If you've spent any amount of time at the big pen shows, you've surely seen the long rows of tables of collectable vintage pens. These are normally championed by a silver-haired person of the age that one could consider describing as "vintage" themselves. The author certainly wouldn't be one to do that, but one might consider it. After some length of discussion with these fine folks, one will invariably hear something to the effect of "it's too bad this good ol' hobby is dying out like it is" or "if only you would have seen fountain pens back in the good ol' days." There seems to be a prevailing sentiment among many (certainly not all) that fountain pens and their hobby have seen better days and is nearing the end. As a relative newcomer to the hobby, at first I heard this and lamented that I had truly missed something great. Now I'm of a different attitude entirely.
First, we should note that fountain pens are not the only industry bemoaned to be lost in this "new digital age." Remember when e-books first became popular? Their advantages were so many compared to traditional books that all of us, everyone, was predicting we wouldn't have standard, paper books around anymore within just a matter of a few years. Well, that certainly hasn't happened. Despite their many advantages, many of us still just prefer the feel and smell and experience of a real book. Many of us spend so long in our daily careers, busy in the digital world, that what we crave when we finally have free time is not more digital time, but something tactile and present. Something like a real book, or a fountain pen and notepad.
My daytime job is as an independent hardware store owner. As you can probably imagine, our industry has our fair share of naysayers and doom & gloom predictors. Every day there is a new expert crying "Amazon will ruin mom & pop's this" and "Walmart has surely killed that." And each day we do face growing pressures from these inconceivably large competitors, but compete we do. We each find and occupy a niche and just like the printed book industry, I am certain your local mom & pop's hardware stores aren't going anywhere.
So, how does this relate to our favorite hobby? Well, I see fountain pens (and writing supply shops) following very much the same pattern as my hardware stores. Certainly much of the same merchandise is available from mega-competitors like Amazon and others. But we each find our niche. One can look around the crowds at fountain pen shows and see that there is still a tremendous demand to see and hold the pens and accoutrements before buying as well as congregate to socialize. One would also notice in these crowds that a tremendous portion of the crowd is of a much younger demographic.
Another promising sign I see of the health of the fountain pen community are the great number of young people and companies that are creating new and innovative products within this world. Companies and people like Nock Co., Karas Pen Co., Jerry at Additive Pens, Chris at Write Pads, Vito and crew at Story Supply Co., Jonathan Brooks, Ralph at Regalia Writing Labs, Dave at Good Made Better, Ink Journal and many others that I'm sure I'm forgetting, all show me that there is an active and growing creative hive mind.
In my hardware stores we now stock and sell fountain pens. It started with one store where there are lots of tourists and people shopping for gifts. These particular pens (Pilot Varsity) became so popular that I had to try them at my other stores. Now they are selling tremendously at all of our stores and have become one of our most popular items. I watch the people that typically buy these fountain pens and they are almost always those who have never held a fountain pen in their lives and ask the cashiers how to use it properly. Once they learn that and give it a quick go - they are instantly hooked! Many of them then return when the Varsity has run out of ink and then ask "what else is there?" At that point, they are thoroughly down the rabbit hole! So, even I in my one small corner of the world, am converting people every single day to our hobby. Now imagine all of the enthusiasts and shop owners around the world who are doing the same thing.
All of this is to say that no, the fountain pen community, or industry is not dying. It is stronger than ever and will continue to grow stronger as long as great companies continue to innovate and keep the hobby exciting. It's important that not only the smaller, niche companies make innovative strides, but the larger, more established companies continue to push the boundaries as well. It's not enough to just come out with another color year after year and call it innovation. Here I would like to give a possibly surprising "congratu-frickin-lations" to TWSBI, one of our favorite vendors. Yes, they do a lot repurposing the same models with a different color. BUT, after being somewhat stagnant with regards to innovation, this year, 2018, they have delivered three new models. Although one (the 580ALR) is just an older model with a new finish, the other two models are downright victories and show a real willingness to go out on a limb. This is another clear piece of evidence to show that we're engaged in a living, and healthy hobby.
I tend to get asked this question a lot about my hobbies. I suppose that I should really expect this from my unusual hobbies. I don't do things that are normal, like play golf, on the weekends. Instead I obsess over fountain pens and fanboy about the newest ink iterations or get all twitterpated about the newest innovations coming out of 3-D printing for the pen world.
It's a little strange, I admit, but as I tell everyone, I'm not hurting anyone and there are far worse things to be doing with my time.
But why fountain pens? How did I come to be obsessed with them and how do I explain the obsession? I've had this conversation with other fellow addicts and there is one thing many of us can agree on that draws us to this hobby - that is the aspect of functional art. It is the same thing that draws many of us to also collect pocket knives or appreciate homemade quilts or collect watches. They are pieces of art that can require great skill to accomplish (or can be mass-produced with varying results) and yet we are able to use them every day, on a near constant basis.
Before mass-production was a possibility, there were only craftsmen and women who spent their lifetimes devoted to learning how to perfect the craft of each of these arts. Now there are companies that have figured out how to do it on such large scale that mass-production has almost completely replaced craftspeople. In some industries and areas it unfortunately has. Lucky for us in the pen world, there are still myriad craftspeople who are carrying on the trade and making their craft available to us.
It's these craftspeople that attracted me to the hobby and keep me entertained. I love to see what the mass manufacturers come up with and their wares make up the bulk of my collection, but the real passion comes from seeing the craftsmen and women and their innovations.
Hello everyone, my name is Christian and I am the owner and founder of this here website. I am also officially obsessed with pens, notebooks, fountain pen ink, wood-cased pencils, and just about any other office & art supplies. I'm not exactly sure where the obsession comes from, but I'll delve into some of its roots in a later post. First a bit of an introduction.
By day I am the CEO and co-owner of our family business - Randy's Hardware, Inc. We have a small chain of hardware stores in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. I am also a father to four children, three of which were born at home, the last which my wife and I delivered alone after the midwives left for a little break. If that statement didn't already clue you in, I am also married to the strongest and most capable woman on the planet. She keeps me functioning and without her I couldn't possibly do a single thing, even get out of bed.
So, with all of that out of the way, how did I get connected to fountain pens and why should I be trusted to write anything? Well, this year I had the incredible opportunity to open a small boutique style hardware store in a busy downtown area. It has been a real experiment for me to try out different merchandise and see what would work in a completely different setting than what we are used to. One line of products that I knew would sell, but I didn't know how well, is fine writing supplies. There just isn't anyone within hours of my stores selling fine writing. So I brought in a few products and what do you know, it started selling like hot cakes! This lead me to start looking into more companies and vendors and my personal obsession suddenly became a viable business opportunity.
Now I have the business to somewhat support the obsession, but that still doesn't give me any expertise. So, why my perspective? I think my lack of insider knowledge within the pen world is exactly the strength of my perspective. I will be able to offer my opinions from years of selling durable, heritage-quality goods and that mixed with my no room for nonsense attitude should make for a unique perspective. At least, that's what I hope. I don't consider myself a pen guy. I don't know the ins and outs of every pen. I don't have sponsorships from pen companies and I plan on saying when a pen is worth the money and when it's not. In fact, I adjust my store's inventory to match my thoughts.
Stick around! Let me know if an irreverent and occasionally sarcastic look at the pen world and its wares sounds interesting to you. If there's one thing I am good at, it's accepting negative feedback. Just remember, I've already told you, I'm not a pen guy. Also, that's the best picture that's ever been taken of me and I never wear a suit to work.