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Sunday Conversation: Tona Bell invites customers to enjoy a 'digital detox'

Tona Bell traces her fascination with writing, pens and stationery back to her childhood. She now owns the Paper Seahorse in SoHo. Photo courtesy of the Dashing Ginger.
Tona Bell traces her fascination with writing, pens and stationery back to her childhood. She now owns the Paper Seahorse in SoHo. Photo courtesy of the Dashing Ginger.
Published Nov. 19, 2017

Like so many small businesses, Saturday will represent a special day for Paper Seahorse owner Tona Bell. Bell's cozy bungalow business at 211 S Howard features paper and stationery, specialty pens, vintage typewriters and crafts classes. It will offer a number of specials for what's officially dubbed "Small Business Saturday" after the more retail-giant driven "Black Friday."

But every day at the Paper Seahorse represents a special day to escape and enjoy life's more relaxing pursuits and lost arts. Bell says writing letters, embracing paper crafts and learning to crochet or knit allows her customers to enjoy a "digital detox" and escape the never-ending demands of the cell phone and the laptop.

Bell recently spoke with Tampa Bay Times columnist Ernest Hooper about how she came into the business after starting Tricycle Studios with her husband Randy Rosenthal, and why she loves it when people come play with her at the store.

How did you go from marketing/advertising to the Paper Seahorse?

I started a video production company with my husband and then it moved into software and technology and healthcare. I did it for 18 years and then I got really sick and I got burned out. I ended up in the emergency room and it was all stress related and I had to say, "Okay, what am I doing with myself?" I think I was literally swimming upstream as opposed to when you're in flow, when you're in harmony with what you're supposed to be doing and how you're supposed to be doing it.

I had wanted to do this business perhaps later down the road, but getting sick made me realize maybe I'm supposed to be doing something else right now. We heard a really good quote: When you're not doing what you're supposed to be doing, on all levels, your body will send error messages, like a computer. I got some error messages, I got a big one. That's when I fired myself and found a replacement and I just kind of jumped in and said, "If I don't do it now, when am I going to do it?"

When I first heard about stationery and paper I thought it was like a throwback to like 1954.

I've always loved paper. My dad always had his special pen case and his special papers. I wasn't allowed to touch it, which made me want to touch it even more. When he wasn't around I would pick it up and see what was inside and he had these cool mechanical pencils. I loved it so much, he finally got me my own, my first fountain pen. I always loved paper and he would always bring me home notebooks and pens from the office. I was just, "Oh my gosh." I guess I learned my love of fine paper from that. My mom has always been creative. She was a stringer for a long time when I was little. We always had a typewriter and she was a writer and an artist. I think that's how these two worlds came together.

So all this time you've had this fondness for writing and paper. Did you write friends?

When I was in elementary school, I always wrote my two grandmothers because one is from Atlanta and the other one was in LaFayette, Georgia. So I had the city grandma and the country grandma. I wrote them thank you notes and letters. Do you remember Big Blue Marble (a 1970s children's television show)? Big Blue Marble was awesome. I loved it. I had so many penpals from Big Blue Marble. That was different than writing my two grandmas. I love anything with pen and paper and I got to use pen and paper and stationery all the time.

So your childhood passion fueled this idea?

It did. When I wanted to do the business and I thought about paper, those were the two things I wanted to do. I loved taking creative classes and I was able to go to some creative retreats when I had my old job. I was looking for other people that were like me and I realized that they're out there. They have craft rooms and they are creative.

Every entrepreneur takes a risk, but weren't you worried that in this email-driven age this business might not work?

Yes, yes, yes. Don't think I didn't think about that. When I looked at it, I looked at paper and stationery and I looked at the fact that we're so digital that people are looking for something different and they're looking for balance. And there's also invitations, we also do custom invitations and handmade invitations. I wanted a space where I could go and take classes that I would want to take: a lettering class, knitting classes, a crochet class, a paper-craft class — learn to make paper flowers, learn to make origami. So when I did financial models, if I could do all of these pieces, I could make a business. We've had slow steady growth. It's working.

When people come here to take classes, what are they looking for?

They're looking to slow down because you can imagine their day. You're in front of the computer and you're running from appointment to appointment, you're on the phone, you're doing all these things. You have kids and you have to get your kids somewhere and your husband needs something and your friend needs something. People carve out time to come here either on a weeknight or on a Saturday to do something for themselves, to use their hands.

You grew up sitting in sewing circles. Tell me about that.

I learned, actually, to sew before I could write because I wanted to sew clothes for my dolls. My mom said, 'Here's how you thread the needle.' It was weird to be able to do all of that before you could read, before you could write. I feel like I've always used my hands like that.

So that same sense of community takes place when you have a class here?

There's something really meditative about using your hands, and you're single-focused. When you're single-focused, you're more relaxed and you're calmer and you're focused on the task at hand, whether it's learning to crochet, whether it's learning to fold a piece of paper or taking your pencil or the nib on your calligraphy pen and make it do something. I think people get lost and they think, 'Oh, I could stay here forever.' I think when people get a taste of that, they realize they can make more with their life. That's really the whole point, is to get people to slow down and be more creative all the time — give them the tools and the ideas and a taste of that so they can go do it again later.

Have some of you're classes become emotional for participants?

I've seen so many people come in — they usually drive from far to come here because there's no other place like this and traffic is so crazy — and they're so stressed out. I say, 'Do you want a glass of wine? Take a minute and breathe.' You can definitely feel the energy and see the change at the end because they've gotten into that flow state and they've become a little more mindful. I guess if you want to yoga and sat there and meditated for an hour, you would probably get the same result. It's just a different way to get to that flow state. I haven't had anyone cry in origami, but I do a lot of journaling and I do more of the self-development classes, and that's when people have breakthroughs. If we're doing a vision board class, people take the time to listen to their subconscious and something that's always been there will come to the forefront. For the first time they will listen to it and say, "Oh my God, I hate my job. I need to have a new job." I've had things like that happen in class and it's awesome. I hope more people do that. You know what's inside, but you don't always listen because there's so much noise and clutter.

Sunday Conversation is edited for brevity and clarity. Contact Ernest Hooper at Follow him @hoop4pyou.