I love pens and writing implements. That shouldn't come as a surprise to many people who read this blog, but I've been giving a lot of thought recently to why I like these things so much. Not just why I get up early to take the time to post three times a week or more, but why I care enough to regularly deal with aligning nib tines, cleaning up ink burps, or sharpening pencils, when it would just be so much easier to fire up Word and have at it. Why I care enough to take at least two annual trips to mingle with other like-minded enthusiasts at pen shows around the country. And why I think our reasons for liking pens offer some insight into some recent controversy that's generated a lot of discussion.
I Buy My Pens to Write with Them
To me, my pens aren't just a frivolous interest; they're a core part of my workflow. Members of this community (and my comments here are applicable to the entire "analog writing" community, not just the fountain pen community, though fountain pens is where I have most of my experience) often hear their interest derided as "impractical" and a "waste of time and money," since everything is "going digital" and handwriting will be "obsolete." As you might expect, I disagree. I write a minimum of 30 pages a day for my job, and every single thing I write, whether it be a brief, oral argument, etc., starts with pen and pencil on paper. As far back as I can remember, I've used pen and paper to collect my thoughts, outline, and even write entire first drafts by hand. Since high school, I've had to deal with people (teachers/bosses/colleagues) urging me to improve my "efficiency" by moving everything to a computer, only to have them back off when they see the end result.
I'm not one of these people who wants to preserve handwriting for handwriting's sake. I'm ambivalent at best on whether cursive is essential, and think schools traditionally have placed too much emphasis on what handwriting looks like as opposed to what it accomplishes. I'd bet money on the fact that many people who want to "kill handwriting" still resent the fact that they were marked down in school because their teachers didn't consider their handwriting "pretty" enough. My own childhood handwriting was uniformly criticized as atrocious (and it kept me off the elementary school honor roll for six years, hah!). Abolishing handwriting altogether, however, is insane, and the equivalent of not teaching kids how to do math because we have calculators. Handwriting is a powerful tool for thought and analysis. My parents were always great about assuring me that the "process" of writing things out by hand was what mattered, that it helped develop your thinking, and that sooner or later nobody would care whether your handwriting was "too small" or "too cramped." I kept at it, and sure enough, they were right. Today, having moved into a supervisory role at my job, I'm seeing firsthand the consequences of people abandoning handwriting altogether. Writing is disorganized, research is shallow, and, overall, the quality of work is poor and getting worse every year. If there ever was an argument against abolishing handwriting, it's what passes for professional writing in the modern workplace. On the other hand, whenever I'm blown away by the quality of something someone has written for me, more often than not I'll find their desk littered with pen cups, notebooks, and legal pads.
Given how much I use my pens on a daily basis, and the value I place on handwriting, I won't dignify the "pens-are-a-waste-of-money" argument with a response. (Though I will say that I'll gladly put the total cost of my pen and ink collection up against what some of my friends spend going out to dinner/drinking on an annual basis, and happily have an objective discussion about what qualifies as flushing money down the toilet.)
We Are Largely Users, Not Collectors.
I will often refer to my "collection" of pens, but I don't consider my self to be a pen collector. "Collector" conjures up an image of someone sitting in a room with boxes upon boxes of items, some displayed, some not, perhaps categorized by rare variant, but hardly ever used. I buy my pens to write with them. If a pen sits for more than a few months without finding its way into the rotation, then I find a new home for it. I didn't pay good money (sometimes in the hundreds of dollars) for what is essentially a tool to sit around unused.
I've been a "hardcore" fountain pen user for 5 years now, and I've been blogging for just under two. By my count (and take this with a grain of salt, I'm writing this at 5:45 a.m.), I've been to seven pen shows. While there have been some awkward experiences mingling with other members of this community at those shows, on the whole it's been a positive experience. Without exception, the people whom I've met through this somewhat offbeat interest of mine have been interesting, intelligent, and most of all, friendly and eager to meet others who also see the importance of working offline in an increasingly digital world.
Matt Armstrong's write-up of his experience at the 2016 Los Angeles Pen Show sparked a flurry of blog posts, tweets, and spirited discussions over e-mail and Slack. In short, a great many people have the feeling that they are "unwelcome" at pen shows, and that many of the vendors and exhibitors at these shows don't want to give them the time of day. From several things I've witnessed first-hand over the years at shows, these feelings are justified, and a lot of them are indeed attributable to blatant agism, sexism, and a lack of appreciation for the overall more diverse crowd that makes up the new community of people interested in this stuff.
But I think there's something else going on here as well, that hasn't received much play. The new group of fountain pen enthusiasts that's started to attend shows are, on the whole, users, not collectors. They are coming to shows because, today, unless you live in a major city or near one of the few specialized shops devoted to fountain pens and fountain pen accessories, it's nearly impossible to go to a retail store and try out a fountain pen--it's simply not economical for most brick and mortar retailers of writing implements to stock them, where such retailers still exist at all. This generally younger crowd doesn't have the disposable income to purchase a pen that's going to sit in the case, or on display, and never be used. If they come to a show, and a vintage pen catches their eye, they're going to want to use it.
This mentality is completely foreign to a subset of the old-line pen collectors and traders who also attend these shows. When the show circuit launched in the 1980s/1990s, it was to trade vintage pens and attend auctions of vintage pens. There really wasn't a reason for modern pens to be the focus of shows, because you could still find them "in the wild," and the custom pen makers such as Edison, Ryan Krusac, Scriptorium, and Newton Pens didn't exist. Many of these same people have what I refer to as a "pure collector" mentality, in that they see their pens primarily as investments or commodities that they've put away for years, hoping they will increase in value, and now they are trying to cash in on that investment. There's nothing wrong with that, but it's an entirely different approach to the pen hobby that sets the stage for a massive culture clash with the next generation, who are, on the whole, not interested in collecting for the sake of collecting.
One brief anecdote to illustrate what I think is going on. A friend of mine here in town was browsing through a local wine and liquor store that most people view as a bit "on the snooty side." A younger man--probably in his late 30s, but still decades younger than most other patrons of the store--was also in the store talking to the owner and another employee about selecting a very nice bottle of wine. As he was paying, the owner was questioning him about how he planned to "store" the bottle of wine, because it would reach the "optimal price for resale" in five years or so. His response: "Oh no, I'm drinking it tonight, with dinner." My friend swears he nearly dropped his handle of Wild Turkey 101 (yes, that's how we roll here, y'all) when the guy responded that his wife had asked him to pick up a bottle of wine and Wendy's on the way home. End of story: he bought the wine, and I'm sure it was great with his Baconator, but after he left the shop owner said some pretty rough things about whether or not they should have sold it to him at all.
To a high-end pen "collector," this guy would be the equivalent of the fountain pen "newbie" who comes to the D.C. Show, buys a mint Parker Vacumatic, and proceeds to ink it from the 12-year old bottle of Baystate Blue at the ink testing table. The new fountain pen enthusiast thinks, "why spend four hundred dollars on a beautiful writing implement that I'm never going to use?" At the same time, the dealer who sold him the pen is likely thinking: "This 'kid' just destroyed that pen's 'value.'" But perceived value is entirely subjective, and the new group of fountain pen users seems to value the experience of using the pen over owning the pen as an investment piece. Like the wine-shop owner, many vintage pen collectors/dealers are not going to understand this mentality, and we shouldn't expect them to. We should, however, all be able to be civil to each other and coexist peacefully in this little niche we've carved out for ourselves.
The Pen Community Has Already Changed
I don't want to be too black and white here, because there's also a lot of gray. It's a sliding scale. There are "collectors" attending the shows who are also enthusiastic users of fountain pens. There are people who have been attending shows for years, such as Susan Wirth and her team, who are devoted entirely to helping people find a good fountain pen to actually write with. And on the whole, it's these people who are welcoming the new crowd in with open arms, because they understand that if these pen shows--not to mention their individual businesses--want to survive into the future, they have to adapt and change their target audience.
I don't think that we can expect the "pure collector" contingent to all of a sudden change in how they approach the hobby, and they're probably not going to understand the new crowd anytime soon. (I want to avoid saying the "younger contingent" because what I refer to as the "new crowd" is incredibly age diverse, and there are some younger collectors as well.) We are unwilling (or unable) to pay the often astronomic prices some of them think their pens warrant, and many collectors resent that fact and characterize it as a failure to "appreciate" their offerings, leading to what Brad Dowdy has characterized as the "get off my lawn" mentality. But the community has changed significantly in the past five years, and regardless, I'd venture to say that most of the "old guard" at least wants to try to embrace it. I've spoken with more than one dealer at shows who has expressed delight that "new blood" is showing up, as well as their own disappointment that they've been trying unsuccessfully to "drag" their own children and grandchildren to shows for years. In short, people shouldn't be afraid to attend shows or stop attending shows because they worry that they won't feel welcome. A pen show is what the attendees make of it: There may be a few crabby apples, but there will also be people to welcome you, and if you just decide not to go, then nothing will ever change, and the shows themselves may die. The different groups in this community can and should learn to live and let live, and for the holdouts, they're going to have to get used to the idea the community is changing and figure out how to adapt and go along with it. The worst possible outcome for everyone is that pen culture itself disappears, and I have a hard time believing that anyone in this community wants that to happen.
DISCLAIMER: It goes without saying that the views expressed in this post are my own, and I'm sure many people may have different thoughts and may disagree. That's what the comments section is for. I don't censor my comments, unless something goes completely out of bounds, so let fly!