At Philadelphia Pen Show, artistry in hand as well as on paper

    Technophiles have just had their fun at that annual gadget extravaganza called the International Consumer Electronics Show, concluded this past week in Las Vegas. Attendance: upward of 150,000.

    Now I get my turn. I’m at the Philadelphia Pen Show, in progress this weekend at the Sheraton Philadelphia Downtown Hotel. Attendance: downward of 1,500.

    In Las Vegas, all manner of laptops and electronic tablets were on view, to say nothing of such essentials as a fork that vibrates when you’re eating too fast. That’s the future fast becoming the present, I suppose.

    Myself, I like an occasional dip into the past, and at the Sheraton I find kindred spirits. What brings us here? “It’s an aesthetic,” says Richard Kunin, who’s staffing a table for the Philadelphia Pen Collectors Group, a loose-knit organization of pen enthusiasts.

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    That says it for me: the right feel of a fountain pen in the hand — the right shape, the right heft, the right balance; the seemingly boundless choice of design, whether clean or busy; the smooth glide of nib on paper, with just a bit of tactile “tooth”; and, foremost, the ink flow of liquid lines that dry into the most personal expression. My handwriting may be nigh illegible — but it’s mine.

    You might even hope this aesthetic will survive through another generation. Without overdoing the point, Bert Oser, who organizes the Philly show, says he now encounters young people who are intrigued by fountain pens. That’s progress of a sort. Oser has owned and operated Bertram’s Inkwell in a Washington, D.C., suburb since 1992. Back then, while talking with a prospective landlord about his plans for a fountain-pen store, Oser provoked this response: “A what?”

    Now, walking around the 115 exhibit tables at the Philly show, I see the usual cast. There are a few reps for the big manufacturers, several retailers, lots of collectors, a few hobbyist pen makers, a professional calligrapher. One fellow has quills on offer. Quills!

    Some people I know, or know of, are here, too. In the far corner of one of the exhibit halls, with his magnifying visor and grinding wheel, is Richard Binder, come all the way from New Hampshire. He’s a nibsmith as well as an online retailer and the designer of his own Gate City Pen line. I hope to see Richard today. The nib on my Pelikan 400 needs his touch.

    Also here is Howard Levy, founder of the Bexley Pen Co. The truly useful fountain pen, that is, a pen that wouldn’t burp ink, is an American invention. Parker, Waterman, Sheaffer — the men whose names that live on in their companies — all were American entrepreneurs bringing something new to the world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Over time, however, those companies found themselves in the clutches of acquiring conglomerates. Production moved off shore. It then fell to the likes of Levy, feeling an entrepreneurial itch that needed scratching, to bring the fountain pen home. Bexley will never be a globe-encircling conglomerate, but at his Ohio production facility Levy has been fabricating pens of beauty since 1993.

    The early 1990s, indeed, appear to be when the fountain-pen market settled onto a plateau after its decades-long free fall. Shows like this one in Philly got started. Now there is a show in one city or another about every month.

    There are even a few young bloods who have followed Levy into bringing industrial design and small-shop machining to the level of craft that approximates art. One is Brian Gray, the founder of Edison Pen Co., also in Ohio. He’s here, too, with his business partner and wife, Andrea. Look at their trays of sample pens — pens of acrylic and celluloid and ebonite, in patterns of old marble or crushed shell or persimmon swirl or … well, it never ceases to amaze, the variety that can be worked into the simple cylinder of a pen barrel.

    Gray, this relative newcomer, tells me a nice story about his elders. For part of his product line, he wanted to modify a pen component known as a pneumatic filler, a throwback to an earlier age of pen-making. There he was, having tossed aside a career in pharmaceutical sales, to venture all with Edison and compete with Bexley’s Levy and Gate City Pen’s Binder, among others. But he needed advice on his modification (something to do with an O-ring).

    Where did he seek it — and get it? Levy and Binder. That’s something about pen shows. They congregate some decent folks.

    They also rekindle obsessions. I thought I’d extinguished a long-held urge to possess a Lamy 2000. You could say this pen is humble, a dull charcoal in color, perhaps a tad plump at the barrel’s midsection. Or you could say, as I would, that it succeeds in its Bauhaus design, as pleasingly spare as a MacBook Air without being severe.

    Now at the show I spy one, a Lamy 2K, and the price is right. Uh-oh. That old urge quickens. Why didn’t I leave my wallet at home? The collector is carrying extra nibs. I can test any or all of them, from broad to extra-extra fine, and have what I like fitted to the barrel right here. The descent into utter obsession is inevitable. I become the owner of a 2K.

    As for my Pelikan 400 in need of grinding, the queue at Binder’s table is so long I’ll never get to him in time. The time on my parking meter several city blocks distant is about to expire. I must run. But I’m guessing Binder will get back to the Philly show next year.

    It’s a good bet I’ll be there, too.

    Richard Koenig lives in Newtown Square.

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