Bert Oser, the proprietor of Bertram’s Inkwell, sent me the following note the other day: “Pens are in the headlines!”
I went over to discuss the matter with him at once.
Bert has been selling fountain pens at his White Flint Mall shop since 1985. I’ve been buying pens from there since 2004 -- some my wife knows about, some she doesn’t. (The beauty of our marriage is that I sometimes perjure myself when it comes to pens, and I assume she behaves likewise with shoes. We are happily married.)
The headlines came from London in the form of a BBC report headlined, “Why are fountain pen sales rising?” and in a Paul Theroux essay in the Wall Street Journal titled, “The Powers the Flow From a Pen.”
“You might expect that email and the ballpoint pen had killed the fountain pen,” the BBC story said. “But sales are rising, so is the fountain pen a curious example of an old-fashioned object surviving the winds of change?”
Parker Pen Company says the last five years have brought a “resurgence” of sales. Lamy, a German maker with a distinctive Bauhaus design ethic, told the BBC that sales were up five percent in 2011. Amazon reports sales have doubled this year and have quadrupled since 2010.
You are now probably wondering why I am telling you this, at the risk of revealing pen purchases my wife doesn’t know about. Ultimately, my duty to the truth is unassailable, and the truth is this: Fountain pens are to Maryland what gambling is to Las Vegas. I know of no other state in the union, except perhaps New York and California, with as many stores exclusively selling pens as the Free State.
With my German-made Pelikan fountain pen (fine nib) loaded with Waterman blue ink, Bert and I stood at his counter and sketched out on my notepad -- on Japanese paper, which I find magically smooth -- the number of Maryland outlets.
There’s his shop, which deals in new, modern pens. There’s Pen Haven in Kensington, owned by architect-turned-pen-impresario Bert Heiserman, who sells mostly restored vintage pens like the kind your grandparents wrote with. There’s the Write Shoppe in Annapolis. There’s Pen Boutique, with stores in Columbia and Montgomery Mall. Fahrney’s, the 83-year-old District pen shop, has its distribution center for its catalog store in Upper Marlboro. (The DC pen show every August in Tysons Corner is the world’s largest.and there are several pen stores in northern Virginia.)
How is it that all of these stores selling a seemingly niche product can not only survive near each other but thrive, especially in a digital world?
“It defies logic,” Bert says.
But it says a lot about the character of our state and our region.
We are well educated. We move a lot of paper in our jobs. We have above-average incomes that can support a fancy pen purchase of $400 or more. (Many of the best pens are much, much cheaper, even less than you would pay for a decent watch.) We are not from here -- not all of us, anyway. Many Marylanders working for the government or in biotech firms or at the NIH were educated overseas, where the culture around fountain pens in schools is still strong. Late in summer, Bert’s store is filled with children from German and French schools picking up new fountain pens to start the school year.
But it’s not just Maryland supporting the pen trade. While Bert reports his in-store sales have been hurt by a drop in mall traffic -- White Flint, moribund for years, is scheduled for demolition -- his online sales are booming. He showed me a day’s worth of shipments about to head out the door, with addresses including Clinton, Miss., Ambridge, Pa., and El Paso, Tex.
“We get new customers daily,” he says. “The pen business is not going away.”
In a world of Facebook, iPhones and Kindles, that’s news worth more than a headline. Stop the presses.