued appeal of the smart, awning-fronted shop, now located on Lexington Avenue. Inside, glass-fronted, polished wood cabinets stocked with paper goods and writing accoutrements line the walls. Two writing tables and upholstered chairs wait for those who like to come in for “a single thank-you note or card”. “They’ll sit down and write it in the shop,” explains Marrus. It is a space purposefully designed not to feel overly commercial. “It doesn’t look like a shop; it looks like a library in an Upper East Side apartment or a nice London flat. It has a very warm feeling”.
Ready-to-buy products include notecards engraved with a golden frog brandishing a Martini, printed with New York taxis ($65 for 10) or a single red heart ($55 for 10), and invitations bearing a golden bumblebee and, in neat print, “You are invited for…” ($50 for 10). Thank-you cards for sheepish party guests that read “[...] regrets her behaviour at [...]” ($40 for 10) “are always a favourite among our clients”, says Marrus.
The back half of the store houses paper samples and inks in “in every colour of the rainbow”, and is where clients can design bespoke monogrammed stationery, invitations or announcements. “We can accommodate most requests,” explains Marrus breezily, from painted corners to handpainted borders, bevelled edges, hand-calligraphy, invitation assembly and envelope addressing. Her personal bespoke order is monogrammed light grey, thick, four-ply notecards with handpainted grey edges and grey tissue paper-lined envelopes.
Marrus’s ability to balance traditional service with playful design (one recent notecard is topped with a red rooster) has ensured the shop’s appeal carries from generation to generation. “We might have done your grandmother’s wedding. How do we make sure we do your wedding and your children’s weddings?” she says. But success wasn’t always on the cards. When Marrus purchased the business in 2004, it was bankrupt and run down by the rise of digitalised communications. She renovated the space and opened the shop on 15 September 2008 – the day that Lehman Brothers collapsed. It was her idea to make business cards, and “that January was one of our biggest months ever”, she recalls. “A lot of people were looking for jobs. So we needed to shift to where the market [was] growing.”
Before long, Marrus had restored the shop to its former cultural prominence. When Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer-winning novel The Goldfinch came out in 2013, Dempsey & Carroll was delighted to discover its stationery in the pages, in the hands of the kindly, antique-collecting, Park Avenue-residing mother-figure Mrs Barbour, who responds to her letters with “a line or two on her monogrammed correspondence cards from Dempsey & Carroll”. “We feel proud of that,” says Marrus with a smile.