In early September, NPR took on the issue of brick-and-mortar pen stores by focusing on one that has been up and running since 1924, Daly’s Pen Shop in Milwaukee, Wisc.
Daly’s bills itself as the oldest pen store in the US, selling mainly fountain pens and inks, as well as other high-end pens.
But the irony?
Just a few weeks after the NPR program aired, the store closed its main location after 90 years and moved into a smaller space because rents were too high and customers too few to keep the doors open.
Unfortunately, that’s what’s happening to pen shops in the US and, to a lesser extent, the UK. The niche market is being squeezed on the local level to the point that they are being forced to shift online or go out of business.
It’s one of the reasons Tiger Pens is an online only store. There simply aren’t enough walk-in customers in Essex to cover the overhead for a full-on retail shop. Even the venerable Art Brown store in New York City had to close this summer. That’s a bad sign when a city the size of NYC can’t support one of the best-known pen shops in the US.
We all mourn when we lose a brick-and-mortar store that is important to us, whether a bookstore, a pen shop or a hobby shop. It lessens our sense of community and robs us of one of life’s more enjoyable experiences, being able to immerse ourselves for a bit in a world we love.
With the loss of each pen store, pen people become just a little bit more isolated from each other. And new pen enthusiasts find that they are left without anyone close to guide them as they try to navigate the intricacies of pen collecting.
Is it likely this is going to change? Probably not.
In a thread titled “The Death and Life of Great Pen Stores” at the Fountain Pen Network, the general consensus seems to be that the niche pen market is too small and too globally scattered to be able to keep a local pen store in business.
As one commenter said, aside from hardcore pen collectors:
I doubt that most people are interested enough in writing supplies to become regulars at a stationery store. With one reliable fountain pen, and perhaps one more as a backup, it could be many years before your piston filler needs an overhaul, or you need to buy a new converter. Depending on how much you stock up, it could again be years before you run out of paper or ink.
But the dwindling of pen stores does not equal the dwindling of pens.
First, I don’t think pen shops will ever cease to exist completely. Remember how everyone predicted the death of independent bookstores? Their numbers shrank, but independent book stores are still thriving.
There are still dozens of great pen stores around the world, from New York’s Fountain Pen Hospital to our friend Andy’s Pens in Kent. To see more of them, just check out this excellent global list of pen stores compiled by Glenn Marcus.
There are even new ones opening, such as the much anticipated Anderson Pens shop coming to Appleton, Wisc.
Second, as it has done for most niche markets, the Internet has given new life to pens and the pen community.
As for Daly’s Pen Shop, where walk-in business had fallen off so sharply, owner Brad Bodart says online pen purchases now account for about 70 percent of his sales, according to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.
The Writing Instrument Manufacturers Association reports that pens, pencils and markers are a $4 billion dollar annual industry. In 2011, the US alone imported 3.7 ballpoint pens and 11.8 million fountain pens.
Not too bad for a “dying” technology.
But what do you think? How will brick-and-mortar pen stores fare in the future, and will their survival affect the future of pens themselves?