The enormous patina-green fountain pen juts over the sidewalk on F Street, two blocks from the White House, its gold nib pointing down at the front doors like a command.
“Allow me to dip it,” store manager Phuntsok Namgyal says softly. He bathes a nib in a bottle of blue-black ink and hands a fountain pen to a customer, who dashes off his signature.
“Perfect,” the customer says. “It makes you want to write more.”
In its 94 years, Fahrney’s has outlasted the advent of mass-produced ballpoints, the rise of email and text messages, and a pandemic that decimated newer downtown businesses all around it. Its staying power can be attributed to a base of loyal old customers, along with a new generation raised on the digital but enchanted by the mechanical.
But the future of a shop dedicated to luxury pens will depend on more people wanting to write more. Some parts of the country have become pen-shop deserts, said Jonathan Weinberg, an artist and curator of the Maurice Sendak Foundation in Ridgefield, Conn., a state where he knows of no pen shops. “It’s a dying breed.”
One reason for Fahrney’s resilience may be its location.
“There’s just so many potential buyers, between senior government employees, law firms, lobbyists, accountants” in Washington, D.C., said David Baker, executive director of the Writing Instrument Manufacturers Association. “There is a significant group of consumers that like to hold a fine writing instrument in their hand.”
Susan Ebner, 67, a lawyer from Potomac, Md., has been coming to Fahrney’s since the 1980s; on a visit last week, she reeled off the names of pens she had bought there and the year she had bought each one. Solomon Dennis, 79, of the District came in for refills.
“I was dealing with this shop when they were at the Willard,” he said, referring to the storied hotel. Fahrney’s moved to its current spot around the turn of the 21st century.
Dennis, leaning on a copper-colored walking stick, recalled the first pen he bought at Fahrney’s, in 1974: a Montblanc Diplomat. “It was a hundred and fifty dollars then; I think it’s a thousand and fifty now,” he said. When he lost it, he cried for a week.
Pens at Fahrney’s range from $20 to nearly $5,000 and from themes like Harry Potter to King Tut. Some have historical connections, like the Fisher Apollo, a ballpoint pen that traveled to the moon and contains gas that allows it to work underwater, upside down, in freezing temperatures and at zero gravity. A National Zoo pen features pandas.
Once, Fahrney’s sold a $130,000 pen “completely covered in diamonds,” store owner Chris Sullivan said.
Robert Collie, 58, of Vienna, Va., inherited a Parker 51 fountain pen from his father, who died when he was 8. “Three years ago, my mom says, ‘Oh, I forgot I had this; it was your dad’s,’” he said. Last week, Collie came to the shop to buy a similar one for his son, who was turning 25.
“I’m thinking maybe a fountain pen with his name engraved on it,” Collie said.
Choosing a pen is personal. How do you tend to hold it? Is your lettering large and loopy? Do you close your L’s? Do you prefer the feel of a light pen or a heavy one? Flashy or subtle? Fine tip or broad?
“It shows their individuality,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan’s parents bought the store in 1972 from founder Earl Fahrney. Sullivan, 62, worked in the shop growing up and now co-owns it with his sister; his 83-year-old mother is still working, too, in the warehouse in Upper Marlboro. (“I can’t get her to stop,” he said.)
Fahrney used to tell of how the store once supplied the White House, Sullivan recounted, aides “running down the street, knocking on his door after the shop closed.”
Nowadays, in-person purchases account for just 15 percent of sales; the rest is online and catalogue, he said. Still, the pandemic hit the shop hard. Its doors closed for three months, and business still hasn’t returned to what it was. “Look across the street,” Sullivan said, gesturing at papered-over shop windows. “It’s horrible.”
Worse were the lives lost during covid: Chuck Edwards, who repaired pens at Fahrney’s for three and a half decades; Elizabeth Spinks-Bunn, who taught calligraphy and cursive classes; and Sullivan’s father, Jon. The shop now displays Edwards’s neatly folded navy-blue work uniform, “The Pen Doctor” embroidered on its front, in a shadow box by his repair bench.
The store still does repairs, though it is getting harder to find parts. It also sells stationery, journals, inks and calligraphy books, a small bulwark against the drift of a country that long ago dropped handwriting classes from school curriculums.
And yet the generation that didn’t learn cursive has somehow fallen for fountain pens — and their interest is helping drive demand. The average age of customers at Fahrney’s is 60, but it is dropping, Sullivan said.
“There’s a lot of young buyers — ‘young’ being people in their 30s — paying $1,200 for a pen,” said Baker, the association director. “From what I hear, during covid, a lot of collectibles and fine items became significant as people had time to browse and look at these things.”
Trends like urban sketching and journaling have helped spur interest in fountain pens in particular, said Weinberg, who owns around 250 of them. “With a ballpoint pen, your hand tends to get a little cramped,” he said. “Your hand kind of flies across the page with a fountain pen.”
Like many old-school technologies, they do have drawbacks: the ink staining your hands when you fill them, the risk of leaks on planes. But for young people, who are embracing typewriters and vinyl, the glitches are part of the charm.
“Just as with records, you had all the scratches and skipping,” Weinberg said. “Young people don’t have that history, so they tend to romanticize.”
And so it was last week that a gaggle of young people, members of the concert choir at Otterbein University in central Ohio, skidded to a stop below the giant pen out front, mouths agape.
“A pen shop!”
Connor Rosenberger, a 19-year-old music major with flowing blond hair, had been searching for a fountain pen in every town the choir had visited on its tour. He said he takes notes in class by hand, because “psychology studies show you retain the information better,” and journals “all the time.” But there are no pen shops where he lives.
“It’s like a candy store for me,” Rosenberger said, standing in the middle of Fahrney’s, as if unsure where to turn. “A very expensive candy store.”
For his choir mates, too. Teddy McIntyre, a 21-year-old redhead with a denim jacket and a mustache, said he writes actual letters to relatives. “It’s kind of like opening a present, instead of getting an email sent to you. And it gives me an excuse to use my wax seal,” he said. And Anna Kate Scott, 22, said she writes novels and short stories by pen “because I feel more like I’m in it, rather than separated from it by a screen.”
At the counter, Rosenberger pointed at pen after pen, and Namgyal took each one out for him to try.
“This is so exciting,” Scott said. “You have to tell your mom that you found a whole fountain pen store!”
Rosenberger hesitated. The pen he was eyeing, an orange and black Monteverde Regatta Sport, cost $90. “She doesn’t like my obsession,” he said. “She’s like, ‘You only need one.’”
Soon, he was on the phone with her.
“I’ve bought nothing,” he relayed. “I actually broke one of my friends’ bracelets, and she didn’t ask me to, but I bought her a new one … and I bought myself a new ring that was five bucks.”
His friends were playing with a four-foot approximation of a Shaeffer fountain pen. They posed for photos with it. McIntyre held it up like a bazooka.
Rosenberger got off the call with his mom.
“She said use your best judgment,” he said.