So one day in August, I went to the salon, billed as the biggest in the world. The exhibit areas at Marriott Fairview Park in Falls Church, Va., were teeming as pen enthusiasts made their way along the aisles, testing nibs with calligraphic flourishes and carefully holding pen barrels in their hands. Tables spilled out of the ballroom into the surrounding hallways and one floor below. About 170 vendors filled 250 tables and about 2,000 people attended for three days, according to Barbara Johnson, who runs the show with her son, Jeff Hancock.
The show’s t-shirts read, “My fountain pen makes fun of your inferior writing instrument” and “Don’t touch my nibs”. Companies had names such as Pendemonium and Inquisition. The DC Metro Pen Crew, a group of about 575 members that organizes pen shopping, meetings and other events, organized a table to donate new and used pens and accessories. There were pen kimonos and pen pillows. Wandering around such a space scribbling in a notebook with a felt-tip pen deserved pitying looks.
Vintage pen collectors are a mainstay at pen shows. Some of these people are more interested in pens as “a work of art rather than a writing instrument,” Ed Fingerman, former president of Pen Collectors of America and chief operating officer of Fountain Pen Hospital, told me. At New York. . They might collect art nouveau pens or celluloid pens like those by Pelletier, which became popular in the 1920s. Not all are prohibitively expensive; some can be purchased for less than $200.
Vintage pens make sense, said Baltimore resident and self-proclaimed “pen nerd” Yarelis Guzman, who attended the show. When Guzman’s mother was growing up in Puerto Rico, she won a Parker fountain pen as a member of an honor class. She lost it on her way home, and although she and her father searched, they could not find it. A generation later, Guzman continued the search at pen shows and eventually located and purchased the same style from Parker. She gave it to her mother for Christmas last year. “She was so happy,” she told me.
The pen shows also welcome new pen designers. “I’m a one-woman boutique,” said Lauren Elliott, of Reston, Va. “I’m the CEO, the head of marketing and the shipping department.” She named her business Lucky pens because she loves the night sky, and at the show she wore a black shirt covered in white stars. On her table, she displayed Celestial Moon Pens, on which she had collaborated with other artisans. They were shiny and galactic-themed with a purple and black swirling design and a moon-white round finial.
A mechanical, not obnoxious hum ran beneath the constant talk of vermilion ink and vintage Watermans. The sound came from grinding, as artisans shaped the nibs of fountain pens for customers. Individuality and customization are important to pen enthusiasts, said nibmeister JC Ament of Arlington, Va., whose company is called Feather Tailor. “A fountain pen is outdated technology,” he said. “It’s not a necessity. You want it to be something very tactile. It is a talisman.
Social media, Fingerman said, has been “huge” for the hobby. There are YouTube channels, blogs, and Etsy, Instagram, and Twitch accounts of so-called pen-influencers for penthusiasts. “There is no bottom in the rabbit hole,” said Arielle Fragassi, of Houston. “It goes deeper and deeper.”
The growing presence of digital technology in daily life has steered some towards the hobby, said Bryant Del Toro, a software engineer who creates content as a CeJournalingGuy. Expressing creativity digitally can be a challenge, he said. That’s where analog instruments and especially fountain pens come in: “You pick up the pen, you’re more intentional with your thoughts, and that adds a whole lot of personality.”
“If I sit down with a pen and ink, I’ll try to pair a pen with a specific color ink,” said Fragassi, a chemist and novelist who also runs an Instagram page with pen and stationery content. “I love pen-on-paper brainstorming because I can jot things down and come to different conclusions and get all that information from my head onto the page.”
In the living room, an ink testing station occupied long tables. Shelves of ink and containers of cotton swabs sat near rectangular sheets of white paper swatched with rows of ink, donated by vendors, with names including Blue-Ringed Octopus Blue and Gibson Les Paul Guitar Series Desert Burst. Spectators could use the swabs to sample different colors.
In the early afternoon the day I attended, the vendors seated back to back turned to talk to each other. To seminarkept away from the hustle and bustle of the ballroom and hallways, Geoffrey Parkergreat-grandson of the founder of parker, gave a lecture on company archives. The market and sale rooms continued to turn. A high level of loving conversation, the lively sound of an interactive community.
“What I write is fun to live with, and I think there are a lot of people like me,” Pelletier told me earlier. The crowded and lively event confirmed this. “You go to a pen exhibition,” Fragassi said, “and suddenly you’re surrounded by people and everyone is excited about fountain pens. You’ve found your people.
Eliza McGraw is a writer in Washington.