A plea for B&Ms

These days, we are spoiled for choice and convenience. A couple of mouse clicks and a piece of plastic are all you need to have your goodies and grails delivered to your door.

The online world offers plenty of choices and 24/7 shopping.

Names like Goulet, Chatterly, Binder and Mottishaw (and many others) built their enterprises on the vast frontier of the Web, and have done well. They have revived interest in writing instruments, and have brought fresh young recruits into this geeky hoarde.

Their success has also built swift bridges between small makers and a diverse global market. Brands like Bexley, Edison, Nakaya and Danitrio found devoted followings in areas outside their countries of origin, thanks to strong online channels.  But where one star rises, another wanes. This long tail has exacted a toll on what was once the lifeblood of pen companies – B&Ms.

Personally, this should worry us a bit. Pens after all are very personal articles. Blogs, forums and online vendors have tons of reviews of models from most every maker still standing. Yet nothing beats sight and feel. Holding the pen in your hands tells you clearly if the pen will dance, shake or stumble. And it is pen shops that allow us to do just that before we fork over our cash.

When the buying stops, the bricks come down.

Pen shops (in my area at least) are also the biggest supporters of local pen clubs. They listen to our recommendations and base many of their imports on our suggestions. They train their staff to make the purchasing experience a pleasant if not educational one. (If this sounds elementary, I can tell you that dip testing was not customary three years ago.) They handle warranty claims with genuine care, and badger the factory to insure that our stuff gets sorted out promptly.

They may or may not be present at the pen meets but they never fail to donate a prize (or three) to the club anniversary and Christmas gatherings. I have yet to hear them pitch a hard sell or lament that their inventory was moving slower than expected.

Taxes, licenses, payroll and rent do not make their uphill climb any easier but rather than tremble, they forge ahead. In fact, one brave shop is putting up another branch to bring their merch closer to curious crowds and pen fans in the rough. When you do the math, you quickly realize that all these labors exceed their monetary gains.

We don’t need to surrender our online chase but perhaps this year is a chance to help the stores find even a bit of respite. Buy local if the choice isn’t terribly painful. It may cost a few bucks more but it will do the hobby a world of good.

Of the twelve flasks of ink that we score each year, maybe three or four can come from the local store. If we wanted to gift a friend with a gateway pen, the neighborhood Brick & Mortar might have just the thing on sale. The damascened piston filler on display may be a tad rich for your blood but a few spare stubs for that trusty Taiwanese demonstrator won’t land anyone in the dog house. Plus your hand gets to know if italics are a good idea before you dispatch your precious Owner’s Club for a regrind.

These small bits add up and that’s the point. The community stays alive not because of epic productions, but by the steady modest patronage of every ink-stained hand in this addictive pursuit.

So pay your local pen store a visit. They’ve been waiting for you.


Birthday Pen 2013


Parker Vacumatics are undeniably popular pens. Collectors prowl flea markets, pen boards and eBay hoping to score uncommon variants.  Like this one.


The Long Major size is not so easily found. They do turn up but you have to look around a bit. Silver pearl is not a rare color, but finding one with clean white trim is another matter as the nickel bits, once tarnished, are almost impossible to restore.

(Top) The Blue Diamond marks a lifetime guarantee from Parker.
(Bottom) Self-colored jewels were typical of the higher line models of the series.

This one saw light in the second quarter of 1939. For a 74-year old pen, it is in great shape. The celluloid remains glossy and its transparency is excellent for its age. This striped splendor makes it easy to understand why these celluloid marvels become obsessions for collectors worldwide.

Those ambered stripes must have turned heads in 1939.

Its genteel appearance hides a secret –  a two-toned factory stub. Most Vacs came in Fine. Stubs accounted for less than one per hundred Vacumatics made, giving this one added cachet. It has some bite to it and is particular about how it is held to the page. Once its sweet spot is learned though, it’ll shake its moneymaker all night long.

The two-tone look is starting to fade but that tip is sharper than ever.

I am told Mike Masuyama tweaked the flow on this one, so it does not suffer the dryness common to Vacs. It is a slick writer which I can still use for meeting notes without consuming a small forest’s worth of paper.

They were right about the Long part.

What truly bestows immeasurable value on this pen is its provenance: it was a birthday gift from my best-est friend. When your significant other is also your Number 1 enabler, epic surprises like this make you weak-kneed and sentimental.

Thanks, Leigh!