Amherst business uses Internet technology to promote the art of letter-writing

Last modified: Tuesday, October 15, 2013

AMHERST — During his family’s summer vacation on Martha’s Vineyard, President Barack Obama brought a 1,200-page tome containing letters written by staffers who worked on his 2012 campaign.

The book was possible because of a website created in Amherst, where more than 600 members of Obama’s re-election team, Obama for America, logged on to compose personal accounts for the president.

These letters were then delivered to an Agawam company, where they were printed and bound, before the book was returned to Amherst where a hand-made cover and slipcase crafted from gray pinstripe suit fabric, embossed with “OFA,” were added. The finished product was then delivered to the president.

Agustin Schapira and Anita Licis-Ribak, the Amherst couple behind the website, said their enterprise aims to make the Internet a place that recreates the intimacy of writing personalized notes.

“We are using technology to design that experience for people to do things they used to do and love,” Licis-Ribak said.

The couple, she an immigrant from Latvia and he an immigrant from Argentina who met while graduate students at the University of Massachusetts, are part of what they describe as the “slow Web” movement, which has goals of going against the instant gratification of the digital age by using technology to encourage old-fashioned behavior.

“It’s fascinating to create the experience of slowing down,” Schapira said. “The book is the way to make it concrete.”

“There is nothing like the tactile experience of holding the book and feeling the paper,” Licis-Ribak said.

From A Birdie was conceived four years ago when Licis-Ribak was approaching a milestone birthday. Schapira contacted her friends and asked them to log onto the website he created, where he encouraged them to write private online greetings to her.

The morning of her birthday, Licis-Ribak got an email directing her to the website, where she discovered that people, over a month’s time, had written long letters that included heart-warming memories, short stories and poems, drafted in Russian, Spanish, Latvian, Italian and English.

“You can just imagine at the end of reading thinking that was the best thing I ever received for my birthday,” Licis-Ribak said. “I looked at Agustin and said, ‘Can we do this for others?’ ”

What both Licis-Ribak and Schapira observed was that because these letters were not delivered instantly, her friends took more time and wrote deeper, more meaningful compositions than they would have simply saying “happy birthday” on a social media site like Facebook.

“It felt more serious than sending email,” Schapira said. “We’d forgotten people cared about this. Apparently the desire is there.”

Since then, they’ve kept From A Birdie active, relying mostly on word of mouth, though also seeing occasional mentions on technology blogs. “Every couple of weeks people found it,” Licis-Ribak said.

Over the past four years, 7,000 people have used the website, at no cost, for 700 occasions, including birthdays and welcoming home returning military.

When people visit the site, they schedule the event and create a unique URL that they then send to people they hope will participate. When these people get the email, they can log in and begin their compositions, with the option of uploading photos or graphics.

It wasn’t until they saw the interest from Obama’s staff, and the possibilities in publishing and making works of art, that they felt they had something both unique and potentially profitable.

While this service remains free, they say some users will want hard copies that would be keepsakes, rather than just collecting the letters online. This is what they hope will become a profitable business.

“At this point, we decided to take this more seriously,” Schapira said.

In fact, they both have quit their day jobs, Licis-Ribak as an architect and interior designer for Steffian-Bradley Architects in Enfield, Conn., and Schapira as a computer programmer for Comcast.

In February, when the Obama project was unfolding, Licis-Ribak began consulting with bookbinders to determine whether such a large book could be bound, discovering that a technique known as oversewn binding was needed. They got in touch with Bridgeport National Bindery in Agawam, which uses a 100-year-old machine to bind books.

Schapira also did some computer programming so From A Birdie could collect photos, drawings and letters and also to increase the capacity of the servers. The website has an algorithm to put the compositions in book form and send directly to the computers at Bridgeport, where books are printed on demand.

“This is made possible by the technology. This wouldn’t have been possible five years ago,” Schapira said.

Once the Obama book was printed, it was shipped back to Licis-Ribak to build the cover, working with Candice Bradbury-Carlin, a local artist familiar with textures, and then handed over to chief operating officer Ann Marie Habershaw to deliver to the president. The couple included a letter detailing their immigrant experience, which Obama responded to with a hand-signed letter they have since framed.

Licis-Ribak said she likes to get involved in the hand-crafted process in which different fabrics can be used to create the covers and slip cases. Licis-Ribak is currently making two books that are essentially art projects for her.

“We’re trying to work with local printers and material suppliers as much as we can,” Licis-Ribak said.

“Creating these books takes a lot of effort,” Schapira said.

They have also sold books to private schools in Philadelphia where children used the site to write to their teachers at the end of the school year. A total of 130 books were printed, each a unique gift to the teachers.

These slim books were printed in Agawam and delivered directly to the schools, where recipients got emotional.

Most recently, Licis-Ribak and Schapira have brought in Michele Zakashanski of Amherst as a business partner to develop From A Birdie into a business that will eventually turn a profit.

One outgrowth is, a sister website powered by From A Birdie being offered to funeral homes. This pilot program will create online life capsules that can be turned into printed memory books.

“Through the variety of people who contribute, it creates a picture of a person that is much more rich,” Schapira said.

This website will be more sophisticated, having information about how writing can help with healing and tips and inspiration for how to write. Psychologists and writer friends are consulting with the couple to offer warm-up hints.

“If we get people to write well, they heal,” Schapira said.

Schapira observes that at the beginning, before any content is made, there is no value, but at the end, once the letters and memories are written, the product is priceless.

“We feel like we’ve stumbled onto something here,” Schapira said.

It is a way, he said, to get people connecting in a more personal way again.

“We’re not trying to do something easy,” Schapira said. “We’re trying to do the mix tapes, not the iTunes.”


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