Stories, etc.: Pen Shows: Why Bother?

Stories, etc. Index  ]


As I write this, it is January 26, 2007. Having recovered — as much as I ever do — from an intense three days at the Philadelphia Pen Show last weekend, I think I’ll muse on why it is that going to pen shows is cool.

Ed Fingerman of Fountain Pen Hospital

Ed Fingerman of Fountain Pen Hospital

First, as I just said, it’s an exciting escape: a whole weekend in a hotel in a (possibly distant) city, mingling with other collectors both on and off the show floor. Many collectors live where there are no brick-and-mortar (B&M) pen shops, and these folks never have the pleasure of visiting their local shop to talk pens and play with pens and test pens and buy pens. Sure, I know, you can buy pens on the Internet, but it’s not the same thing; even if you can get better prices, unless you actually know the dealer you are pretty much buying a pig in a poke. (Does this dealer actually know one end of a pen from the other? If he does, does he know how to test a fountain pen — and does he actually test them? Does he know how to adjust pens — and does he do that? Does he in fact even have any pens to sell — or is he a scam artist from somewhere in eastern Europe or the Pacific islands?)

Well, if you can’t get to a B&M shop, the next best thing is to go to a pen show. Many new-pen dealers at shows offer at least some of their pens at special prices below what you’d pay on the Web, and you get to play with the pretty toys and actually do some comparison shopping. (But don’t dip every pen in sight, please; somebody will have to clean those pens out again, so hold off until you’re close to making a purchase. And please don’t go just to scope out the pens so you can get them cheaper elsewhere. The one you get elsewhere will not ever be exactly like the one you handled at a show. If you want a show to happen next year, patronize the dealers who have made the effort and incurred the expense to be there this year.)

Of course, at a show, especially the bigger ones, you might find yourself milling about in the middle of a good-sized crowd — but that’s a good chance to share ideas, discover whether you want an italic nib or a wet-noodle flexie, and find out why that person standing next to you is fiddling with the filler on that gorgeous mother-of-pearl pen.

Joe Cali, maker of Caliper pens

Joe Cali, maker of Caliper pens

The people at a show are the best reason for going. The Philadelphia show occupies two rooms in its hotel, and noted pen author Paul Erano was hawking some pretty nice pens from behind a table in the other room. Howard Levy, president of the Bexley Pen Company, was across the room from our table, scowling at me over a perceived slight — it was a joke, folks! Joe Cali, owner and operator of Caliper Pens, was in the room; Joe, in case you haven’t seen his work, makes awesomely artistic one-of-a-kind pens from exotic resins and fits them with high-quality nibs. Right at the entrance to the other room was Jon Messer, one of the honchos down east at Stylus Magazine. Susan Wirth, nib queen extraordinaire, was set up with her gi-normous three-table display, helping people to choose the right pens to enhance their handwriting. Ron Zorn, master pen repairer and owner of Main Street Pens, had his table right next to ours. Sam and Frank Fiorella brought with them what looked like about two thirds of their Pendemonium store and set it out on four tables on the other side of us. Bertram’s Inkwell and Fountain Pen Hospital were there. Oh, and there were a multitude of other collectors and dealers, lesser known perhaps but no less enjoyable to spend time with.

Susan Wirth

Susan Wirth

Not all of the pens you’ll find at a show are brand spankin’ new. The theme of the earliest pen shows, 25 years or so ago, was vintage pens. Collectors would gather to show off their newest acquisitions, trade with others who might not yet have found a pen like that second Pregnant Parker ED, and in general have a good time. All of these things still happen, although you might have to pay rather more for a Pregnant Parker than you would have paid in the 1980s…

The warning about price in the preceding paragraph doesn’t mean you won’t find bargains. When we headed out to Philadelphia, I hadn’t actually planned on acquiring more than one pen, a Parker Premier in Athens that I had asked Lee Chait to bring for me — but it turned out that I was in magpie mode, and I ended up with four little glittery writing instruments. All were good bargains, and some were outstanding deals.

First, of course, was the Premier. Of all the myriad Premier finishes, I like the Athens the best; the dark lines contrasting with the bright gold have sort of a “Night and Day” quality. So Lee Chait and I dickered a little as the show was opening Friday morning, and this broad-nibbed Premier was the result.

Fountain pen

I didn’t buy any pens thereafter until Saturday afternoon; then Daniel Kirchheimer’s kind offer to go scouting got the better of me. Next thing I knew, he had returned with a very nice gold-plated Targa.

Fountain pen

Again I held off buying, but I lost it on Sunday afternoon. The third “fish in my creel” came to me from the Evil Doctor VacQuack (David Isaacson), who brought it over to have its nib smoothed so he could sell it more easily. I did the nib and then made a tactical error: I remarked that it was a pretty nice pen. “Want it?” Oopsie. Well, anyway, it was a very pretty Wahl pen with a Greek Key pattern and an XF Nº 5 nib that writes incredibly nicely:

Fountain pen

The final goodie of the show (for me) was actually the first one that I purchased. On Thursday night, before the show had even begun, David Isaacson and I were in the hotel room of another collector. A pen in one case caught my eye; in the dim room light the three of us mulled over the WARRANTED nib and agreed that the pen must be a nice (unbrassed and, remarkably, ding free) gold-filled third tier piece, not a Morrison but probably competition for Morrison. As we learned during the show, that turns out not to have been the case. In brighter light, we found the bug on the barrel (adjacent to the first bamboo design element, visible in the upper image here): this is a solid 14K pen (not cast, but with a worked metal body featuring beautiful repoussé shaping), and the consensus is that that W. S. Hicks & Sons probably made it for the L. C. Tiffany Company of New York City.

Fountain pen
Fountain pen

Oh, waitaminnit, I also snapped up a new-in-box Lamy 2000. I don’t collect modern pens, yeah, I know, or foreign pens, either — but the 2000 is one of the all-time greats. In continuous production for over 40 years, it has really stood the test of time.

David Isaacson, the VacQuack

David Isaacson, the VacQuack

Where was I? Oh, yes, talking about the people. One of the best things, for me at least, is helping a collector, who might be a newbie or an old-timer, with a problem pen. On one of my infrequent escapes from behind our table, I ran across two young women talking with Jon Messer. One of them had just purchased a Parker “51” Demi in Cocoa. I asked if I might handle it, and when I wrote with it I was aghast. Its new owner had remarked, I will note, that it was a bit scratchy, but this “restored” pen wrote like a razor blade. It was her first “51”, and I wasn’t about to let her go through life thinking the “51” is anything less than the best fountain pen ever designed. I let her write with THE “51” and got a look of astonishment and a “Can you make my pen write like this?” Of course I could, and I did. We Borg have increased our numbers by one: she was thrilled. She has since written to me to thank me again for the great time she and her friend had at our table. That works for me!

If you happen to be attached, with or without children, to a spouse or a partner who isn’t a pen collector, don’t lose hope. Most shows are in cities that offer plenty to attract those who aren’t pen nuts.

When it comes to where to stay while you’re at a show, there’s really only one answer: the show hotel. The hotels offer special rates for showgoers, which is nice, but the real reason is that you get to hang around the bar and the restaurant and the lobby and everywhere else other collectors are gathered, and you can soak up the atmosphere and the education as you schmooze to your heart’s content. Until I started going to shows, Andreas Lambrou was this guy up on a pedestal, the guy who wrote the ultimate pen reference and had a distinguished-looking portrait on the dust jacket, somebody a mere mortal like me wouldn’t ever get to meet. I met him at a show and discovered that he’s really a very down-to-earth and warm person, and now Andy is a good friend with whom I look forward to spending time. This kind of experience is typical; the “big names” are just as enthusiastic and open about the hobby, and the people in it, as you are.

Ron Zorn of Main Street Pens

Ron Zorn of Main Street Pens

In most show locations, there are good — in some cases superb — restaurants within easy walking distance; and there are invariably group outings as people gather up a passel of friends and go out to dinner. There are also a myriad of other tourist-type things to do; in Philadelphia, the Franklin Institute, the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, Reading Terminal, and other interesting places are within walking distance, and it’s the same in many other cities. These are things to be taken advantage of, whether you check them out yourself or ship your family off to give you more time at the show.

So where are the shows, and when do they happen? On the Welcome page of this site you’ll find a calendar listing the shows Barbara and I will attend over the next year or so. These are mostly concentrated in the northeastern quarter of the U.S.A. because we prefer to drive and can’t afford to travel all the way to the Left Coast. For a complete listing of U.S. and Canadian shows, there’s Susan Wirth’s comprehensive calendar, and there’ also a calendar of European shows. Find one you can go to. Maybe it’s a little distance away, maybe it’s more than a little. It’s worth the trip. Heck, you might even get a nib or two tweaked while you wait — and what could be better than a perfectly operating pen for sucking in newbies to the hobby? Why get newbies interested, you might wonder. Well, pens don’t grow on trees, you know. More collectors equals more pens, as the newly hooked start delving into their desks and their grandparents’ trunks and attics. So many pens, so little time!

Show photos from the 2007 Philadelphia show, © 2007 Daniel Falgerho. Used with permission.

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