Pen Shows I: Your First Pen Show

(This page revised September 9, 2015)

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You will think you have died and gone to heaven. When you walk into your first pen show, you will be dazzled, astonished, floored. Everywhere you look, there will be dozens, hundreds, thousands of pens. New pens, old pens, expensive pens, cheap pens, bright pens, dull pens, whole pens, parts pens, too many pens to comprehend. What to do now? Where to go? What to look at? How to buy things? PANIC!

Washington DC Fountain Pen SuperShow, 2008

The ballroom at the Washington DC Fountain Pen SuperShow, 2008

Don’t worry. You are perfectly normal. Everyone reacts this way at his or her first pen show. Slow down, take it easy, just stand there and breathe for a moment. You’ll be fine. Of course, you'd have been better off preparing yourself before the show. I've outlined a few tips below that will help accomplish this.

Preparing Yourself Before the Show

Pens on a dealer's table First and foremost, decide how much money you can spend. This is not the same as the amount you want to spend; nor is it the same as the amount you think you’re likely to spend. A good rule of thumb is that you are going to want to spend about twice as much as you think you will: if you think you’re going to spend $500, be aware that the real number is likely to be $1000. Then decide whether you can actually afford that much, and adjust upward or downward as appropriate. Once you’ve figured out what your wallet’s threshold of pain is, set aside that amount of cash to take. Then, when you go, leave your credit cards — and your ATM card — behind. Leave them at home, leave them in your hotel room, leave them with your significant other, anything to be sure they’re safely out of reach. Why? Because after you’ve blown your bankroll you are going to see more pens you just can’t go home without.

There’s a second reason for taking cash. Although most dealers can accept credit cards nowadays, some don’t. Remember, many dealers are private individuals like you who have paid for tables because they happen to have more pens than they want to keep. Or maybe just more than they can afford to keep. Furthermore, dealers who can take credit cards will often bargain or at least offer a discount to customers who pay cash.

Next, what kind of pen collector are you? Are you a specimen collector or a user? A vintage collector or modern? These broad categories aren’t mutually exclusive, they’re just to get you thinking about your habits.

Then decide what makes and models of pens you might want to buy — and if you're really on the ball, what colors or metals or nib sizes. Make a grand list of candidates and then winnow it down to within the constraints of your budget, preferably well within them. This will leave room for the pens you didn’t remember but will want when you get to the show and see them lying there, giving you the come-hither look.

10x loupe If you’re a vintage collector, buy a good magnifier. A 10× loupe is a mandatory accessory for spotting brassing and hairline cracks that you can’t see with your eyes alone. Don’t be fooled into buying one of the bargain-priced loupes that you can find at antique malls. They’re usually Chinese, and they are uniformly of poor quality. Be prepared to spend $30 to $80 for a high-quality loupe. I recommend BelOMO; they’re seriously good loupes, and they’re near the bottom of the price range. Also, don’t get clever and think that if 10× is good, 20× must be better. With a magnifier that’s too powerful, the field of view and the depth of field are too small to be useful. You can’t really see more with such a magnifier.

Last but not least, make sure you know where the show is and how to get there. It’s no fun to spend half an hour driving up one street and down another to find a hotel that’s really way over on the other side of the Interstate. (I speak from experience here!) Getting there early is better than getting there late, to give yourself more time to seek and find the pens you want.

At the Show

All right, you’re in the door. You’re gazing out over a room awash with tables and people. You get dizzy. Shake your head to clear it and concentrate for a moment. Reconnoiter the layout, and then figure out how you want to travel to see every table. You really do want to see every table. If you don’t, you will forever be living with self-recrimination because you missed out on the one desideratum, the one absolutely essential pen, that you just know was on one of the tables you didn’t see.

Okay, it’s time to move out. Don’t be afraid to talk to people. Introduce yourself, shake hands, be friendly, ask questions, handle pens. That’s what this hobby is all about. Pens are the focus, but it’s people who make pen collecting more than something you do in your closet with the door closed. But don’t buy anything. Not yet. It’s axiomatic that as soon as you buy that near-perfect Big Red with just the slightest hint of brassing on the clip, three tables later you’re going to see one with no brassing at all. For less. (You’ll do that anyway, no matter how carefully you’ve cased the joint, so you should get used to the idea. If you make a rule that once you’ve bought a pen it’s bought, you’ll go home a lot happier.) Make your first sweep fairly fast, trying to remember where you spotted things you’re interested in.

A good way to keep track of the pens that are candidates for purchase is to take notes. Write down table numbers and make, model, color, and (if there’s more than one specimen) distinguishing characteristics of the one you want, such as its price.

Now you know where things are, and you have a good idea what you want. Now you can go back and start buying, always with care to be sure you get the best example you can afford of the pen model you want. Be just as friendly, and ask more questions.

A customer examines pens closely at a dealer's table Feel free to dip a pen you think you’re interested in, but don’t blithely dip every pen in sight just to be dipping pens. If you find a pen you like, then and only then should you look at the price tag or, if there isn’t one, ask the price. If it’s way out of your range, don’t waste your time — or that of the dealer. So now you’re holding a pen in your hand, a pen you want and can afford. Do you buy it? Not yet. Now here’s where things get a little delicate.

Some dealers will bargain, but some won’t. (Most dealers selling modern pens are loath to bargain.) You never know ahead of time whether this dealer will bargain on this pen, so all you can do is ask if the dealer will take less. On a $250 Duofold, for example, you might say, "Would you take $200?" If the answer is that the price is firm, then you’ll have to decide whether you like the pen enough to fork over the cash. If the price isn’t firm, the dealer will come down. He or she may not come down all the way to your offer. That’s fine, and it’s perfectly all right for you to hem and haw further in hopes of driving a better deal. But when the dealer finally says, "No, that’s the best I can do," then stop. (Pushing the envelope too far is rude, and this is supposed to be a pleasant experience, not a confrontation.) Again, you must then decide whether the pen is worth the price. If so, money will change hands, a pen will change hands, and two people will be happy. If not, there are other tables with other pens on them. But do remember to thank the dealer you were just dickering with.

A Big Red changes handsAnother way to get the price down on a pen is to see if you can work out a "package price" deal on two or more pens. While a Duofold for $250 might not appeal to you, a Duofold and a “51” together for $275 might be a good deal for you — and for the dealer.

Sometimes you’ll find a pen that you really love except that its nib isn’t quite right. (Maybe it’s just the least bit scratchy.) If you know that you can take care of the problem, that’s great, and the nib isn’t an obstacle. If you’re not sure, you can mention it to the dealer. You may get a better price, or the dealer may tweak the nib then and there. But don’t, please don’t, accept an offer to let you sand the nib. Dealers who allow customers to sand nibs are only trying to be accommodating, but sanding nibs at a dealer’s table is really unfair. Unless you’re an expert and have the time and inclination to do a professional job, you can make a bad situation worse. You could even destroy the tipping material. Even if you do everything right, who’s to say that the nib will now be good for the next customer if you decide not to buy the pen after all?

Paul Erano Try not to blow your entire bankroll in the first half hour, even if you did plan things out the way I describe here. As you browse around, you’ll see other things that look appealing. You’ll run across the Pendemonium table, and Sam will be more than pleased to sell you a bundle of plastic Ziploc bags to protect your pens. The ones you just bought, remember? You’ll bump into Ed Fingerman at the FPH table, and he’ll have a good supply of leather cases. Or you’ll stop in front of Paul Erano’s table, and there will be a pile of copies of his book, which you’ve really been meaning to buy anyway — and which, if this is your first show, you probably need, too — and Paul will even offer to sign it for you. At most shows, Susan Wirth will have her table set up; there you can do all the dipping you’ve been itching to do at other tables; you can try out zillions of ink colors and point sizes and styles, and generally just have a good time — and maybe buy something, too. And so on.

Pen shows are for having fun, and there’s lots of fun to be had both in the show hall and elsewhere. Any show that runs more than one day, and nearly all of them do, will spawn after-hours discussion groups in hotel rooms, in bars, in restaurants, in lobbies, pretty much anywhere people can get together. Take advantage of the opportunities these gatherings provide to meet new people and make new friends, or to share time with old friends. You can learn a lot about pens from your pens and from the books in your pen library, but you can learn a whole lot more from real live people! So meet the people, love the pens, and enjoy yourself.

Oh, did I mention the dealers who might be out in the corridor or foyer leading to the show hall? (Several of the bigger shows overflow the ballroom.) Many dealers consider that location to be prime real estate; they can catch your eye twice, once on your way in and again on your way out. Include them in your first sweep, and come back if something you want is there — but don’t let them distract you from your mission. If you let yourself get sidetracked on the way in, you might not even make it into the hall. And where’s the fun in that?

Pen Shows II: Preparing for a Show goes into more depth about how you can do your homework to make the show experience more fun — and better for your collection.

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