in Films: 1920s-1950s

“The Shop Around the Corner”: The Seduction of a Letter

Image courtesy of

Letter writing was a serious undertaking. Before the advent of e-mail, this is how I spent many childhood afternoons. I savored authoring epistles to relatives overseas in America, my two closest pen pals being Tita Florence and Grandma Susan. Tita Florence was my favorite aunt. When my family had moved back to the Philippines from Japan, she babysat my brother, sister, and me. She had a voice that vacillated between girlish and womanly, with one word spoken in a high register and the next dipped down an octave. Although she was of the age in which wearing hot pants was acceptable, she had a penchant for dolls. She could be zany, as well: in a department store restaurant, she once piled paper napkins on a plate onto which I had disgorged my pork strips, then rushed us out in a state of laughter. Tita Florence immigrated to the U.S. when I was about eight, shortly after Grandma Susan, a maternal presence who spent years with each of her seven children so that she could aid in raising their children. My grandmother would write me letters on blue triple folded, air postal stationery, her accounts… as those of my aunt… concentrated on the prosaic; words of wisdom would have spoiled the fun. On my end, I never divulged growing pains because I didn’t have any; I was that carefree. Letter writing was an indulgence for two reasons: to practice my penmanship, which Catholic school had fine-tuned into a calligraphy cursive, and to share in the everyday activities of someone I cared for.

Image courtesy of

Therein was my introduction to the seduction of a letter. I can still feel it – the anxiety for an envelope to be delivered to me that bore my name written in a hand as if it were Santa’s, and the thrill of tearing the seal once the envelope was in my grasp – exactly as it is depicted in “The Shop Around the Corner” (1940), only the letters in the film carry deeper value than the recapitulations of a day. They’re about romance and poetry, aimed at leading the anonymous recipient to the altar:

My heart was trembling as I walked into the post office. And there you were, lying in box two-thirty-seven, and I took you out of your envelope and read you. I read you right there. Oh, Dear Friend… Are you tall or short? Are your eyes brown? Are they blue? Now, don’t tell me. What does it matter so long as our minds meet?

What a tricky endeavor it is when the pair of quill love birds are Alfred Kralik (James Stewart) and Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan), sales attendants at a gift shop who detest each other in person. He is the head salesman. She is his new assistant. He sees her as meddlesome. She sees him as cocky. He calls her “cold and snippy like an old maid.” She calls him “an insignificant little clerk.” Unbeknownst to them, Alfred had answered Klara’s newspaper ad for a pen pal shortly before her employment.  This is the majesty of their situation – they’re in love with each other and they don’t realize it.

Image courtesy of

75 years after the release of “The Shop Around the Corner,” we have the speediness of e-mail and online dating sites, where we impart our hobbies, biographies, likes and dislikes to millions of strangers at the click of a button.,, and in addition to sites that target specific ethnicities, professions, and ages… they are all over the internet. They’re a benefit to the world; many people can asseverate their success. And yet, the impersonality of black font on a white screen and single sentences typed in haste as an afterthought can never replace the soul of a letter. Take it from a veteran recipient. If you’ve been following my blog, then you know of Jonas (, my Paris friend. Had his letters been computer generated, I would not have been able to run my fingertips on the indentations of his words, trace the flow of his script, and gaze at the ink that had streamed from his pen as he cherished me in his thoughts. His flowers would have been stock images copied and pasted from the internet rather than hand painted. Of his typewritten letters, I would not be able to admire his dedication as manifested by the cross edits and white outs, appreciate how he labored over an archaic machine just for me.

A story can itself be a love letter. I write erotica. I recently gave an anthology that contains one of my pieces to a guy I just met. I had introduced myself at a bar where he works. Since he revealed himself to be a voracious reader, I figured sharing with him an expression of my creativity would be an apt way to connect. I had scratched out a character’s name in one section and replaced it with his, and on the front page I had scrawled an inscription: Thank you for your conversation and hospitality. You made me feel at home at 440 Castro. The next time I saw him, I asked if he had read my story. He said, “Unfortunately, I haven’t had the chance.” Why would he have? Although it’s a touching piece – two frat brothers experience the exhilaration and ache of first love – I had not written it with him in mind. We haven’t spoken since other than exchanged a perfunctory hello. (

Image courtesy of

Imagine what would have been had Alfred Kralik not responded to Klara Novak’s ad. They would never have discovered the virtues each possesses, spelled out on sheets of paper the weight of gold, original documents their generation would not have today’s technology to photocopy or save on a memory stick. I keep in an antique chest my own letters from Grandma Susan, Tita Florence, Jonas and so many others who have gone either due to nature’s course or a divergence in our joined path, all of them postmarked in an era that recedes further into the distant past upon each passing year.

Write a Comment