Fountain pens are suddenly cool.
-Jim Evers, iPenstore.com
I caught the affliction at Binkley’s 5 & 10 store. I don’t know what other kids were dreaming about at age 10, but I was browsing Binkley’s and dreaming of a lush office with a big wooden desk stuffed with colorful pens, ink, blotters, paper of all sizes, index card filing systems, shiny paper clips, journals and planners — the seductive joy of stationery in every form. Most money from allowances or earnings from errands, paper route, etc. went to James R. Binkley and family in Runnemede, NJ. I couldn’t get enough of the stuff. Then, as today, I didn’t have anything that seemed worthy of writing in those lovely bound journal books. I had neither accounts nor debits and credits to record in the seductive ledger pages. I had no appointments to record in the planners. I had neither letters nor correspondence to file. Nevertheless, I had dreams and I wanted to be able to use all those things. Now, 50 years later you can find me lingering in the aisles at a Staples or Office Depot — when I’m not ogling some pen online. My supermarket has an aisle full of pens and paper and binder clips. My vegetable-laden grocery cart never misses a trip down that aisle. No telling when you might need another pack of colored index cards or sticky notes! For most of my adult life, I was a functioning stationery addict. I think the allure of digital technology (damn those computers!) held my stationery addiction somewhat in check. But now, suddenly this addiction is coming into full and terrible bloom. I blame fountain pens — and a pen show. (Yes, there really are pen shows!)
Last autumn something triggered my interest in fountain pens. I don’t know what it was, maybe I came across a video on YouTube or something. Fountain pens hadn’t entered my consciousness in over fifty years. If I had thought about it, I probably would have said fountain pens no longer existed — they were something from a time long past. In elementary school, we were forced to use them for some reason — even though ballpoint pens existed at the time. I think in seventh or eighth grade the ballpoints finally achieved full victory, and we were allowed to use them in school. I embraced them and never thought again about those messy, leaky inky things. Maybe it’s nostalgia at this point, but now suddenly I like the look and feel of laying down a line of fresh, wet ink on good paper. So I began researching the current state of fountain pens. I found a thriving community of pen lovers and collectors with a near cult-like devotion to fountain pens. I think you can be banished from the community if they find a ballpoint in your pocket or purse. I also found a small industry segment devoted to meeting the needs of the fountain pen people with pens, inks, papers and all and sundry accessories. And today’s pens are not the leaky, messy things of my memory. What put me over the edge was learning about pen shows. (Yes, there really are pen shows!)
There are entire public shows devoted to the fountain pen interest, a “hobby” most enthusiasts call it. (Denial is a classic element of addiction.) I decided I had to go and see one. What would they be doing? Public fondling of pens? Watching one another write? Gushing over gold nibs? Getting ink off their fingers? I consulted the pen show calendar (Yes, there really is one!), and I picked the show scheduled in nearby Baltimore for early March.
The Baltimore show is a three-day affair, bigger ones go four days. Like most, this was set in a hotel ballroom. I drove down Saturday morning and spent the afternoon nosing around the show — taking pictures and talking with interesting people. (“Interesting people” is usually a euphemism for fellow addicts.) Admission, I believe, was $10, but that was easily recoverable in free stuff, including food and beverages. For me, it was an adult trip to the old Binkley’s store of my childhood — on steroids. There were new pens, old pens, paper, ink, fountain pen fixers with magnifying glass eyes, pen parts, pen carrying cases, calligraphy lessons, custom pen makers and no end of opinions about the best writing paraphernalia . There was an interesting mix of people. Generally I’d describe it as the artist, book-reader, teacher crowd. Many were old, pushing 50 and beyond; probably people, like me, who remember fountain pens in their formative years. But there was also a reasonable contingent of younger folks, people in their twenties who were just discovering a whole new world beyond the 29-cent ballpoints. I met one grandfather buying his grandson a very fine fountain pen. Lucky kid; let the addiction begin!
Actions have consequences. That’s one of the things I preach at every opportunity since we now seem to live in an “I didn’t pee my pants, somebody else did” world (credit to poet Ruth Forman). I did not escape the Baltimore pen show without consequence. A lifetime of common adult interests and technology may have blunted my stationery addiction, but a pen show has knocked me off the wagon. My residence is beginning to look like a small stationery store. There are 20 fountain pens now living here — and almost as many bottles of ink. Today I inventoried 75 different ink colors I have (including the small 2 milliliter ink samples). How do you resist ink with names like “Red Dragon” and “Cosmic Cobalt” or “Clown Teardrop”? There are piles of paper and “journal” type books full of fine paper. There’s formal writing paper, in case I ever decide to write a note or letter to someone in “old school” style. So far, I’m still finding email much more satisfying — and economical. But I have the paper and pens and ink in case the urge ever overpowers me. I spend time on YouTube watching “reviews” of pens and inks and paper. Nothing like spending a cozy evening with the entertaining Matt Armstrong and the witty SBRE Brown. I’ve become competent at basic fountain pen maintenance — tuning a nib, straightening misaligned tines, disassembling and cleaning pens, all the functions necessary to keeping fountain pens working optimally. On the other hand, I’ve made substantially less progress in putting attractive marks on paper.
In the 1950s, I was taught the Palmer Method of cursive writing. I was never good at it, and my handwriting looked childish to me. So, in a fit of rebellion, I taught myself to print and never went back to cursive. With a new fountain pen interest, I decided to try the old cursive writing. It took a while to bring back the memory, but I did. And the more I did it, the less I felt like printing. The printing now feels like a forced march in combat boots. The writing is like gliding across glassy ice on sharp ice skates. I fall down sometimes, but I keep getting up. Now that I’ve done a lot of work, I’m enjoying simple handwriting. It’s even legible if not what I’d consider especially attractive. But there seems to be some deep, almost primal urge to keep making lines upon paper with fountain pens. That urge is not unique. The world of fountain pens is expanding at roughly the same rate as the universe it seems.
One pen retailer, Jim Evers told me that pens are a rapidly growing market. “Fountain pens are suddenly cool,” he said. He is the third generation of a family that’s been in the stationery business since 1932 and his adult children are now the fourth generation part of the business. They long ago moved out of the brick and mortar model to a solely online iPenstore.com marketing model — with apparent great success. He said in 2007 he did not sell fountain pens. Requests for them began coming in more frequently so he started selling them. Today, 60% or more of his business is fountain pens and related items. “I’ve seen more new fountain pens introduced in the past two years than in my lifetime,” he said. The fountain pen market, he believes, is being driven by the Millennial Generation that is interested in things from time past, things they never experienced as part of their lives dominated by technology and the Internet. He cites their interest in fountain pens and “shave clubs.” Apparently there is also a movement toward old-time shaving paraphernalia. Also, there is a heavy percentage of women on the fountain pen side. A lot has to do with inks and various colors of inks. He said he’s amazed at how emotional is their response to various ink colors. So apparently, for the Baby Boom Generation it was Rock music and better living through chemistry; the Millennials are rather tamer with fountain pens and shaving mugs.
One manager at another retailer echoed Evers. He said it’s almost an antipode to work lives spent online and at the constant beck and call of computerized activities — a way to get away from the endless screens and have a tactile connection with something real. People can come home from work and regress to something more manageable and less stressful and just write in a journal or write a letter to someone or sketch something or even work on pens. He says there is also more interest than ever in pen collecting, both old and new. Collecting tends to trend high end with fountain pens that can cost $1000 or more. Something like the Classic Pens of today are truly functioning art.
In the last six years two retailers have come out of nowhere to grow substantial businesses. Anderson Pens in Appleton, Wisconsin began selling online in 2010. Two fountain pen lovers, Lisa and Brian Anderson, fell in love with one another, got married literally at a pen show and began their business. In 2013 they opened a physical store in addition to online selling. Today they are one of the major retailers both online as well as having a well stocked and staffed store.
Around the same time the Andersons were getting underway with fountain pens, Rachel and Brian Goulet started selling stationery products online. Their bedroom was their office and their garage was their warehouse. Their wizardly mastery of social media has grown the company to 40 employees today. The Goulet Pen Company is good, but a starburst of interest in fountain pens has contributed a lot to that kind of growth. Rachel and Brian are exemplars of the Millennial Generation, and the pulse of it obviously flows through their veins.
“A few years ago I was selling limited edition fountain pens to collectors,” says Bert Oser of Bertram’s Inkwell, a retail store in Rockville, Maryland. They were bought as investments, and many never even had ink put in them. “Today, I’m selling fountain pens in the $40 to $400 range to mostly younger people who are happily and diligently writing and using the pens.” Oser says people have “an emotional attachment to a fountain pen that doesn’t happen with any other kind of writing instrument. If someone takes a ballpoint off your desk, it’s not a big deal, but if they take even your inexpensive $20 fountain pen, you feel violated.” The ballpoint is almost community property where the fountain is solely yours and a cherished personal possession.
There is a passionate community around fountain pens. Oser said every Saturday “people come into the store and just hang out to talk pens, swap pens, have repairs done.” That passionate community is mirrored online. There are active online forums, Fountain Pen Geeks, for example. Facebook has dozens of fountain pen groups with tens of thousands of members. The Goulet Pen Company site on YouTube has 40,000 subscribers. Offline, there are hundreds of local pen clubs — six or eight people meeting at a local coffee shop talking about pens, trading pens and their experiences with pens and ink and paper. And don’t forget the pen shows — around a dozen shows all over the country each year. (Yes, there really are pen shows!)
Fountain pens are obviously a niche thing, but it’s a ballooning niche. It will never threaten more modern writing instruments or electronic technologies, but more people are suddenly finding fountain pens in their hands — and loving it. If the idea of putting a lovely line of wet ink upon a piece of fine paper makes your fingers twitch, visit a pen show. (Yes, there really are pen shows — and I’ll see you there.)