August 23, 2015

Vintage Pen Shows Again

[Posted on L&P on Oct 2-8, 2008, and Jan 26, 2014.]
        Perhaps it might be time to have exclusively vintage pen shows again, you know, pen shows that are more like the pen shows of yore.  They could be more like conventions of PCA-Pennant, WES, Pentrace, Zoss, Stylophiles, acp-p, FPN, and L&P users and members and subscribers.  All modern pen dealers would be excluded, except as vintage pen collectors and dealers.  These shows would be more like conferences of pen historians and scholars, and serious collectors with well-advanced collections, and places for new collectors to meet with these people and pick their brains.  They could even be organized around visits to a pen company archive, like the visit that John Mottishaw put together for the PCA at the Parker archives in May 29-30, 1992 in Janesville, but with at least one day set aside for pen trading and selling.  I have fond memories of that visit.
        In the past, some of the best pen shows I have attended were held in conjunction with the Inkwell Collectors.  At one of these double shows, the one in Houston, I had an opportunity to visit with two local collectors and view two world-class collections, one of pens and another of inkwells.  We even started a tradition of a good old
Texas barbeque at one of these meetings.  These new shows could either have two separate display areas and auctions, or one large common display area and auction.  Something like this already goes on at pen shows when all the Zossers, or Pentracers get together and wear identifying badges, so that they can find one another.

        David Nishimura wrote, “Yes, indeed.  As I wrote back in 1999 in
“Rethinking the Pen Show”, a vintage-only show could be much cheaper to run and to participate in.  And the idea of joint shows with similarly-minded collectors in sibling fields is excellent.  One of the great pitfalls of collecting in the online world is the tendency towards tunnel vision: one searches by keywords and bookmarks, largely eliminating the serendipitous discoveries of real-world antiquing, just as browsing online is so different from a visit to a real bookstore.  Combined shows would facilitate that sort of lateral expansion of collecting interests that used to occur regularly, often as a result of conversations struck up with dealers and collectors over intriguing but unfamiliar objects spotted at general antiques shows.
        “And as I’ve said again and again, pen collectors really need to spend more time looking at how other fields of collecting run their events.  Field trips to major collections, factory tours, and historical site visits are routine features of other shows that we just don’t get at pen shows.  Ditto for space set aside at no or reduced cost for collections to be exhibited
or even contests for the best collection displayed.”

        And I wrote, “Yes, and the exhibitors should be the only ones to vote for the best-of-show, deciding amongst themselves who would be their choice for master pensmith at that show.  And the prize or award could be a copy of the P. F. C. Honor Roll
        “If someone wants to arrange a vintage pen show in his or her home town—and the duties of holding such shows could rotate between several people and different cities—just let me know the time and the place, and I’ll be there.  I wouldn’t miss it.  I remember the first pen show I attended.  When I entered the show room, I levitated a foot off the floor, and just floated around the show for the rest of the weekend singing “I’m in heaven”.  I didn’t come back down until the plane landed back at home, and then reality started to set in again.
        “I even tinkered with and repaired pens in the airport layovers.  At other shows I bumped into Susan Wirth, and Doug Berg, and the Lotts, and Jim Nahrwold, and many of the Minneapolis collectors, and we went to the North West Airlines lounges and drank, and had mini pen shows, and talked more pens.  David, you probably shared many a trip back home with Frank Dubiel.  Now, that would be quite a seminar to sit in on as an observer, watching two pensmiths having a dialogue about pen repairs, or whatever else would come up.  I remember a dinner at an LA Pen Show that I sat in on with a few lathemen including Paul Rossi, Chris Thompson, David Broadwell, and the guy who made pens from Ivory, and all they talked about was pen whirling.  They told nothing but machine shop stories, and I, their willing audience, treated it as if they were telling the stories for my own personal pleasure and entertainment.  It was great fun.”

        John Chapman wrote, “I believe the Portland Pen show, in practice, comes close to being vintage-only.  When I went two years ago, there were maybe 2 new-pen vendors, and they seemed very lonely.  Mostly it was tables of vintage pens.  I think I spent most of my time there digging through parts bins, and finding a few parts that I really needed, but I also put together a lovely two-banded Waterman #0614 from what I found.  I even ran into a few reviews from the new-pen aficionados who were rather disappointed.  Maybe it’s a place to start?”

        And I wrote, “And last year, if I recall correctly, the Portland Pen Show was held, if not in conjunction with, and in the same facility as, then at least on the same weekend as the Inkwell Collectors’ show.  You’re right, John, it’s a start.  They’ve got the right idea there.  And Columbus is also strong on vintage pens, and, to a lesser extent, so is Chicago, or at least they used to be.  But these shows, along with LA and DC, are still heavily weighted to the modern pen, and they are still half-a-week-long affairs.  And the NY show is no longer in NY.  The people who attended the first pen shows started the hobby, and the people who continued to attend through the 80s and 90s made the hobby.  But what we need now are shows like the first ones, something more like what David wrote about in his “Rethinking the Pen Show”, shows like the ones in London, and France, and Italy, and Germany, smaller shows held in smaller venues that are not necessarily tied in with the show hotel, but they should be held in major cities like NY, LA, and DC.  The hotels can be used for the meetings and presentations over a weekend.  All you need are 1-2 days, possibly 3, just enough for a show day, and for a day or two of seminars and colloquiums, and a couple of evenings for relaxed meals, perhaps catered dinners, and socializing at the hotel bar.  That’s where all the networking happens anyway, and also where all the good stories are told!
        “And some consideration should be given to those who bring portions of their collections for display, possibly with reduced table cost.  Right now, most pen shows are not so much shows, but sales.  The Wild Rose Antique Collectors Club in Edmonton holds an annual “Show & Sale” every spring, and they always reserve a certain numbers of booths for exhibitions and displays.  There are a few laudable exceptions to the rule of sales-only tables in the history of pen shows.  The Wash DC pen show used to have a vintage pen theme in its early days when Boris Rice and Bob Johnson were the co-promoters.  In 1992, the show had the theme of the Parker Duofold, and Boris used the occasion of bringing out some Parker Duofold store-display show cases full of pens and pencils and desk sets and other ephemera.  I always looked forward to and enjoyed the displays that Dr. Richard Barbee put on at the Chicago Pen Show.  One year he had a display of a few hundred different pencil sharpeners from his collection, and another year it was nothing but Duofolds in vintage show cases.  But one time when I was at his table getting the personal treatment, with a hands-on guided tour of the pens, some guy came along and asked the price for a pen.  When he was told that the pens were on display only and not for sale, the guy rudely left in a great big “showy” huff.  He wouldn’t even stop to look.
        “And one of the nicest parts of the now-defunct Houston Pen Show was seeing the early Parker show cases full of early Parker filigree and overlay pens that Stan Pfeiffer would bring to the show for display.  The other nice part of the show was staying over an extra day for a great beef barbeque that Stan held at his place, every year since 1995, on the Monday following the show.  Not only did we get to see the rest of his collection at his home, but other people also started to bring substantive portions of their own collections for show-and-tell.  On one occasion I recall that Michael Fultz brought several trays of rare, early hard rubber pens from his collection, now in the Sachs-Fultz Museum, that we handed around and looked at while Fultz gave an informal talk about the pens.  Some of the autographs I collected on the occasion of that show weekend are in the
above link.  I also got the recipe for a great chicken salad sandwich from Pete Kirby’s 94-year-old grandmother, who was absolutely delighted that someone noticed the diced Granny Smith apple that gave a nice sour crispy crunch to her recipe, so she came down to the show to meet the guy who noticed it.  Mmmm, yum, yum! both the pens and the salad.
        “These are the kinds of things that stand out in my memory, not what’s new in new pens, and the newest shade of pink, or burgundy, or brown ink, and what pen you are carrying in your pocket and not using today.”

        David Nishimura wrote, “And while we’re at it, don’t forget the displays at the Columbus show of selections from Dick Johnson’s collection, and Paul Sameth’s desk sets at DC.  Credit where credit is due!
        “For a while I was trying to organize a floating pen-scholars’ round table, where members would arrange to get together at a show and bring show-and-tell pieces relating to a given topic. or topics.  I confess I didn’t keep up with the effort as much as was required, but the idea was sound and just takes a little more persistence than someone with three young children can muster.”

        And I wrote, “I missed those displays of selections from Dick Johnson’s collection at the Columbus show because I didn’t get to that show, and my one big pen-collecting regret is that I didn’t attend that show more often.  The one time that I did attend a Columbus show, I had to get to the airport at 4:30 AM for a flight at 5:30 AM that arrived at the Minneapolis hub just in time to miss the connection with the only early morning flight to Columbus, so I grudgingly booked my flight inspire of the long layover.  I had to sit in that sterile airport the whole day waiting for the only late-afternoon flight that got me into Columbus about 8:PM, and into the hotel about 9:PM.  So you can understand why I didn’t attend more often.  To that particular show’s credit, however, I did find someone from Canada at the show who had two RHR Waterman’s #55 bandless caps without the groove machined into the lip, both from a large pen repairman’s stock of parts, and I talked him out of one of them.  And as for Paul Sameth’s desk sets in DC, it was my understanding that all his desk sets were for sale, and not just on display, but I might be wrong.  He kept complaining that his wife wanted him to downsize his desk set collection.
        “By the time you were organizing those floating pen-scholars’ round tables, I had stopped attending pen shows, mostly to finish my pen patent book, but also because the shows had by then lost their luster for me.  And travel across the border had also by then become more and more unpleasant and uneasy.  Perhaps it’s time once again to consider organizing those round tables.  By the way, when I show my book to anyone I call it “my baby”, and like you, I have a second and third one on the way.”

        David Nishimura wrote, “Yes, the flight connections are not very convenient for Columbus.  This year I managed to get a very cheap ticket from Providence, but it still takes nearly as long to get there as to go all the way to California, once layovers are factored in.
        “Paul Sameth’s desk set displays at DC were usually in the entrance area, in glass display cases, and were clearly there as exhibits, not as sale items.  Don’t confuse those displays with the sets he was selling, which were inside the room on tables with price tags.
        “The idea for the round tables was very much rooted in the desire to remedy not only the loss of a central meeting point with the shift from shows to online forums, but also that very discontinuity between experienced and new collectors that has been discussed so extensively in this thread.  At a typical show, there are always spontaneous conversations between serious collector-scholars—usually sitting behind a table, at the bar, or at a restaurant—which are fascinating and productive and completely invisible to those drawn instead to their favorite online celebrities, or fellow habitués of online forums.  It seemed absurd that these conversations were taking place without anyone being able to listen in and benefit from them, and it seemed that they would be all the more beneficial if we arranged some topics ahead of time, so that relevant show-and-tell material could be brought along.
        “As originally conceived, those specimens were brought by participants and put out in a display case prior to the session.  If we were to start up these talks once again, however, I’d suggest that good digital photos be submitted instead, and presented using a projector.  No reason not to bring the actual items as well, of course, but photos are really essential for a successful presentation with any sort of audience.”

        Larry Allin wrote, “I would return to attending pen shows, if there were such a round table, especially if there were displays of ephemera.  After a number of years trying many of the shows, I have pretty much given up on shows as a source of information about my interests.  The esoteric nature of much of my collection—Inkograph Co. pens, Rexall house brands, and vintage Conway Stewart—makes for big expense for little payback, now that I have attended all the seminars and been exposed to most of the general info on pens and repair.
        “For the past year, I have been researching Inkograph Co and its principal officers, but it is very slow going.  I have never done any historical research, and my 30-years experience researching and implementing new IT technology doesn’t translate well to researching 50-100 year old products, people, and companies.  I have been using libraries here in St. Louis, a national patent repository site, Chicago, both electronically and in-person, and NYC, electronically only, thus far.
        “Pen shows offer little in the way of ephemera, except for the top-tier brands.  I’ve decided to spend my travel money on Paper and Advertising Collector shows, rather than pen shows, in the hope that I might find ephemera to support my research.  If there were a pen scholar’s gathering in North America, stand-alone, or show-within-a-show, I’d be there hoping to learn from those who have gone before, and thrilled to share my meager offerings.
        “If enough pen scholar’s were interested in attending the one or two large paper ephemera shows, perhaps a special-interest-group could meet around those shows.”

        David Nishimura wrote, “The Inkograph Co. suggests a seminar topic, more than one for a round table discussion, devoted to pen history research essentials.  Alas, I am far from qualified to teach in this area, but there are others who certainly have the knowledge and experience—not all of them necessarily pen collectors.  Many of the tools are those of the genealogist, and others pertain more to commercial and labor history, while yet others have to do with legal research.
        “One further note as regards seminars and round tables.  The usual pen show seminars are targeted at new collectors, so it really doesn’t matter much when they are held.  Those of us who are active buyers, however, whether for ourselves, or for resale, or both, will not take time out from the hunt while the chase is still on.  Scheduling of the sort of educational get-togethers that we need will have to take this into account.  Although many show participants complain whenever there is the slightest curtailment of trading—some would go 24/7, it seems—I strongly believe that a successful vintage-focused show should have strict limits on trading hours.  There must be enough time allocated for everyone to see everything, of course, but it is counterproductive to have each day’s trading session a needlessly gruelling marathon.  Open the trading room up late enough to allow everyone to get breakfast, and close it up early enough to allow everyone to get a proper dinner.  Quality trading time is what we need, but what we often get, especially in the evenings, is lots of dazed collectors aimlessly picking up and putting down the same pens over and over again, waiting, often as not, in vain, for someone to show up and throw some fresh bargains out on a table.  Unless trading hours are restricted, it will be very difficult to get the sort of participation required for other activities, whether they be lectures, seminars, round-table sessions, or field trips.
        “In this, other fields of collecting once again offer us a model.  It would also be desirable to explain at length beforehand the hows and whys of this “new” arrangement, since there is sure to be some grumbling and resentment from those accustomed to the fundamentally laissez-faire approach taken by most show organizers to date.”
        And I wrote, “Perhaps that should be the topic of the first seminar, or colloquium, that is, how we should set up these kinds of shows, and what kinds of “limits” to set up, and how we can “police” ourselves, in order to curtail all the diverse expectations that everyone will bring along with them to such an event.
        “The first seminar could be a get-together planned to take place at another existing pen show, preferably a vintage-friendly pen show.  And the next few seminars and colloquiums could be piggy-backed on other pen shows, until someone takes that bold leap into the past and arranges a pen show that recreates the old vintage-pen-show atmosphere, a pen show that comes back to being what they used to be like.  That will be the eureka moment, when a group of like-minded people will come together in the realization that that is what a pen show should be like.
        “And then maybe some people, including me, will come back to attending pen shows again.”

        David Nishimura wrote, “I do think it is essential to keep in mind that while we may be seeking to recapture the best of the old atmosphere, we cannot get it by retaining the old structure.  I also think that one should not assume that a new, vintage-only show would be an immediate success.  I’d think that there would be two potential paths to take.  The first would be to start very small indeed, something more along the scale of a club meeting, but coupled with other events—think of past visits to the Parker archives, the Hamburg hard rubber factory tour, etc.  The other would be to shoot for something a bit larger, should the opportunity for a tie-in to take place—most likely, the dispersal of a major collection at auction, such as what happened with the Bouras sale.”

        And I added on Jan 26, 2014, long after the fact, “I think we were having a roundtable right there on L&P, and we didn’t realize it”.

George Kovalenko.