Let's be honest. You can't work in the creative industries without having an all-out obsession with stationery. Pens, pencils, notebooks, pads, rulers, erasers... they're not only an essential to our trade; they also happen to be something nostalgic and wonderful, reminding us of our childhood when happiness was something as straightforward as a new pencil case.
Enter Neal Whittington, the founder of the much-loved stationery shop, Present & Correct. A graduate of Leeds Art College, Neal worked at Unit (now defunct) for 18 months in London before getting a job at Winkreative/Monocle Studios back in 2003. There he worked on branding projects for airlines, hospitality companies and a stationery brand.
Being somewhat obsessed with stationery himself, Neal started Present & Correct in his spare time in 2008, and the online store proved so popular that he quit his full-time job the following year to concentrate on his side project. Today, Present & Correct also has a physical shop on Arlington Way in London, EC1R. We caught up with Neal to find out more about the growing brand.
We have to ask, why the love of stationery?
Stationery has always been something I have loved since I was a kid and had pocket money. And I think that's pretty common, especially if you grew up enjoying drawing and crafts. They come hand in hand, especially if you go on to become a graphic designer! Anything involving different papers, print finishes and binding will strike a chord. Also, I've always loved the aesthetic of being organised, not always the practice of it, though I try.
Do you have a rush of orders in August/September when everyone has that 'Back to School' feeling. When are your busiest periods?
Back to school is busy, Christmas is obviously busy and weirdly January is too. Though perhaps not that weird; it is the monthly equivalent of the first day back at school.
You've been around since 2009, what's changed the most in that time? For better, and for worse?
Getting the physical shop was a big and very welcome change. It's lovely getting to meeting customers from all over the world. Admin has gone up considerably as have general outgoings (rent, VAT, etc.) so that's always pretty boring but inevitable.
There are also so many more people making nice stationery these days, which means there is always something new for us to buy in. Awareness of stationery, beyond the everyday stuff, has also increased. It's having a resurgence and that's always welcome!
This country is still behind Japan, the U.S., Germany, Korea (the countries I think of as being big on stationery) but we are getting there.
Online tools have got better, ways of selling and tracking sales. There are more ways of communicating with customers and followers, and all of these things have become part of the daily routine, and part of having a business.
You sell vintage, as well as new stationery. Where do you source your vintage finds from?
The methods of procurement have become more varied over the years. Originally it was all about markets and car boot sales, and they still play a large part. Now though, we have met a lot of collectors who find things for us and also we have friends overseas who buy things and sell them on to us. So we've unintentionally created a little network of sources.
One of the most fun aspects of Present & Correct is going overseas for the markets, it's really exciting. I never get bored of it, it's quite addictive.
Where are you planning to go next (on one of these sourcing trips)?
This year we're going to Porto, Munich, Berlin and France. Plus when we go on holiday we always look for things too. You never switch off!
Have you had any unusual requests over the years?
Nothing stationery related, ironically. I get a lot of people come into the shop asking random questions, which I always tweet. Examples include: Can I pay my congestion charge here? Do you sell whisks? Do you have anything I can varnish a matchstick boat with? Do you sell face paints or scouring pads? Is this a bike shop? Can I print a Powerpoint file here?
And online people request random things to go with their order. The best so far being 'In my package can you draw a cat and write 'Karl Marx is my bitch'.
Any favourite bits of stationery that you were sad to let go?
A few years ago I found a pile of 1950s French crayons, perfect condition and the most beautiful packaging. I was sad not to have kept one for myself. There have been a few other things, like a lovely metal eraser display stand from an old German shop. A set of geometric rubber stamps I found in London. The nice thing is that there is always something else to take my fancy. Call me fickle.
You have such a great following on social media. What has worked for you?
I really enjoy social media, which I think helps. I also think that if it doesn't come easily then don't force it, there are so many platforms and you find the one that works for you. Each one brings its own positives.
I love Twitter for sharing things we like because I'm addicted to the Internet so it's nice to find useful links for people. And anything amusing I come across. Instagram is purely our images, from out and about and also of products. Pinterest is addictive, though the new algorithm is ruining it a little.
Facebook, sadly, has become difficult and expensive!! It costs us so much for all of our followers to see our posts. We don't put on there as much as we used to. It's a shame. All of these things combined create your own PR, they strengthen what your company is about. I really dislike company profiles which only push their own things, it should be more varied and fun than that.
You're graphic designers. Do you still work in the field, or do you dedicate all your time to Present & Correct?
I really like to when I can but it's becoming harder to do that now. I'm hoping to start doing branding again in the near future, I miss having those kinds of projects to get my teeth into and think now I could perhaps offer more. Not just branding but styling of products and help with social media.
Do you have a good work/life balance?
Anyone who runs their own business will attest to the fact that it can become your life. I always think that what you put in comes back to you but it's also important to do other things and have time off. That's quite hard when your job doesn't feel like work!
I wouldn't go as far as saying that I have a balance but I definitely make sure that there's always something planned which isn't work-related. There is always a holiday of some description to look forward to. I cook and bake a lot, it's not a grand gesture but something which doesn't involve a screen or computer works for me.
Can you offer any tips for other independent sellers who are starting out?
Stick to your guns, find a niche, work hard, take it slow and be patient. Be super aware of what else exists and allow your company to have a personality.
Can you pick five things from your shop that are currently available, and explain why you love each one?
Mail Box – a new product from us in collaboration with Princeton Architectural Press. We love envelopes and graph paper so we combined the two!
Amazing Scissors – we christened them as such, for obvious reasons. First issued in Japan in the 1980s these are still going strong. Unique and usable.
Eraser Collection – this changes often, as and when we find them. I am obsessed with erasers and paper clips. Wherever I go I will seek these things out. Vintage erasers always have great colours and type, we also love the more curious models with brushes.
Clamp Tray – the idea of being able to extend your desk really appeals to us, which is why we stock these beauties. Also, hardware stores are a favourite and these remind us a little of that.
And finally, Clip Chart – the array of clips that have been put out into the world is vast. This is a guide to some of the more iconic patented shapes, all foiled in gold and silver.
Finally, what's in the pipeline for Present & Correct? Anything we should know about?
I'm really happy with where Present & Correct is right now, but I would dearly love a bigger space. I have a lot of things I would like to do in that space, but rents in London are prohibitive. On a smaller scale I've got some more products coming out with Princeton Architectural Press and also some of my own creations this year.
We will be doing something for London Design Festival again, following on from last year's eraser exhibition. A book on Eastern Bloc matchbox labels is also in the works with our friends Maraid Design.