Taking stock

Walter Benjamin, Jenny Diski and the detachment of stationary cupboards

One of my favourite pieces of writing by Walter Benjamin is his short reflective piece ‘Unpacking my Library'. Reunited with his books after a period of seperation, Benjamin uses the moment of reunification to reflect on what they mean to him. Surrounded by dust, he retrieves the books from their crates and thinks about the attachment that collectors have to the objects they have collected. We share a biography with these objects, he points out. As Benjamin explains, it is like we see through these items and into our own pasts. The tactile relations with these objects are important for how we see ourselves.

The stationary cupboard is nothing like that, the objects are impersonal, unfamiliar and new. They are unlike the books to which a collector builds a connection. Yet, for some reason it reminds me of Benjamin's essay. Maybe it is the combination of order and disorder that Benjamin observes in the book collection. Stationary cupboards have that blend too. Perhaps it is just the same type of dusty materiality that Benjamin describes and which is echoed in the ambiance of these functional spaces.

The sheer utility of it all. The items moving toward uselessness, the treasury tag and the whole punch, to the always necessary, the red ballpoint pen, the envelope (of various sizes) and the spiral lined notepad. Things that, to different extents, are needed to do a job.

The feel and materiality of the stationary cupboard was captured and brought to life in a 2014 London Review of Books piece by the writer Jenny Diski. Her descriptions capture the tone and surfaces of the space. In ‘Post-its, push pins, pencils’ Diski reflects, with some reverence, on the stationary cupboard’s presence, role and contents.

Diski observes, and allow me to quote at length, that:

‘The secret beating heart of the dream office is the stationery cupboard, the ideal kind, the one that opens to enough depth to allow you to walk in and close the door behind you. No one does close the door – it would be weird – but the perfect stationery cupboard is one in which you could be perfectly alone with floor-to-ceiling shelves laden with neat stacks of packets, piles and boxes, lined up, tidy, everything patiently waiting for you to take one from the top, or open the lid and grab a handful. It’s fully stocked with more than one of everything and plenty to spare. Sundries. In bulk. A dozen of; assorted; multi-buys; bumper bundles. Paper in quires and reams, flimsy, economy and letter quality, neatly contained in perfectly folded paper packets…Refills and spares. A cornucopia of everything you would never run out of. Paper glued into pads or notebooks. Lined and unlined. Spiral, perfect bound, reporter. Envelopes with and without windows. Ring binders. Snap binders. Box files. Sticky white circles to reinforce the holes made by paper punches. Paper punches. Green string tags to go through the holes. Labels. So many blank labels. White, coloured, all shapes and sizes. And a mechanical labeller with plastic tape to emboss. More than enough supplies so that if a thing is done wrongly, spoiled or not quite right, mistyped, misspelled, holes punched in the wrong place, pencil broken, you throw it away and get a fresh one from the stationery cupboard that never runs out because it is there always to provide more.’

That is such an evocative passage - all those celebrated mundanities. It’s one of those bits of writing that makes you notice familiar things, or see them differently at least. Noticing can be a powerful thing.

For such an ordinary little room, Diski notices those same sort of qualities that Benjamin also captured. There is a kind of wonder at the objects that goes beyond their mere functionality. In this case it is no so much about attachment, as it was for Benjamin, but the joy of detachment. It is the replacability of the objects that Diski enjoys, rather than their unique aura. Everything is in volume and never ending stock - this seems to be a type of comfort to Diski. The stationary cupboard is an inexhaustible resource, a reliable place to get the things that are needed.

Diski’s piece goes on to acknowledge this appeal of abundance. She explains that it is:

‘Perhaps this idea of the overflowing, generous stationery cupboard that permitted what was badly done to be dispensed with and a new start made was a source of my reprehensible and ill-timed tendency to rejoice in waste. The pleasures of the clean new page, or a stiff unmarked notebook, the sharp perfectly conical tip of an unused pencil, the crisp blank blue of an unmarked carbon or a black unstruck typewriter ribbon, cloth or plastic. All there, waiting to replace whatever had run out or run down or been botched. And photocopier stuff. Typewriter ribbons. Post-it notes. Push pins, tin tacks, staples, rubbers, rubber bands, Tipp-Ex tape and white-out paint like nail varnish. Boxes of pencils, biros, coloured pencils, rulers, cheaper by the dozen. The stationery cupboard, the smell and silence of office necessities. Whenever I find myself in an office – occasionally the one that produces this paper – I have to restrain myself from asking to be shown to the stationery cupboard so that I can gaze on it and inhale the scent. Part bookish, part chemical. Papery. Inky. Metallic.’

Those descriptions of the bits and pieces still holds. Any stationary cupboard is likely to have them - including the odour. They are the things that give it its identity. Generous, overflowing, as Diski puts it. The smells and bits. In this account, the stationary cupboard is a space of abundance. Reassuring abundance. The pleasure of the new. With abundance comes waste.

Not everything is new though. The stationary cupboard can be a space of reclamation as well as disposability. There is a joy to be had in re-use too. The old plastic binder box has always been one of my favourites. These are narrow bits of plastic that slide down the edges of some gathered papers to make a spine. They turn any assorted papers into a book. I hesitate to say they were secondhand, because many looked much older than that. Reused multiple times, they begin to bare the marks that give them a sense of history - rather than the freshness of an untorn page or a yet to be ripped and stuck post-it. Some of the gathered items have a biography of sorts - a bit closer to the one Benjamin wrote of.

Diski also talks of ‘the sanctuary of the cupboard’. A place of fleeting escape. It does always seem quiet and hushed. It's probably the way the stacked shelves absorb sound. I remremember a cramped photo library providing a similar type of refuge for me in a job I held a couple of decades ago.

Diski’s piece closes by reflecting on the likelihood that the ‘sumptuous stationary cupboard’ is becoming rare. The stationary cupboard is unlikely to thrive in the paperless office. Less waste is a crucial step, it must happen. These miniature rooms in some ways represent an era if wastefulness. But maybe the stationary cupboard could be maintained like a small museum of more material times. Its dimensions will render it an otherwise useless space anyway. Occasionally some of its items will still be needed, and others could be stocked to maintain the spaces unique characteristics. Even if no one ever uses some of this stuff, at least they give the space a certain feel and provide a sense of security: if in the unlikely event that we ever need some labels or a glue stick, they are there. The stationary cupboard might yet remain a place to take stock.