May 2003: Chasing “the Great Pahkah”

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BY DON FLUCKINGER • Imagine a 13-year old newsboy hawking papers in downtown Boston in the early 1940s. One of the stops on his route is the Bromfield Pen Shop. A new pen, the Parker “51”, has caught his interest, and he bugs the guys behind the counter to show him how it works — enough times that, in order to make him go away, they finally do.

The experience inspires a lifetime of pen collecting, and the boy’s pursuit of “51”s culminates, eventually, in a full-time father-and-son business that successfully rolls on in 2003.

After handling so many pens over the years and experiencing the ups and downs of being financially invested in the hobby, Louis Kaplan is still a “51” collector at heart. Extra Fine Points

If someone were to tell me an idyllic story like this, I’d say it sounded like a fantasy concocted by some collector who had a vivid imagination, read way too much Dickens, and has more free time on his hands than us working folk.

Unless, of course, the person telling the story is Louis “The Great Parker” Kaplan, 71, who runs a vintage/modern pen business with his son Howard. Turns out, it’s all true.

Back when the “51” first came out, Louis caught the pen bug. Problem was, they were expensive (Kaplan estimates a “51” cost something like $150 in today’s money) and information about repairing them was proprietary, held by pen repairmen who had to take courses from the manufacturers. One didn’t just wave a “51” over an alcohol burner to see what would happen, as many collectors might today. There was just too much to risk — especially when it took a long time to save up for another pen on a newsboy’s paycheck.

“I had a “51”, I wanted to know how the damn thing worked — I got the hood off but I couldn’t get anything else off,” says Kaplan, who even then had dabbled in pen repair, disassembling and resacking school pens and Esterbrooks. “Finally one of the old men [at Bromfield] showed me what to do and I was off and running. They weren’t very forthcoming; it was their business. But I was a pest.”

Kaplan cleaned and repaired his own personal fountain pens for decades before he began collecting in earnest during the 1980s. While he enjoyed fountain pens in general — those ballpoints never did catch on with him — it was the Parker “51” that he coveted. He searched flea markets, took out a standing “I buy pens” adver­tise­ment in the local paper, and convinced local estate auctioneers to sell him all the “51”s they could find for $12.95 apiece (the original retail price) if he agreed not to cherry-pick.

His collection expanded, as he decided to chase every different color of every “51” from every year, including all the cap variations. Then when his son, Howard, moved back home to convalesce after an illness, he became curious about the elder Kaplan’s constant hunting and gathering at a local flea market three days a week.

“One Saturday morning, he got up and he said to his mother, ‘Where’s dad?’” Louis Kaplan says. “She said I was going off looking for the Great Parker.” Howard decided find out more about his father’s quest, and eventually he too became interested in fountain pens.

The event that marked the elder Kaplan’s graduation from serious collector to professional dealer probably was when he purchased a thousand-pen collection from an auctioneer in the early 1990s. Soon after, Louis and Howard launched a business together, naming it The Great Parker and setting up for the first time at the Miami show. They can still be seen at every major pen show. Howard handles the modern pens, Louis the vintage ones.

About the only thing that has remained constant since the days when Louis lived in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood and sold papers downtown is the lack of a Red Sox World Series victory. The Kaplans headed south — as have many New Englanders once they get their fill of our April blizzards — and have lived in Florida for many years.

The Bromfield Pen Shop still exists today, under different management. Yet a whole different ballgame is played there now, as the pen-repair artisans are gone and modern fountain-pen retailing is king. Louis Kaplan, on the other hand, has stayed with his favorite game — he still fixes “51”s with the same interest that first inspired him as a kid.

And at some point, Louis Kaplan did find the Great Parker. Since then, he’s pared his “51” collection down from a peak of about 400 keepers to perhaps a dozen rare favorites. As you’d expect, there’s a Nassau Green pen and an Empire State cap among the treasures, as well as some little-known others such as a presidential set inlaid with diamonds on top and a 1951 pen with a two-tone, silver-and-gold-clip with “wings” coming off the arrow’s sides. “Several beauties, and that’s it,” as he puts it.

After handling so many pens over the years and experiencing the ups and downs of being financially invested in the hobby, Louis is still a “51” collector at heart. You’d think he’d have had his fill by now. What, 60 years after its introduction, remains so charming about this pen?

“The technology and execution,” he says. “When you think about a “51”, it was the most advanced pen of its time — it was 20 years ahead of anything else. It was so well made, you can use parts from one in another, back and forth.”

As he gets into explaining the nuts and bolts of his favorite pen, his eyes light up. This 71-year-old man still displays the wonder — or more correctly, as the native Bostonian still says it, “wondah” — of the newsboy he used to be, the one who forsook his Estahbrooks and school dip pens for the Pahkah “51” when it first hit the mahhhket.

“The collector on the “51” was a marvel. It controlled the flow of ink to the point where it always writes the first time, every time. It’s miraculous. They brought the point of capillary action all the way down to the tip of the nib,” Louis rhapsodizes.

“Pens of today, you pick them up, you try to write, nothing happens, you turn it over, you do what you gotta do, and you eventually get it to write. The “51”’s not like that. You put it on the paper, it writes, and it writes well.”


cover Further Reading: Do’s and Taboos Around the World, third edition, by Roger Axtell

Parker Pen Company employees shared their anecdotes, country by country, about the customs of their international clients — including when giving a pen is an appropriate gift.

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. Don Fluckinger
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