A long time ago, when I had two small children and limited funds (okay, so I still have limited funds, but my children are grown), my favorite hobby was writing letters and postcards. There were penpal organizations I found in the back of magazines that usually required a small fee, but were reliable. However, you only got one or two addresses per order and it was slow going. I longed for something that would bring a torrent of mail. Then I found The Letter Exchange (LEX) magazine. Back then, there was no website. The Internet was still a glimmer in Al Gore's eye. I don't remember how I came upon LEX. I wish I did. It would give me a great starting point for this article.
Steve Sikora founded The Letter Exchange magazine in 1982. The idea was to make it possible for people to post listings under all sorts of topics and themes, but maintain privacy. Subscribers pay a yearly membership fee, about $20 back when I started in the late 80s, and are assigned a unique user code. The code insured your privacy, but more on that shortly. The subscription brought you three issues of the magazine, spring, summer, fall. Each issue contained hundreds of listings in a variety of categories ranging from art to politics to relationships, or even all three in a ''Ghost Letter.'' The Ghost Letters listings are letters written as a character, fictional or real, and are great fun, though challenging. Listings cost a few cents per word and could be printed under more than one category for an extra fee. Each listing is preceeded by the user's unique code.
If you like a listing and decide to respond, you write your letter (or postcard) as usual, but when you put it in the envelope, you don't write an address on the front. You write the code number from the listing. Right there in the center of the envelope (or postcard), where the address usually goes. Then put the correct postage on and stick the thing in a larger envelope. No folding! Folded mail inside envelopes can gunk up the postal equipment and result in your missives arriving in one of those horrid USPS body bags.
Don't seal up the larger envelope quite yet though! Maybe there are a few other listings that spoke to you. Might as well send five letters if you are sending one. Or maybe ten letters. Add a few postcards, too. Before you know it, that envelope is packed tight and you are ready to seal it up, first making sure every missive has the proper postage. Write LEX's address on the front, and your return address. Take that fat envelope and head off to the post office. Do be sure to have it weighed so it leaves with the correct postage. The fat envelope arrives at LEX, all its innards are extracted and address labels corresponding to the unique codes on the envelopes and postcards are slapped in place. Then your mail is sent out to its final destination, hungry mailboxes all over the world (mostly US and Canada, though).
All this is done by the devoted folk, Gary and Lonna, who took over LEX in 2002. Sikora had closed shop in 2000 after publishing 51 issues and forwarding over 165,000 pieces of correspondence. Gary and Lonna are ''LEXers'' who enjoy connecting letter writers. Thank goodness for people who do things because they enjoy it.
I was very active in LEX for years, but in the mid-90s I went back to school and letter writing fell to the side when academic writing became my focus. I let my subscription lapse, and for a while, I didn't miss it. I still wrote to a handful of folk, mostly postcards, but my mailbox got skinny again and soon the Internet spun its magic and I discovered the wonder of message boards and email and online chat... instantaneous conversation! No trips to the post office to stand in queues moving at glacial speed. The wonder lasted, oh, about a year. Flame wars, trolls, sex-crazed nuts, spam, long emails from message boards that quote novel length posts and add on ''I agree'' to the conversation. I began to long for real letters again, that I could read while sitting outside, or at the beach, or while in the post office queue.
I found my way back to LEX because of a postcard receive just before Christmas 2003. It was an invitation to rejoin, and I could keep my user code. I sent in my subscription payment immediately. It would be a short-lived membership, though, because ''life got complicated,'' as the saying goes. I ended up moving that year, far from home, to a city I'd only visited a few times, and didn't know but one soul. I let my subscription lapse, again.
A few weeks ago, another postcard from LEX arrived. It is hanging on my refrigerator. Life is less complicated, in some ways, and I would like to renew my subscription. The subscription is $19, a bargain. Well, a bargain if I were employed, which I'm not. So, the postcard stays on the refrigerator, waiting for the magical day when I hear ''when can you start?'' The Letter Exchange will be one of my first luxuries.