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Blog

Arkansas Pen Show Recap

Fr. Kyle Sanders

taken by Lisa Vanness

It would seem odd to drive fourteen hours in two days to go to a show about pens, especially if the show had a mere twenty-seven vendors and only a few recognizable people. Despite the lower price of gas, it doesn't seem, to the 'sane person,' worth it. 

I posted last week how there is this awesome community that, at times, seems divided, and the division comes from fear and pride and a depersonalization of 'the other side.' Joe Crace, the Gentleman Stationer, furthered the discussion by highlighting the differing motivations of each 'side,' user or collector. All of this has generated much discussion amidst not only the Pen Addict Community, but beyond it into Facebook groups and no doubt elsewhere where I personally don't dare to trod due to prevalence of trolls, who, unfortunately, don't turn to stone when enlightened. All of these thoughts were bouncing around my head as I walked the tables of pens, had conversations with a great many people, and made a few purchases. 

Taken by Lisa Vanness

I arrived in time for the Friday night afterparty at Vanness. I was struck by the sheer number of things Mike and Lisa Vanness sell, from pens to cupcake tins and a myriad in between. That night  was a good chance to ease into the show. I knew some of the people by face from the Dallas Pen Show, a few years ago, and got to connect with some people I befriended there, namely the Newtons and the Nesbits, both awesome couples, one young, one old. 

Despite spending time on social media talking pens, a show can be a bit overwhelming because there is so much talk about the things we love. We can geek out and not get the upturned eyebrow. The night at Vanness made a good transition because it was as much about people catching up, person to person, as it was about the pens. I got to see people just hanging out talking about everything from mission trips to cooking supplies, of which Vanness had many. It allowed me to move from regular life and into the pen world. This insight gives new meaning to the fact that the publication, Pen World, greets every person who registers for the show, its name indicative of the subculture one is about to enter. 

At Vanness, I fell into a small conversation with Patrick, who has one of the few pen stores in New Orleans, Papier Plume, and who came up to the show as a vendor. We marveled at both the size and diversity of product in this family run store. As a store owner, he was amazed at especially the baking supplies they sold. He carries pens and pen related things, paper, bags, stamps, etc. This seemed almost contrarian. Why would a pen shop sell a large selection of cookie cutters and cupcake toppers? My answer was practical. It allowed them to stay open since 1938 and gives the shop a country general store flavor without the wooden Indian outside advertising a cigar brand. As I think now about it, at Vanness, pens aren't their own world but part of the world in which we live. It integrates them into daily living, on a subconscious level. When we enter a pen show, we step into a world of fantasy. There's certainly some hyperbole in the previous statement, but there's also some truth to it as well. Describing a pen show as magical isn't false.

It's somewhat appropriate, then, that the pen I purchased from Lisa, that first night, was, in a sense, connected to 'real life.' In the vast array of Bexleys she had, one with a woodgrain ebonite caught my eye. It was a limited edition commissioned by a local Arkansas outdoorsman and tourism entrepreneur, Jim Gaston, who apparently loved the New York Stock Exchange enough to call his limited edition pens, "The Bull and the Bear." The bull, the lighter, orange-ier of the two ebonites, caught my eye, and the lines and feel of the Bexley stub caught my heart. To boot, Vanness had all 100 of both Bull and Bear so I was able to get the number of my birth year. I'm not really a follower of the NYSE but the material and nib sold me. The pen had a story and connected me to Little Rock and New York. 

The next day, instead of entering the Castle Camelot or the Shire or Hogwarts, I entered into something smaller, like Merlin's hut or Bilbo's hobbit hole. It was cozy, homey, still full of magic but in a degree this little hobbit priest can handle. (I have this secret fear that going to DC is like entering the Lonely Mountain with Smoag inside. There's treasure to be found but you might wake a sleeping dragon. Forgive my imagination.) I had a few goals: a few pens needed fixing, I had my eye out for an OMAS 360, and I needed more storage for these pens I use. One day might not seem like enough time, but the show's smallness allowed me to take my time, both to browse and to talk. 

The magicians at shows are said to be the pen repairmen and nib workers. They can turn a broken pen and unusable nib into something new and glorious. Although this show lacked a worker of nibs, it did have two repairman, Jeff Powers and Danny Fudge. Both have wealth of experience and bot are fantastic guys to talk to. Danny had worked on a pen for me while at the Dallas Show so I figured I’d see Jeff, whom Lisa had introduced to me the night before. He was able to cox life out of an Esterbrook LJ and an Arnold Pen (I can never find which model), both of whom needed new sacs. I also left another pen with him to work on when he returns home. I dropped the pens off to him at the beginning of the day. Mid-afternoon found them in tip-top shape. I was grateful for the work he did, but, and this is what makes this community so great, he was even more thankful to me for the life I lead. What happened makes me feel uncomfortable because I don’t feel I deserve it. He waived his repair fee and then proceed to give me a Sheaffer Balance that he had restored, a beautiful little green pen. I am still both humbled and in awe of his generosity.

Generosity is something I think characterizes this community as a whole, whether it’s with information or with actual things. It’s one of the reason I love being in this community, not that I’m looking for handouts, but rather, generous people are people you want to be around. They build you up, recognize your dignity. It was the virtue that characterized my experience of the whole show. Everyone was generous, with time, with stories, with sharing experience, or trying pens. I think when an ungenerous person is encountered (I didn’t experience any in Little Rock) it comes as a shock to us newbies because our experience has been so overwhelming positive. 

I caught up with the Nesbit and Newtons at the show. It seems I get something from the Nesbits every show and I get something from Shawn a few month after the show. I saw an acrylic on his table that I really like, that will probably turn into a dip pen or one of his new pocket models. 

The Nesbits are a sweet couple in their 70’s from Oklahoma City. Dr. Nesbit found himself with quite a collection of pens, new and vintage, many of which he purchased from Mike Vanness. In Dallas, I got my first Esterbrook from them. Since then, he started converting cigar boxes into pen cases much like BamaPen. In fact, he connected with John Hubbard, of BamaPen's, when visiting a child or grandchild. He had a few of John’s pieces as well as a few of his own. One caught my eye for its being different. The cigar box turned pen cased didn’t have the profile of a warehouse viewed from 500 feet in the air but rather looked like an apartment complex that you can open from the top.  It stores 20 pens vertically. I determined it was mine. I also spied three OMAS 360’s in one of his trays. I returned three or five times to their table throughout the day, both to talk and to eye those pens. Aesthetically, I settled on the yellow one, over and above white and red. The 18k fine nib was dreamy, and they gave me a price I couldn’t refuse. It was my prize purchase and was the last one I made that day.

Most of my day, though was spent browsing the vintage offerings. I spent a good 30 minutes looking at some old pens one vendor had. I didn’t know how old, and the prices weren’t labeled. He had them on photocopies with a letter/number system to designate the pen. It worked well for him but not so well for me. I’m attracted to shiny and really liked these overlay pens he had. So I picked one up, examined it, and asked him about it. It was beautiful. I didn’t notice, until I look back in hindsight, how nervous he was as I handled his pens. One I really liked. I didn’t know the price, but I asked if I could try the nib. He promptly told me the pen’s history, late 19th century Parker, and the price, well above my budget. At that moment I was scared and no longer intrigued. He said something to the effect of, “I’d be afraid to break it if I used it.” And I realized, I didn’t want to buy a pen I would never use. 

Manning the Franklin-Christoph table while Jim was away. I guess he could trust the priest ... (Taken by Lisa Vanness)

This whole exchange happened across form the Franklin-Christoph table. I wonder if Jim Rouse, their penman extraordinaire, overheard our conversation. Later in the day, as I was playing with KWZ blues (Lisa gave me a bottle for review) at the Vanness table, I overheard my name. Jim was talking to a man in his seventies who wore an extra bushy, white mustache that floated out beyond either side of his face with spectacle sitting atop the bridge of his nose. Jim was explaining what I had read from the Gentleman Stationer earlier in the day, while at lunch. Us newer folk are more about the writing experience of a pen. We want a pen that writes well and looks good. A collector wants an old pen in pristine condition, whether the writing experience is good or not. Our goals are different. It was interesting to hear similar things from different quarters both from voices I respect. The conversation online about this has been great to follow. I think the commonality between collector and user lies in the fact that we both love pens. Our love may be for different reasons, but its mutuality bonds us together. I found that to be the case during my day in Little Rock.

Earlier in the day (forgive my non-linear storytelling), I had gone out to my care to deposit the cigar box I didn’t want to carry around. I stopped by the men’s room on my way back in. While there, I get a text from Lisa saying I won a door prize. Thankfully, although I wasn’t physically present, they didn’t pull another name. I came back to a large 13”x13” box with a whole Sheaffer No-Nonsense Calligraphy set and a gift certificate for pen repair from Danny Fudge. Again, the generosity of the community proved great. I was actually looking at generating a set for a calligraphy project I’m working on for my parish.

Sheaffer seemed to be the brand of the show for me: the No-Nonsense, the Balance, and then, a Sheaffer Triumph. One of my favorite pens in my collection is a Sheaffer Triumph Desk Pen, which is the only pen I own that is always inked up. The nib is quite unique, being intentionally upturned in what can leave the ignorant afraid the nib is bent. I was attracted by a Sheaffer (I didn’t know at the time it was a Triumph) with a very large cap band. I asked the vendor about the band. He then casually turned to the vendor to his right who seemed to me a fountain of knowledge not different from Merlin himself. The bushy white eyebrows furrowed and the stooped shoulders shifted and a worn voice opened up the annals of scribal history. This particular pen began production in the summer of ’41 only to be changed in design as the war machine took most of the metal. This design then is a special reminder that things changed drastically after December 7, 1941. I already knew I loved the nib. It didn’t take much more for me to make the pen my first purchase of the show. When I use it, I will write in the knowledge of the history that frames the pen and the freedom I still have to write what I please and publish prose on pens in the open forum of the internet.

I said goodbye as the show wound down, I walked out of this pen world and back into the real world (a phrase forever colored by MTV). In so doing, I came to the awareness of why this hobby and love of pens and pen culture has captured our imagination, our attraction to beauty, and ultimately our pocketbooks. The fantasy and magic of pens allows us to see the truth of the world in greater clarity. The colors and the lines, the letters and their shape give us the means to see the world. Despite the present mood of fear, bright greens and block letters remind us there is still brightness and solidity. So I leave you with a quote that fairly describes what I mean to say in betters words than I can compose.

“Can you not see that fairy tales in their essence are quite solid and straightforward; but that this everlasting fiction about modern life is in its nature essentially incredible? Folk-lore means that the soul is sane, but the universe is wild and full of marvels. Realism means that the world is dull and routine, but that the soul is sick and screaming.” - G.K. Chesterton

My haul.