As you’ve probably heard, the United States Postal Service is facing some of its toughest challenges in decades with estimated losses of $10 billion this year and the House of Representatives approving a bill that could end deliveries on Saturdays. And while this is terrible news for every birthday boy and girl waiting for a crisp $20 bill in a card from grandma, for the rest of us life goes on. It goes on in the digital insta-verse: faster, more efficient, better for trees, sure, but also a smidge less wonderful? Who, after all, doesn’t still get a tingle up their spine on those very odd days when a package (not from Amazon or Zappos) is there when they get home from work?
Zach Frechette, founder of Quarterly Co. is hoping to bring a little wonder back to your mailbox by launching a subscription service for physical artifacts. For a $25 fee, subscribers receive packages every three months that have been hand selected by Quarterly Co. partners like Siobhan O’Connor and Alexandra Spunt, co-authors of the book No More Dirty Looks and Alexis Madrigal, a senior editor at The Atlantic, reflecting each contributor’s sensibilities and passions. While none of the contents have yet been announced, they will range from curated consumer products to specially made objects sent directly to subscribers the old-fashioned way.
“We spent the last decade moving as much of our lives online as we could, and we’re better for it,” Frechette, the former editor of GOOD Magazine, tells Fast Company. “But we’ve also learned in that time what things the Internet can’t replace, and the value of tangible things that happen in the real world. For all the innovation that exists in the world of messaging nothing holds a candle to the raw emotional impact of getting something personal in the mail. That is an experience unparalleled in the digital world.”
Quarterly.co isn’t alone in the nascent objects subscription business. The Thing Quarterly, launched in 2007 by San Francisco artists Jonn Herschend and Will Rogan, brings together contributors like Miranda July, who designed a word-art window shade, and James Franco, who created a limited edition “Brad Renfro Forever” switchblade in honor of his friend, an actor who died of a heroin overdose in 2008. Dave Eggers and Mike Mills (the filmmaker and July’s husband, not the R.E.M. bassist) are being tapped for future issues. Annual subscriptions for The Thing are $200, and, according to Herschend, the subscriber base hovers around 500, with a brisk business of non-subscriber one-off sales. Want that Franco switchblade? It can be yours for $650.
Part of the appeal of The Thing is right there in its name: The very thingy-ness of the mystery objects its subscribers receive. “We’re both visual artists into the tactile sense of objects that we consider,” Herschend says. “Everyone has a stone that someone gave them. To the rest of us, it’s not that interesting, but to each of us it is.”
Patricia Maloney, a subscriber to The Thing since its inception, says
she sees the service as a gift that keeps on giving. “When an issue is
due to arrive in the mail, it’s like the week before your birthday when
you were a kid and you know a present is on its way from your favorite
aunt, the cool one who really gets you,” Maloney, 40, the Berkeley-based
director of the online art magazine Art Practical, tells Fast Company. For Maloney, many of The Thing’s issues are more than mere art objects. She proudly uses the cutting board engraved with “crying instructions” from This American Life contributor Starlee Kine and the ceramic wine cups
designed by artist Chris Johanson. Her husband, Smitty Weygant, even
goes so far as to wear issue 7, a pair of eyeglasses printed with text by author Jonathan Lethem.
Frechette summoned similar feelings of personal connection and nostalgia while launching Quarterly.co in Los Angeles. In an introductory Tumblr post headlined “Why I’m Starting Quarterly Co.,” Frechette recalls the pleasures of receiving a care package at summer camp from his mother, an expert at hiding contraband in seemingly mundane sundries.
“An Aspirin bottle was filled with Skittles; a deck of cards was carefully packed with chewing gum; a container of talcum powder was full of Pixie Stix dust; and a stuffed bear had been gutted to house a cache of–wait for it–Gummy bears…This package, and the ones that followed, transformed my summer from one of drudgery and despair to one of clandestine fun and ill-gotten popularity.”
The first Quarterly.co is already sold out, but Frechette plans to add more subscriptions soon. Reading about his mother’s incredible care packaging, one is tempted to wonder if she’ll ever be among his roster of future contributors. “I’m working on getting her,” he says. “But she’s a tough sell.”