PARK AVENUE’S PAPER PURVEYOR
The Paper Shop owner Ellen Prague Sees Park Avenue Businesses and Her Customers Grow Together Park Avenue’s Paper Purveyor
By Leslie O’Shaughnessy
Winter Park Magazine, October 2011
The Paper Shop owner Ellen Prague Sees Park Avenue Businesses and Her Customers Grow Together On the north corner of Park and Swoope Avenues sits The Paper Shop, one of the longest singularly owned and continuously operated retailers on Park Avenue. After strolling past an old copper kettle bursting with impatiens, guests walk through the shop’s Tiffany blue doors into a world of beauty, taste and tradition.
The shop, open on the Avenue since 1981, is intimate and filled with finery. Customers can meander past a case filled with Cartier and Montegrappa fountain pens and ogle shelves arranged with a beautiful selection of Crane & Co. stationery. The papermaker, famed since the nation’s founding days, gives The Paper Shop its coveted “model store” designation for its wide variety of offerings.
Also on display are decoupage works by artisan John Derian. And the smell of Riguad French candles fills the air (sold in Winter Park exclusively at the shop).
Ellen Prague is the distinguished proprietress of The Paper Shop. There is much more than beautiful paper inside, although there is plenty of that. What is not evident is the depth to which this elegant woman with deep brown eyes and a soft manner has touched the lives of so many during the most meaningful moments of their lives.
Circle Of Life
With a warm smile, exceptional taste, a knack for psychology and a glass of champagne, Prague has guided many anxious brides, often with mother and father in tow, in selecting the perfect invitation for their big day. The wedding invitation, the shot across the bow, a trumpeting of the union – is the first grand step of commitment that a bride makes toward her walk down the aisle.
Whether the bride-to-be is looking to project Southern traditional, or hip urban cool, Prague is there to help navigate the nearly endless choices and, sometimes, emotional waters for a stressed and rattled betrothed. Prague helps put it all in perspective.
“You’re going to walk down the aisle and say ‘I do,’ ” she says. “The rest is details.”
Such was my case – a long-distance bride whose designated liaison approved an invitation with an error to the fiance’s Irish last name; only to realize the mistake barely before the invitations were to be sent. When panic ensued, Prague swept in and with finesse and a velvet hammer was able to save the day and reprint the entire batch of invites in time for the mailing deadline.
What often begins with wedding invitations sets the stage for life’s next big event. In the case of this erstwhile Irish bride, I returned years later to order baby announcements, one with an emerald Claddagh and the other with a shamrock.
Prague now finds herself sitting down with a second generation of clients who are returning with their own daughters and future daughters-in-law as brides-to-be. And so goes a cycle of life, turning like seasons from wedding invites to birth announcements, bar and bat mitzvahs, débutante balls, 50th birthdays, silver anniversaries, retirement parties and finally sympathy announcements.
It is a circle of life that Prague articulates for many families in Central Florida, the celebrations, events and milestones that are so important in the lives of her neighbors, clients and friends.
Embracing The Challenge
“I am crazy about her,” says Cathy Cascio, the mother of a recent bride. “Ellen not only has great taste, but the ability to listen and bridge the wishes of bride and mother so that all their wishes are fulfilled. The process was as beautiful as the end product.”
The wedding invitation often sets the tone. It is a reflection of the bride, her family and the coming event. When Cascio’s daughter, Lauren, was getting married this past spring, the mother turned to Prague for an artistic and original take on the wedding.
Lauren was to be married in a park across the street from the Cascio home, followed by dinner and dancing under the stars. Lauren had a certain vibe in mind for her big day. She wanted enviro-friendly invitations, cotton – not tree paper. She wanted something that reflected her personal tastes.
Prague embraced the challenge and helped orchestrate a vintage Florida postcard save-the-date notice, wedding invitations with vintage stamps, and a custom wedding program and menu. There was even a whimsical post-wedding breakfast invitation complete with a pink watercolor flamingo preening a real feather for fun.
“Lauren was very specific,” Cascio said. “She wanted a very minimal feel, not a lot of paper, with a creative, eclectic vibe. Ellen really heard her, and our guests all said it was ‘so Lauren.’ “
In Love With Paper
Cascio admits she loves paper and is the type of Avenue customer that downtown business owners appreciate.
“I love to buy local and think that places like Ellen’s lend integrity and importance to Park Avenue,” she says. “Every time I went in there to plan for the wedding they were informed and knew what was going on.”
In an age when the Internet offers endless shopping possibilities Cascio counters: “I can’t buy stationery unless I can feel it, or see the product and quality.”
Prague also loves paper and believes in the grace and dignity that a proper letter on beautiful stationery delivers. Today, this tradition and etiquette is often dismissed – replaced by a quick email or hokey electronic card. But to many, the thrill of sending or receiving a handwritten note cannot be replaced.
“When I look at a note on a piece of paper it means the receiver is important,” Prague says. “It means you are worthy of someone’s time. And what is more precious than time?”
It Takes A Village
Having seen the highs and lows of the Park Avenue retail world for more than 30 years, Prague knows the good times and the bad. From her perspective, times are middling right now.
“Last year the economy affected us all,” she says. “But it’s better this year, not back entirely, but it’s encouraging.”
Even in a struggling regional economy, the commercial vacancy rate on Park Avenue is less than 5 percent, according to data provided by the City of Winter Park. It is stores like The Paper Shop that help sustain the downtown business district, city officials say.
“The primary demographic of visitors and customers to Park Avenue are willing to spend for quality,” says city of Winter Park Director of Economic Development Dori DeBord, citing marketing data recently used by the City to evaluate the business district’s marketing potential.
“There is a great blend of cutting-edge modern businesses,” she says about the downtown business district, “but also traditional yet progressive business owners with longevity that have a loyal clientele that continue to return.”
Historical businesses, such as the Paper Shop, help ground the newer vendors on Park Avenue, DeBord says, because “people love continuity, customer service, quality and the charm of seeing old friends who have been there for years.”
In essence it takes a village to make a village.
Still, Prague says that some Central Florida consumers may still perceive faux barriers to shopping in the downtown business district. For example, limited parking downtown “is more perception than reality,” she says. There are enough street spaces, parking lots and parking garages. A reputation for premium prices may also deter some shoppers, she says. “Every store has something for you to buy for a reasonable price.”
One reason for The Paper Shop’s longevity is Prague’s innate sense of effective marketing. For example, Ernest Deloach, a principal in the law firm of Young & Deloach sought Prague’s talents when he launched his law practice.
“First impressions are everything, and Ellen is an incredible business resource,” he says. “I didn’t know what to expect, but she really was a concierge on business etiquette and really helped me launch my business.”
Like her customers, Prague has a great deal of institutional knowledge on what sustains Park Avenue businesses for the long term. For many years she has called for a steady source of income used to market the downtown business district, an initiative that the city is currently studying, and she has an intuitive sense of Park Avenue’s core brand.
Simply put: Prague views Park Avenue as an exclusive street with good restaurants, antiques, and retail that is not the most expensive, but the best in taste and style.
Heart And Soul
In the 1989 movie, Steel Magnolias , it is Truvy’s Beauty Parlor that serves as the community centerpiece of a small Louisiana parish where a close-knit circle of friends, including Truvy Jones (Dolly Parton), Clairee Belcher (Olympia Dukakis), M’Lynn Eatenton (Sally Field) and others, enjoy camaraderie, friendship and advice.
In Winter Park the equivalent may very well be The Paper Shop. In its intimate setting connections are made. It is often a place that mothers previewing invitations for their daughters end up bonding with other mothers over a good hairdresser, a glass of champagne and girl talk. Friendships are born.
“My fun is putting people together who need each other,” Prague says. “I’m more of an expediter. I like connecting with people.”
Along with her husband of 31 years – Winter Park accountant Marty Prague – Ellen Prague has never been afraid to roll up her sleeves to help the community as a volunteer.
“When we first came, the town was different,” she says. “There were fewer people but we met people by getting involved. As a business person, I’m also a part of the community.”
In 1975 she became the president of “Friends of 24,” not the Keifer Sutherland show, but former public television station WMFE Channel 24. In 1976 she became a founding board member of Central Florida Council for Florida House, the state’s “embassy” in Washington, D.C. And she joined the founding board of Coeur de Coeur in 1981, the fundraising arm of the American Heart Association.
Her work on behalf of the Orlando Opera from 1976-1981 spread her talents from publicity chairwoman to production coordinator for La Traviata (1980-81), and she served as both chairman for the Designer Showhouse and interior design coordinator. She is most proud of her work as a founding board member of the Orlando-UCF Shakespeare Festival for 12 years.
Prague enjoys a life full of family and friends. Along with her husband, the parents of three, she now has eight grandchildren and enjoys visits to the beach and to New York for pleasure and for quarterly buying trips for the store. She confesses her best travels are through reading – especially Pat Conroy novels such as Body and Soul that she says she “couldn’t put down.”
Most mornings she swims at 6:00 a.m. for one mile, makes a quick trip to Starbucks, then is off to her shop with her trusted dog, Nikki, at her side. The high season and busiest time for The Paper Shop runs from the third week in October to the first week in June.
During that time Prague will help set in motion holiday parties, family festivities and June brides-to-be. While Nikki holds court, Prague assists her customers with generous ideas and creativity that continue to help make Park Avenue – and the Paper Shop – a discovery as well as a destination for all.