Ann Arbor is already famous for one paper store, the astonishingly beautiful Hollander’s in Kerrytown. For many tourists and locals alike, a stroll through Hollander’s sheets of chiyogami beats a walk in the Arb or a night at Hill. But since 2006 Ann Arbor also has had a much grittier, no-frills paper store, a favorite haunt for artists and crafters.
The sprawling Airport Plaza industrial park that houses Creative Papers isn’t exactly destination shopping, but it has been the incubator for some interesting retail experiments. Most famously, it’s home to Zingerman’s Bakehouse.
Although Creative Papers is on an even drabber block than the Bakehouse’s, owner Susan Butler hasn’t until now given much thought to its curbside appeal. But with Costco due to break ground nearby, probably this spring, she’s anticipating more traffic in the area and has started keeping regular hours–though even when the store is officially open, you have to ring a bell for entry. That’s because the state’s Ann Arbor Parole Office is a few doors down. “It’s never been a problem,” she’s quick to explain, “but I like to get a look at people before I let them in.”
Once you’re in, there’s a small front office where she’s arranged some packaged products. The rest is a 4,000-square-foot open warehouse, filled with twelve-foot shelves of handmade and other specialty papers. The few aisles that aren’t crammed with paper are crammed with related supplies like dried flowers, felt leaves, ribbons, twine, and blank books.
Butler fell in love with paper in 2001. Temporarily unemployed, and at home with a small child, she wanted to make a collage and bought some fancy paper on the Internet. Soon she had a garage full of it and was selling it on eBay. By 2006 she had outgrown the garage and moved into Airport Plaza.
Most handmade papers, her specialty, come from India, Nepal, and Thailand, and are made by hand from leftovers or weeds. Talking to Butler about handmade or any other kind of paper is like opening an urgent, voluble encyclopedia with lots of hyperlinks. “In India, paper is mostly made from reclaimed cotton and denim, and in Thailand and Nepal it’s made from mulberry and lokta plants–a lot of people pronounce that ‘lock-ta,’ but it’s ‘loke-ta,’ by the way, not that it really matters–plants that are similar in their rampancy–” (she pauses, wondering if she’s invented the word “rampancy”) “to kudzu here, and by cutting them down they’re able to balance the ecosystem.” Sheets of handmade paper, she adds in another aside, are generally about 20 by 30 inches, the maximum size that can be tended by a human arm span. “Sometimes people wonder why I don’t sell bigger sheets, but they don’t make them bigger, and that’s why.”
A Yale graduate, Butler dismisses her rather startling and verbose smartness with a wave of the hand. “You know, people think Yale sounds really impressive, but it’s just memorization.” Instead, she touts her husband, Barrett Butler, a Delta commercial pilot whose hobby is computers–he made her website–as an example of true brilliance. “He’s as smart as anyone with a PhD. He understands things with a depth of knowledge I can’t wrap my mind around. Obviously he’s got the spatial relations thing going on, but he’s got something else that’s like common sense but goes way beyond it.” Barrett, she says, has been flying since he was sixteen and never completed college. They now have three children and live in Pinckney.
What do people use her papers for? Handmade wedding invitations, for one thing. In fact, Butler was cutting so many custom wedding invitations that she finally bought an industrial-strength guillotine cutter with a digital gauge and laser guide, shortly followed by a die-cutter (she doesn’t make her own dies–not yet anyway) for cutting envelopes and rounded shapes like hearts.
Other uses for paper? Butler wanders down a random aisle. “This one, it’s like a poster. You could frame it. And here’s one from Nepal, with a wax resist. Boom! Lampshade! Here are some papers printed with ancient scripts–these are very popular. Sometimes people make necklaces from them. Not to downplay anyone’s artistic talent, but a lot of these papers do half the work for you. You see a paper and the idea follows.”
Creative Papers, 738 Airport Blvd. Suite 2, 961-4100. Mon., Wed., Fri. noon-6 p.m. handmade-paper.us.