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Letter to the Pen Addict Community

Fr. Kyle Sanders

I will start with some qualifications. What I'm writing won't apply to all of you, and first and foremost is addressed to myself. I also take into account the less than stellar time Matt Armstrong (aka Pen Habit) had at the LA Pen Show only a week and a half ago. Furthermore, my intention is neither to brag or alienate, and where I unintentionally do so, call me out. My intention is rather to speak and attempt to unify. 

I am going to the Arkansas Pen Show this weekend. It will be tiny compared to LA or DC (although it is reducible to LR if they wanted to rebrand it), and it will lack the Pen Addict Community that makes Atlanta so much fun. I will ostensibly only know Shawn and Elizabeth Newton and Lisa Vanness. It won't have the displays or the enormity of vendors. Furthermore, I suspect I will see my fair share of fishing vests and men old enough to be my grandfather. The thing is I will be uncomfortable. I won't have someone to relay ideas off of or be my wing-man, or me his. And that's okay. It's okay I'm entering into the deep, unknowing of what I will find. 

The Pen Addict thing

Brad and Myke have watched this awesome community form around their podcast and Brad's blog. It's spawned a Pencil Podcast and countless new pen blogs, this one included, courtesy of Squarespace advertisements. We all value Brad and Myke's opinion. When Brad has recommended a pen, a retail rush on that product occurs. Recall the Matte Black Pilot Vanishing Point being one of the highest selling products at JetPens, or the sell outs at Pen Chalet due to a promotion. Nakaya found a new market when Brad got his orange scar pen. We value his thoughts, to his credit. 

To an extent, we don't veer outside of what he has recommended. I haven't asked Brad, but I would venture to take a guess that one of the regular questions he gets from the PA Community is, "when will you review this ..." If it hasn't received the Dowdy seal of approval, is it worth buying? We have the relative comfort of reading a review about this pen or that pen from the whole host of awesome blogs and, if you dare, the Fountain Pen Network (FPN) forums. But not everything has been reviewed, or an item may have received less commendation from a reviewer due to personal bias. We certainly aren't perfect, and reviews have no objective standard. Do we as pen people, then, just patiently wait until someone reviews a mid-century Shaeffer or a sweet looking 20's Conklin, or one of the many models of the Parker Duofold?

The internet has really allowed, through the studying of reviews, for us to make more informed choices than our forefathers in the hobby. But I think it can also stagnate our ability to learn things ourselves by making mistakes. We're conservative, not with our wallets, but with what we buy. That's partly due to our budgets, but I think fear is also a factor. What if I buy a pen I don't like it, or I buy a pen that doesn't work properly, or isn't something I've heard about before? We might have a fear of missing out with regard to new products, but we can also have a fear of making a mistake, especially in online purchasing. But if we don't make mistakes, we don't learn from them, and we place our trust on Brad, or others, to more or less make our decisions for us as to what is a good pen. 

The Old School and New Media

I think that's one of the differences between "the old guard" and us newbies is they made many, many poor pen purchases before they amassed the collection they now sell at pen shows. I think there's a resentment toward us "youtube people," as Matt experienced, because we share our mistakes and our joys in pens with the world, as opposed merely to this small community. Despite being a global industry, fountain pens, at least in the United States, seemed to me to be very tribal Within the tribe there was safety and protection and community. With the dawn of the internet, FPN, Youtube, blogs, and a podcast globalized their hobby, opening it up to new sectors and demographics. No longer can the fountain pen hobby be anti-digital technology. We now sit with our phones, and cameras, and computers and set fountain pens alongside technology, not separate from but integrated into our digital lives and the digital continent. Fountain pens used to be part of the small band of rebels who held out against the digital revolution. No longer. And that is a difficult thing to realize for the men in fishing vests. To admit one is wrong (i.e. digital and analog cannot be integrated) is a difficult thing. New things mean change and despite what we say to the contrary, we humans are very uncomfortable with  change. 

The resentment of the old guard, I think, other than above, is that we don't make the same mistakes they did. We come in to a show having read this review, or that blog post, or that website and are looking for a specific thing not because we have personal experience of it, but because we read about it. This experience is in counter-distinction to theirs. Their first pens, and collecting them, was trial and error. The wealth of knowledge was in the hands of the sellers, who shared that wealth. We seem to have all the answers before the question is posed. So all this experience they've amassed about these pens can seem, to them, to be overlooked or devalued by our research. And although they shouldn't, many take our preparedness personally because they invested so much time, energy, and money to acquire and understand this little pen they're selling. 

I'm certainly not defending grumpy men in grumpy moods being donkeys to interested buyers. I'm rather trying to give context to the seeming grumpiness of many. Just as they shouldn't take our preparedness personally neither should we take their resentment personally. There are reasons for both and mercy need reign. 

With all our research, there's something extremely valuable in the grumpy man's experience. No one wants to feel devalued, especially when there is an age gap, and that devaluation takes on an added generality (old vs. young). A way to bridge the gap is, instead of leading with our research, we gain their perspective first. How did he acquire the pen in question? What is it's history? Show him you value his experience because, in truth, his experience is invaluable, which is the same reason why we put so much trust in Brad's two-cents in the first place; he has experience where we don't. If the seller balks or is still mean, move on and don't take it personally. 

The Value of a Pen show

On the internet, we are afraid of making poor purchases. Amazon has trained us to be prepared buyers who have sought out the experience of others. At a pen show, we can make mistakes and buy a bad pen or a pen, which at first, seemed great  but turned out to be more or less than what we bargained for. It's the place where we can let go of the fear of making a mistake and learn, by asking, by casting lines and sowing seed. It's the place where we can tap into the shared experience of pen aficionados who have been talking pens before I started using one in the fourth grade. The pen show is the place where we can bridge the gap between oral knowledge and wiki-knowledge. 

I will be keeping this all in mind as I drive up to Little Rock this weekend. I will test it out, make mistakes, maybe even get offended by some grumpy old man. But my hope is that I'll gain some new stories and experiences that I'd never hear in the Slack room or on Instagram, unless there was a Humans of Pen Shows. (Somebody's got to make that happen! I mean come one there's an Orcs of New York!)