BY DON FLUCKINGER • On the eve of the 2003 Boston Pen Show, I reflect on my first meeting with David Isaacson, in Boston, probably four years ago: Richard and I were outside the main room, fondling Vacs and Dorics at a seller’s table, and this guy blusters up to us.
“Wanna see some more of those?” Isaacson said, somewhat hyperactively whipping out a briefcase full of colorful Vacumatics. “They’re selling here for nothing on the floor. No one else wants them, at least that’s what it feels like to me. If you have any and would like to trade …”
Of course neither was true: Vacs weren’t selling inexpensively — it’s just that he enjoyed this particular pen so much that they seemed undervalued, and had yet to learn just how much this hobby makes you pay. And pay. And pay. Furthermore, many people coveted them — and he’s met many of them in the intervening years. At the time, however, those perceptions seemed to be the reality to Isaacson. It turns out they were merely hallucinations brought on early-stage acute Vacumania. (Vacumania.com, of course, is the name of the good doctor’s site.)
|He’s past 500 pens — representing 350 or so different Vacs. “I’ll never finish, I accept that,” he says.|
Catching the bug
For Isaacson, the Vacumania bug was contracted in Rochester, New York — where he practices medicine — while visiting a friend’s house. Previously Isaacson had drifted away from the coin collecting hobby because today’s “grading craziness,” as he puts it, renders coins “virtually untouchable” in their plastic, hermetically sealed slabs.
So he was kind of looking for something else to satisfy what he calls the “pathological collector” inside. The friend showed him a chest full of 66 antique pens, and it occurred to Isaacson that vintage fountain pens were a collectible that could actually be used, handled, and enjoyed. His fate was sealed when he noticed a Vacumatic that stood out among the friend’s pens.
“Out of a plethora of multi-colored, interesting fountain pens, what attracted my eye was the stacked pearl rings of a Vac Major,” Isaacson says. “It was pure aesthetics, nothing profound.”
Anyone who’s seen Isaacson at work at pen shows, drinking up every minute of every gathering, chatting and shooting pictures and showing off recent finds and wheeling and dealing and buying and trading — and sometimes not sleeping until he rolls back into Rochester — understands his Vacumania. But at what point did his casual appreciation of aesthetics turn into an obsession?
“At first, it was the notion that there were some discrete, obvious variants, and a limited number of discrete colors, and it seemed possible to assemble a fairly comprehensive set,” Isaacson says. “The problem was, as I began to throw myself into it and accumulated more pens and a tad more knowledge about the darn things, I began to discover progressively larger numbers of variants about which I had not been aware a little while earlier.”
Early on, he adds, the goal was to have one of each variant. When he had 10 pens, he thought 25 would be a complete collection. When he hit the 25-pen mark, he thought 100 might do it. When he got to 100, it was obvious there were at least 300 different variations.
Now that he’s past 500 pens — representing 350 or so different Vacs — it’s an obsession. He’s not exactly sure of his collecting goal. “I’ll never finish, I accept that,” he says.
How many different Vacs exist if you count the pre-Vac “Golden Arrows,” the Canadian variations, pencils, and well-recognized but non-catalogued variations such as the jeweler’s band and 9K-banded models? Isaacson’s most recent guess is 750. “By no means,” he says, “am I assuming that that’s representing the definitive, complete, collection … that’s an awful lot, and that’s not counting the one-offs, so-called prototypes, and end-of-the-day specials.”
Isaacson’s collecting kicked into hyperdrive when he started hitting pen shows with fervor, and set up his Web site, where strangers with interesting Vacs approach him with offers to sell or trade. Another leap occurred when he realized he could, with a little wit and a good camera, sell pens on eBay and make more cash to plow back into his project.
“There is some hassle in going to a few pen shows a year,” Isaacson says. “But compare that to the fellow who never [goes] to a pen show but spends hours every week hunting every flea market in a 20-mile radius around his home, hoping to find an inexpensive pen. Coming to a pen show concentrates several years’ worth of hunting in the wild into a couple days.”
Probably the best part of Isaacson’s obsession — for most of us — is the fact that he has to have an audience. Once he’s found one, the guy talks a thousand miles an hour, but he doesn’t waste a lot of words. He shows-and-tells great pens, and he usually has each one’s fascinating back story (or at least an interesting supposition about each pen’s back story, having assembled clues through seeing other similar pens). He’s also an interesting study in human physiology at 11p.m. on a Saturday night, when he hasn’t slept for about 72 hours but remains in full-throttle Vacumanic state, still talking a thousand miles an hour.
Another facet of his propensity to share manifests itself in the book he plans to write. He’s taken on learning how to shoot professional-grade pen pictures so he can write a Vac history that can also explore related side streets in the Vac neighborhood such as striped Duofolds and Challengers. One roadblock to its completion, believe it or not, is a bit of tentativeness. Isaacson might be manic, he might be thorough, but he is, below that manic sheath, a little humble. If you ask him, David Isaacson will tell you he’s writing “a” book, and not “a definitive” book.
Deep in his heart of hearts, he probably allows himself to think the book will turn out pretty well — but in his mind, he’s worried about missing some important Vacs here and there. He’s worried that he might get some little factoid wrong or not fully consider every aspect of every pen he chooses to include in the book. He knows there are Parker historians out there who know more than he does about the ins and outs of daily activity at the company during the period Vacs were manufactured.
That side of Isaacson’s personality might keep the book from coming out for a while — that and the lack of a decent publisher who will devote the attention to the project that he feels it deserves.
In a long interview with him at the Philadelphia Pen Show, I revealed to Isaacson that I, and many other people I’ve talked with, are looking forward to reading his book. Now that he’s got us all fired up about Vacs, we have to have a book. Some of us might even feel he’s got an obligation to produce it, because it’s clear he’s built an amazing stash of Vacs, and he obviously has the passion to assemble one excellent tome. My suggesting this possible “obligation” surprised him, but the wheels began to turn as he mulled the idea.
“The project keeps growing a little, because I keep finding new Vacs, or finding new information, or expand it a bit and say things like ‘Let’s get the Thrift Time pens in there,’” Isaacson says. “But ‘obligation’ is a loaded term. Guys who have been in this hobby, who know a lot more than I have, who know a lot more about the series, [they] haven’t gotten around to such a project … but my own touch of compulsiveness says that if I’m going to do something like this — and it’s still an ‘if’ — it should be done right.”
It’s clear that Isaacson’s case of Vacumania has advanced into the late, terminal stage. And, after finally completing my first swap with David Isaacson, I think the condition’s contagious. I need more pens. And more information. David, come out with the darned book, already, before this crazy condition gets the best of you.
Further Reading: Bargaining for Advantage: Strategies for Reasonable People, by G. Richard Shell
If you are going to a pen show hoping to make a trade with Isaacson — who likes to trade more than he does to buy or sell — or any other pen collector, it might be wise to read a copy of this very gentlemanly guide, written by the brains behind the Wharton Executive Negotiating Workshop.
|Freelance writer Don Fluckinger lives in Nashua, New Hampshire, and is the son-in-law of Richard Binder. His articles have been published in Antiques Roadshow Insider, The Boston Globe, and on the Biddersedge.com collectibles Web site. Please note: Any opinions stated in this column are Don’s alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Richard Binder or this Web site.|