Sunday at the L.A. Pen Show lived up to everything I'd heard about it, both good and bad. First, the good, which centered around the enthusiasm of the attendees and the local pen community. You have to really care about something to put up with the "logistical challenges" presented by a pen show that only has one public day, and Sunday from 10am-5pm at that. Despite extremely long lines, uncomfortably warm temperatures (inside), and bustling crowds crammed into too-narrow aisles, nearly everyone I spoke with from behind the Vanness Pens table was patient, polite, and happy to be there, which always makes for a good "pen-show" atmosphere. Unfortunately, on the vendor side, those same "logistical challenges" are forcing many out-of-town vendors to make difficult decisions, since L.A. is effectively a one-day show. Traffic is very light on Friday and Saturday, so vendors basically have to make up the cost of the weekend, plus any profit, on Sunday. Given the cost of attending, in terms of both time and money, I got the distinct vibe that this show may be in danger of falling off the list of "major" U.S. Pen Shows.
Why do I say that? Let's compare to the D.C. Pen Show, which has had its own (much-discussed) issues over the past few years. Despite the fact that the D.C. Show can also suffer from long lines, high temperatures (both inside AND outside), overcrowded ballrooms, and an iffy location, at the end of the day it's still THE BIG SHOW, and people keep coming back because (1) all the vendors are there; and (2) the vendors are there because the show is profitable enough to justify the expense. [Note: I’m not trying to reduce everything to money, but at the end of the day, it sets a baseline. Most vendors can’t keep attending if they lose money every year on the show.] When a pen show is open to the public for just a single day, and that single day is Sunday as opposed to Saturday, it severely limits the number of non-trader/exhibitor attendees. While someone planning to attend a pen show for a three-day mini-vacation might gladly spend $50+ for a “weekend trader” pass (as opposed to $8 for Sunday admission), someone who’s only able to go for a single day probably will not do so.
A big bright spot, however, was the quality of the hotel and the space itself (other than size). The show had some of the best light of any pen show I’ve attended. That said, the decision to move the show to a downstairs ballroom caused problems, including views and traffic flows being obstructed by concrete columns, “dead ends” where people got stuck, and where some vendors were effectively hidden. For example, I had no idea Tactile Turn was at the show until Will posted a photo on Instagram after I was already back in Nashville, and I could have sworn that I walked by every booth at that show multiple times!
How the L.A. Pen Show organizers respond to this year's event will likely determine whether this show remains a truly “international” pen show, or evolves into more of a regional event. In order for this show to be successful - and I define success in terms of both the promoter AND vendors being able to make money, while at the same time delivering a worthwhile experience to attendees - I personally think that the show needs to open to the public on Saturday and assign vendors permanent tables for all three days (Friday-Sunday) to allow them to fully set up. Of course, people have been saying this about the L.A. Show for years, and here we are.
I hope this show sticks around. Why? Because the show draws from a different geographical area than most of the East Coast shows, offering attendees access to a different group of vendors and vice-versa. For example, this year’s L.A. Pen Show featured the following vendors who don’t necessarily travel to a large number of shows:
Classic Fountain Pens a/k/a Nibs.com. From what I understand, John Mottishaw used to be a regular on the pen show circuit, but has since limited his travel to Los Angeles and San Francisco (though a few of his employees did travel to the D.C. Pen Show a few years back when it was still at the old location. One word: Nakayas!
Eboya. The Japanese Ebonite specialists. I didn’t have a lot of time (or money) to spend at their table, but Eboya brought some absolutely beautiful polished ebonite pens. I’ve flagged Eboya for a possible purchase later this year.
Stylo Art Karuizawa. Purveyors of gorgeous urushi and maki-e pens, including lacquered wood pens featuring nibs from Pilot, Sailor, and Platinum. They also remain on my list for a possible purchase, but since the pens are quite expensive I’m holding out for the perfect one.
One Star Leather Goods. Makers of high-quality, custom-made leather goods. I’m a big fan of Keegan’s work, and he sets up on Sundays, and sometimes Saturdays, at the L.A. Pen Show. He made me a custom leather cover for my Baron Fig Confidant, which I love and previously reviewed here.
Tactile Turn. Most readers of this blog should be familiar with Will Hodges and his machined pens. Much to my surprise (and dismay that I didn’t get a chance to visit with him), Will was at the L.A. Pen Show and may be attending San Francisco.
Straits Pens. Part of my pen show haul was a bottle of “Poor Man’s Sapphire,” which Sunny brought with him from Singapore. I’m loving this ink so far, and you should look for a review soon.
I had the opportunity to meet all sorts of other new people whom I had never met before, but most of my interactions took place on the show floor. The after-hours bar scene wasn’t as vibrant in L.A. as it is at other shows I attend, though the newly renovated hotel has a pretty good setup with long high-top tables, attentive bartenders, and a bright and airy space.
As I might have mentioned, I’m making an effort to branch out and visit as many new pen shows as possible this year. L.A. was my first adventure, and I’m certainly glad I made the trip out to the West Coast. It was great to see familiar faces, and also to meet many readers for the first time, in person! For all its “quirks,” the Los Angeles Pen Show offers a unique opportunity to visit vendors who don’t appear elsewhere. The main question for me is how long these vendors (and even attendees) will continue to visit this show, especially with the rise of the growing San Francisco Pen Show which has earned rave reviews in recent years.
Next up for me is the Baltimore Pen Show in less than two weeks! See you there!
Disclaimer: All observations and opinions expressed herein are my own, drawn from personal experience working behind the Vanness Pens table in both L.A. and D.C., and from conversations I had at the show with many different vendors, manufacturers, distributors, and attendees. This post contains links to paid sponsors and affiliates.