Spread out on the counters before them were pens in a rainbow of colors, each a tiny magic wand looking for its perfect owner.
Like vinyl records, fountain pens are back.
“You know there’s a worldwide nib shortage?” said Ken Jones, vice president of a California-based company called Yafa Brands that both makes pens and imports them from Europe.
Jones said there’s an eight-month backlog for orders at the nib factory he deals with in Berlin.
The nib is where, metaphorically speaking, the rubber meets the road. Speaking literally, it’s where the ink meets the paper.
“On a turntable, the most important part is the needle,” said Scott Hammer of Sailor Pen. “On a fountain pen, it’s the nib.”
Hammer has been selling pens since 1980 and has represented companies such as Waterman and Pelikan. He was at Fahrney’s repping Sailor, a Japanese company known for its super supple nibs, made of gold and available in seven widths, from extra-fine to “music.” (For writing musical notation.)
“Fahrney’s was always a tiptop customer,” he said. “For those that fancy pens, this is a little bit of heaven.”
Of course, to get to heaven, you have to die. But the fountain pen world is robust, or is at least in one of its periodic upswings.
“A Montblanc pen was the power tool of the 1980s,” said Chris Sullivan, whose parents Jon and Corinne bought Fahrney’s from founder Earl Fahrney in 1972. In that greed-is-good decade, the white-tipped cap of a Montblanc peeking out from the pocket of a French-cuffed, monogrammed shirt was a signifier of influence.
In the 1990s, high-end, limited-edition pens took off, Sullivan said. The recession of 2008 dried up the ink on those for a while. The current fountain pen revival, penfolk agree, has been driven by an unlikely group: millennials.
Yes, a generation that wasn’t taught cursive and whose members do most of their writing on a keyboard or smartphone screen has breathed new life into the old-fashioned fountain pen.
“There’s less writing now, but when they do write, they want a good experience,” Hammer said.
That means premium pen, nice paper, unusual ink — stuff that looks good on Instagram. Sullivan said a lot of the pens are used for keeping something called a dot journal or a bullet journal, which is basically a fancy to-do list.
There are now indie pen companies that rival indie record labels and indie beer companies in the loyalty they inspire.
They attract customers like Rachel Crawford, a 31-year-old web developer and graphic designer from Fort Washington, Md.
I asked how many fountain pens she owned.
“Total number of pens? I’m not sure,” Crawford said. “Twenty-six are inked at the moment.”
She rotates through her pen collection, bringing five to work with her every day in a Franklin-Christoph “penvelope,” each filled with a different color of ink. Rachel’s favorite pen is a Stipula Etruria Rainbow Prisma 88. It was the first expensive fountain pen she bought, a gift to herself after getting her driver’s license a couple of years ago.
That pen was around $500. You can pay less for a decent fountain pen. And you can pay a lot more. A limited-edition pen from Namiki in Japan, its shiny black lacquer sprinkled with gold dust, was on display at Fahrney’s for $7,000.
At the back of the store, Chuck Edwards — a.k.a. the Pen Doctor — was tweaking customers’ pens. He’s worked at Fahrney’s for 37 years, cleaning and repairing pens. At the front, Ross Cameron demonstrated a $140 fountain pen from Conklin called the Crescent Filler, patented in 1901 as the world’s first self-filling fountain pen. Back then, it was a revolutionary alternative to the nib pen and bottle of ink you kept on your desk.
“It was the first pen that could go with you,” Cameron said. “It was basically the iPhone of its day.”
Fahrney’s is celebrating its 90th anniversary this year. I wonder if 90 years from now people will be visiting the Apple store with as much affection.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.