A chalkboard stands propped up on a side alley in the 798 art district bearing a handwritten message: “798 Art & Travel Post — This is a special place requiring a special state of mind to do a special thing — write letters.”
The 798 Art & Travel Post, affectionately known as the Panda Slow Post, is special indeed. Here, visitors sit in cozy nooks writing letters to loved ones and leave it in Panda’s safekeeping until a specified date in the future. When the delivery date is near, Panda staff retrieves the letters from a safe-box at China Merchant Bank and send them off as pleasant surprises to the unsuspecting recipients.
Although the business is mailing letters, the team behind Panda prefers to think of it as “safekeeping sentiments.”
Zhao Yue, the company’s 26-year-old creative director and one of its three founders, explained how it started. A colleague traveled to Lijiang and sent Zhao a postcard. When the colleague returned, the post card still hadn’t arrived, “At first, we joked about snail mail, Zhao said, but the joke blossomed into a business.
At the time, Zhao was working on lifestyle investment projects in her regular job. Inspired, she started planning Panda Slow Post in October 2008 and it opened for business in February last year.
“Life moves at such a fast pace. We offer people a chance to slow down and reflect,” says store employee, Liu Ying. Liu was so attracted to the idea when she read about Panda in the press late last year she quit her job and came to the store.
“I showed up and talked to the operations director. I thought that if there wasn’t a job available I could just deliver the mail.”
Liu was hired and now stands behind the counter at Panda.
She recounts the stories behind some of her favorite letters. A girl came in to write a letter to heaven, addressed to her deceased father. An elderly Taiwanese man wrote a letter to his future grandson, whom he might not live to see. A boy going abroad to study sent a letter to his parents expressing his love and gratitude, to be mailed after his departure.
By its first anniversary, Panda had amassed more than ten thousand letters in its safe. The letter destined for farthest date in the future is to be mailed in 2069. A young couple asked to receive it on their 60th wedding anniversary.
The biggest worry for Panda’s customers and its management team is the fate of the letters if the company ceases to exist before all the letters are delivered.
Zhao, acknowledged the problem and said, “For a company or an individual, the most important thing is trust. Whether or not Panda Slow Post is still around as a business in the future, we as individuals promise to fulfill our responsibility and deliver the letters.”
Others share Zhao’s commitment. Liu Ying said: “the management team has discussed this issue with us. As long as this group of people is still around, even if the company has fallen apart, we can still personally deliver the letters. If we are no longer around, there will be our children, and our grandchildren.”
Panda already has a network of volunteers who can help with delivery if the company stops operating.
This loyal following may well widen as the company expands its micro blog, rolls out new services (such as delivery by hand), and goes through with discussions for a book or short film based on their story.
Despite their enthusiasm, it’s clear that Panda Slow Post is still a start-up. Aside from the question of how to ensure future delivery, the company is also trying to work out its pricing scheme.
In 2009, the store opened with novelty prices, charging 9 yuan for a letter delivered in 2009,11 yuan for a letter dated for 2011, and so on.
This year, prices have been revised to a 10-yuan starting rate (for letters delivered within one year) and 5 yuan extra for each additional year.
When asked if the new prices take into account future inflation in storage and postage prices, the Panda team replies that this is a “developing business”, adding that current prices were “unlikely to change” again in 2010.
Visitors seem generally unconcerned. Some two hundred people drop in daily. Eighty percent end up mailing something, mostly dated for delivery within two years. While Panda’s popularity surged based on a few sentimental stories, the majority of visitors are just looking for light-hearted fun.
Long Huijin, a student from Hunan, is sending a card for her friend’s birthday on March 1. An elderly Japanese lady, Tomiko Kikuchi, who is a tea instructor based in Yokohama, came to see for herself after hearing about Panda from a friend who had come earlier. Hong Qishun, a tourist from Taiwan, selected a “Best Employee Certificate” card for each of his employees back home as a souvenir. Bai Xiaolong perused the store’s many guest book, filled with visitors’ heartfelt messages, while his girlfriend Sun Nianan wrote a letter to her sister.
At the cash register, Liu rang up a sale, 44 yuan for two postcards, envelopes, and postage to Singapore. It isn’t cheap but then again, what is the price of time stolen out of a busy day to sit down, reflect, and write a letter?