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Publetters: a social throwback to when pen met paper placed in a bar setting

IIn Paddy's Old City Pub, where neon beer signs gleam through the cigarette smoke, Mick Kae has a decision to make.

At a Publetters event at Paddy's Pub, Tara McCray (left) and Melody Jones put pen to paper and write letters. (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)
At a Publetters event at Paddy's Pub, Tara McCray (left) and Melody Jones put pen to paper and write letters. (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)Read more

In Paddy's Old City Pub, where neon beer signs gleam through the cigarette smoke, Mick Kae has a decision to make.

"I don't know if I should write to my exes or what," Kae says, plucking an envelope from a stack provided by Casa Papel, a stationer in Northern Liberties. "I'm debating whether to actually kick a dead horse. It seems to make them angry when I communicate with them, no matter what the form."

He decides to give it a shot. After all, making connections is the point of Publetters, a series of free letter-writing events held at bars around the city.

These throwback Tuesdays are coordinated by Michael McGettigan, an analog nostalgist who previously engineered a series of "type-ins," before coming up with this even lower-tech concept. He found that the older he got, the more he wanted to make authentic connections with people. Letter-writing achieves that.

"It's my contention that anyone can write a decent letter in the space of two drinks," he says. "Three and it might get maudlin."

After the owner of another bar, Doobie's, noticed him writing a letter over a beer, they came up with the idea - the antidote to the proliferation of cellphone-lit "bluefaces" in bars around town.

McGettigan organized the first Publetters in July at Doobie's, and attracted about 20 participants. By the end of the month, he'd mailed out 200 missives.

Of course, some letters are best left unwritten.

Kae throws down his pen and tears up the partially addressed envelope.

"No, that's just wrong," he says with a laugh. "I am not writing to my ex."

McGettigan is ready with alternatives. He's compiled a list of mailing addresses, including Operation Gratitude, which delivers to troops, and assorted celebrities.

He's seen attendees pen letters to the pope ("I leaned over one woman's shoulder to take a look, and it was all about UFOs"); to elected officials (condolences were extended to Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian over the demise of the casinos); and to Russian President Vladimir Putin's U.S. public relations representative ("I just thought that was a thankless job," McGettigan explains).

Though turnout this evening, election night, is light, everyone at the bar is participating.

Bartender Katie Kenny has written a love note to "a special someone," and antiqued it with tea and a few minutes in a hot oven, obtaining a result that's, perhaps, more war-torn than vintage.

Still, she says, "He'll put it in his Bible and save it forever. I think it's really precious when someone takes the time out to write a letter. It's meaningful. It's deep."

Kae, who has moved on to a new project, has something else in mind: "I'm trying to get this guy to Philly so he can buy a me a steak. He owes me a steak dinner. This is a collection letter."

Nearby, Alexander Test is surrounded by cans of Miller Lite and ashtrays of smoldering Camel cigarettes as he wrestles with something more fraught: a letter to a friend "in jail in North Carolina on trumped-up charges." It's not the first piece of prison mail at Publetters. Despite the weighty subject matter, Test says, "This is probably the funnest I've had at a bar in a while."

Carol Lydon of South Philadelphia has been to the event four times, writing to politicians, a longtime pen pal in Ireland, and her mother.

"I wrote to the pope - and I got a letter back. So I was excited," she said.

McGettigan believes the appeal of this pastime has to do with the privacy letter-writing offers, and the permanence of a tangible document - as compared with e-mails and texts that can be forwarded, hacked, or deleted.

Nestor Torres has skin in this game: He's the owner of Casa Papel. But his interest goes beyond that. He's started writing to his 6-year-old son, creating a new family tradition.

"It's about seeing the expression on his face as he receives a letter in the mail," Torres says.

On a more basic level, there are the simple tactile and aesthetic pleasures of dragging pen across paper, folding it up, sealing it, and selecting just the right stamp.

McGettigan, whose Northern Liberties bicycle shop, Trophy Bikes, is the official stamp sponsor, offers a binder filled with postage possibilities, leading letter-writers to obsess at length over whether the recipient is more Ray Charles or Janis Joplin, Batman or Jimi Hendrix.

"Human beings have opposable thumbs, and there's something really unsatisfying about sliding your finger around on a piece of glass," he says. "Writing puts you in a completely different frame of mind than keyboarding."

One millennial, attending a previous Publetters event, claimed not to have written a letter on paper before. Others, he says, had to send multiple texts, asking, "No, what's ur REAL address?"

He points to studies that link writing by hand with benefits in child-brain development - and broods over the demise of those skills. He once did an informal poll of city schools, and found that about half no longer teach cursive writing.

"If we lose the ability to read cursive, we're cut off from our past," he said. "It's hard for me to read the Constitution, but I can."

While letter-writing is traditionally a solitary pursuit, it turns out it can be social. McGettigan thinks pen and paper can be about as effective at breaking down interpersonal barriers as smartphones are at erecting them. As Kae says, "If you get stamps, you can do this at home - but it's not as much fun."

The event continues at Paddy's, at 228 Race St., on Tuesdays in November from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., then moves to Doobies (2201 Lombard St.) Dec. 2, and to Standard Tap (Second and Poplar streets) Dec. 9. More dates are at

McGettigan hopes the event will grow, but he's willing to let it be a slow build. He sends out about 30 to 50 postcards monthly to a growing mailing list, and leaves fliers around town.

But his promotional efforts have their limits.

"Someone said, 'Do you have an e-mail list?' I said, 'That just seems wrong.' "