Fountain Pen Doctor Gets Rid of the Rough Stuff

By Michael S. Rosenwald
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 9, 2009

Richard Binder's first patient of the morning was delivered by Air Force Maj. Jared Grimmer. Ailment: bum left tine.

The condition is not altogether rare, considering its location -- on the nib of Grimmer's 1920s Swan fountain pen. A tine is a sort of tapered finger, two of which form the nib's tip. To Binder, one of the world's top pen doctors, an injured tine is about as complicated as a hangnail.

Sitting in a ballroom Saturday at the Sheraton hotel in Tysons Corner at Washington's annual pen show, Binder lowered the magnifying lenses from the optivisor on his head and adjusted his desk lights. "The tine is sprung," he told Grimmer, who lives in Stafford. "No problem."

Using a burnishing tool, he pressed the tine back into a place. In an increasingly digital world, the image of Binder tediously treating a fountain pen is rather quaint, like flipping through a Life magazine at an antiques store. Tell a teenager you are off to a pen show and the reaction might be: "What?" But vintage fountain pens -- and their repair -- seem to be faring well in a digital world.

More than 2,000 people are expected to stream through two ballrooms full of pen dealers this weekend at the country's largest pen show. Many will line up for Binder's services, traveling to see him from locations near and far, including New York and Saudi Arabia. They carry their pens in shirt pockets, or locked metal briefcases, or wrapped in tissue paper, or in one instance, in an old and presumably washed Chinese takeout container.

"I am computered out," said Nancy Kassim Farran, 58, a systems integration specialist in New York. She needed Binder to put a little edge on a soft nib. "This is the analog balance to my digital life."

Binder's life was once completely digital. He worked as a software engineer in New Hampshire and dabbled in collecting and fixing fountain pens. He taught himself about pen anatomy and is proud of his ability to heal even the worst of the worst pens. "It is God-given talent," he said. "I am just very skillful with my hands."

As word of Binder's talent spread among pen aficionados, he opened a part-time pen repair business at his house in Nashua, N.H. He took a buyout from his company in 2002, netting enough cash, he said, to start a full-time analog business, with wife Barbara's assistance. A year later, the Binders were stunned that they had not spent a nickel of buyout money.

The couple continue to run the business, dubbed the "Nashua pen spa," from their house. They work 60 hours a week. He has a backlog of four months, which is why he is in high demand at pen shows. Line up early enough, and Binder will assess your pen, watch how you write and fix the nib accordingly. On the spot. The bill: $30 to $50. Some people want medium nibs turned into fine. Some nibs are scratchy and need to be smoothed. The sickest of the sick travel back to New Hampshire in Binder's PT Cruiser.

Binder, 62, works at a small table equipped with three desk lamps. Behind him, hanging on the wall, is a bumper sticker that says, "My fountain pen writes better than your honor student." He keeps many of his tools in a fishing tackle box. Also on the table are several bottles of ink, notepads for testing nibs, a buffer and a grinder.

Once Binder is satisfied with the nib, he writes the beginning of the Gettysburg Address with it: "Four score and seven years ago," Binder said. "Those words have all the moves I need to see in the nib." Everyone who has a pen repaired by Binder receives a sheet of paper with those words written with the repaired pen, sort of like a family doctor giving a patient a copy of blood test results.

"He's very methodical," said Bob Johnson, the Washington show's organizer. "He's doing a unique type of work. People love coming to see him here."

Washington is one of Binder's busiest shows. He typically works on 25 pens a day. This is, according to pen industry insiders, a top pen town. Most major cities have one fine-pen store, but Washington has several, including Bertram's Inkwell, which has been in the White Flint Mall for nearly 25 years, and Fahrney's Pens, a District presence since 1929.

"Washington is unarguably the biggest pen show in the world," Binder said. "There's a lot of passion."

When Grimmer, the Air Force major, was assigned to the Pentagon, one of the first thoughts he said he had was, "Oh, good. Closer to the pen show." And to Binder's tender care. After working on Grimmer's pen for 20 minutes, Binder handed it back to him and said, "Try it now." Grimmer wrote a little bit, then handed over the pen for one final adjustment. He tried the pen again and said, "This works great." He stood up, paid the bill, and Binder said, "Who's next?"

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