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A letter-perfect business

BY EMILY BUSSE | FEBRUARY 18, 2010 7:30 AM

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Eric Asboe has written a letter every day since October. It’s part of his job.

With the Iowa City company “A Literal Letter Service,” the 26-year-old and his friend, John Engelbrecht, take orders from the Iowa City community and customers around the country to compose and mail letters for someone else.

And the best part? It’s all free.

The letters are more than ink and paper. Written either by hand or on a typewriter, some notes are enhanced with sketches or mini watercolor paintings. Sometimes, they are folded into homemade envelopes of duct tape.

“We’re making little pieces of artwork for one audience member,” Asboe said.

Since 1996, the amount of single-piece, stamped mail has dropped by 45 percent and, in a society of dwindling postal use, Asboe and Engelbrecht’s free service offers a quirky alternative to e-mail, texting, and Tweeting.

“There’s an intentionality of it as opposed to being bored. It’s something you can’t accidentally do,” Asboe said. “I knew how special and great it can be to find a letter waiting for you.”

The idea for <a href=”alls.us”>A Literal Letter Service</a> came from the duo’s job at Public Space One. Originally intended to be a “wacky fundraiser” or publicity stunt for the nonprofit art and performance venue, it has now transformed into a daily job.

“A lot has changed since we started,” Asboe said, noting they have written close to 200 letters. “I didn’t think it would happen as often or go for as long.”

But the originality and novelty of each of their letters keep customers coming back and adding new ones as they send them out.

UI sophomore John Komdat met Engelbrecht, 32, and Asboe when he spotted them sitting at a table during Homecoming weekend with the sign “Free Letter Writing.”

Komdat corresponds with his best friend in Colorado exclusively through letters, so he ordered one right away and gave them a $5 donation.

“I think their company is so cool because they’re always coming up with new neat things that, if you open an envelope one day you’d be like, ‘Wow, who came up with this and decided to mail it to me?’ ” Komdat said. He likes it that they “put their own weird twist on it.”

One letter was typed on the back of a “creepy” photo of a girl wearing fish nets and duct tape, Komdat said, and another was written on Styrofoam and then shrunk in the oven.

This creativity — free of charge — is another reason Asboe and Engelbrecht’s service has sustained on donations alone, Komdat said.

“They’re just incredibly generous guys who are both really into doing something interesting that not everybody thinks of,” Komdat said. “It isn’t a great expense to them, it’s just kind of doing something to make every day a little bit more interesting.”

The order form for an A Literal Letter Service letter, which can be found online, allows the customer to choose which voice he or she wants it written in. “Gracefully gallant,” “light like helium,” “cryptically enigmatic,” “authoritatively empty,” and “super boring” are only a few of the options.

Engelbrecht said his favorite voice to write in is mathematically precise because “no one actually writes letters like that.” But it’s the campy quality of the notes that makes their service so enjoyable, he said. Both he and Asboe sign each letter.

“I think we’ve confused a few grandmas in our time,” Engelbrecht said. “A lot of people are pretty baffled by that happening. Even that is exciting to me. It’s better than receiving a bill.”

Despite their off-beat feel and appreciation for snail mail, Asboe said the point is sparking connections between people that will carry on after their letters are opened.

“If people just started talking on the phone more or Tweeting more, that is just as important to me as writing letters,” Asboe said. “Those sorts of continuations are more important than what we do here.”

Asboe said they don’t know any more about writing letters than they did at the start — “but more about the post office,” Engelbrecht said.

Their eccentric service may seem just as perplexing as the reasons they provide it, but that’s sort of the point, according to their order form.

“It doesn’t make sense on a lot of levels,” it reads. “But we figure that’s all the more reason for doing it … We like to think: If time is money, then we’re indifferent to them both.”


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