If you are looking for Michael McGettigan, 64, on a Tuesday night, you are sure to find him in one of Philly’s many bars.
With a hand on a pint of beer and the other on a large briefcase, this Tuesday night McGettigan is at Fergie’s Pub. Propped open on the table, his case reveals an assortment of pens, paper, postcards, envelopes and stamps. It also contains lists with addresses of celebrities, athletes, politicians, and other “notables” that McGettigan collects through various methods and sites, such as IMDb.
It’s all part of McGettigan’s weekly throwback Publetters. Presented by Yards Brewing, Publetters is a retreat from life’s hustle and bustle, where people can forgo the text and opt for the ink.
“If you are sending an email or text, nobody cares. That’s just the way it’s done,” said McGettigan, whose letter writing heroes include Barack Obama, Oscar Wilde and Paul Auster. “But if you are writing a letter on postcard or paper, people go ‘wow, who are you writing to? Why are you bothering to slow down and do something that is more work?’”
A writer places her postcard addressed to Representative Dwight Evans inside the briefcase, and another woman flips through a book of stamps and selects a psychedelic depiction John Lennon.
“They know the drill,” explained McGettigan.
The stated drill is that visitors come to the chosen bar of that month, pick up the letter supplies free of charge, and either write to a loved one or someone from the infamous list of addresses. A variety best compared to Willy Wonka’s chocolates, the addresses range from Senator Kamala Harris to Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz, actor Benedict Cumberbatch to singer Frank Ocean. The letter writer can either use their home or the bar as the return address, and then place their homage to the past in the briefcase for Mcgettigan to mail out on his way home.
McGettigan remembers when Pope Francis responded to a letter sent from Doobies Bar, the place where Mcgettigan came up with the idea on his second pint. McGettigan laughs, recalling that the Pope wrote “Dear Doobie,” confusing the bar for the person who had written him.
A self-professed “old-fashioned guy,” McGettigan’s many interests include film cameras, typewriters, fountain pens and bicycles. But for someone who prefers the traditional, Mcgettigan took and leads a very unconventional path.
A dropout from West Philadelphia Catholic High School for Boys, McGettigan became an apprentice as a piano tuner, reaching his “peak” when he tuned the piano for Patti Labelle’s band at the Academy of Music. But feeling life’s ennui, he decided to leave piano tuning to finish his high school degree through the Parkway program, a radical difference from the strict Catholic school. Nixing college, he went on to write for the City Paper and Philadelphia Weekly but “hit a ceiling” without a journalism degree.
About 20 years ago, McGettigan would find his next and current vocation as the owner of independent Trophy Bikes. Having long maintained a fondness for bicycles, he likens the mode of transportation to letter writing.
“If you are trying to get somewhere really fast, then, yeah, take an Uber, but if you are trying to see the city, take a bicycle,” said McGettigan. “The same with writing, it’s putting you in a different place, just because it is slower. And when things take longer to do, they are often done better.”
Each Publetters session draws about 10 to 20 writers, producing approximately 10 to 30 letters. The record for one night is 79 letters.
Publetters is not McGettigan’s only communally nostalgic event. In 2010, he had a Type-In, where local typewriter enthusiasts came and participated in speed typing contests, repair classes, trading and, of course, letter writing. While the event drew only a dozen or so, according to McGettigan, the concept hit “a sentimental note” with journalists and was heavily covered. It ultimately made national news, sparking type-ins around the globe.
McGettigan hopes to expand letter writing beyond pubs. He is currently planning Cafe Letters and is in talks with a coffee chain that he only hints is “not Starbucks.”
Millennials comprise a good portion of the attendees to Publetters, a demographic born in the tech age.
“I remind people this is going to last a 1,000 years and then they get nervous. I go, don’t panic, don’t worry, but do write the date on it,” explained McGettigan. “By putting it as 2018, you are giving evidence that letter writing still exists.”
On occasion, McGettigan has instructed a Millennial or two on letter writing basics, such as how to address an envelope. Once, a young woman asked if she should put the stamp in the center of the envelope.
“After that was squared away, she then texted someone, ‘I just wrote you a letter, haha,’” Mcgettigan recalled. “To me it was this meta moment, and I knew that the letter would outlive the text.”
Publetters | Tuesdays, 7-9pm. Free. December will be at Doobie’s Bar, 22nd & Lombard Sts. publetters.com/