Rethinking the Pen Show [The PENnant, 1999]

In the last issue of The PENnant, Jim Marshall put into print some concerns regularly discussed in private by pen show participants over the past year or so. In brief, while new pen activity at shows may be lively, the vintage pen scene is anything but. 1999 saw a sharp downturn in vintage at all US pen shows: less fresh material on offer, fewer exhibitors and attendees, and long periods of just sitting around wondering where the buzz had gone.

This is not to say that vintage pen collecting as a whole is not doing well. Indeed, there are more collectors, dealers, repair services, publications, clubs, and shows than ever before, and trading activity is probably at an all-time high. What has changed everything, however, is the impact of the Internet. Only a few short years ago virtually all vintage pen activity converged at shows. Now the shows have become peripheral – the main event is now online, and it is running around the clock, every day of every week.

Some of this is inevitable. Online trading has a worldwide reach, and is cheaper, faster, and (usually) easier. The proliferation of pen shows has also led to lower attendance and less fresh merchandise at any given event. Still, the torpor at shows is greater than it ought to be. The vintage pen market has changed, but pen shows haven’t – if anything, they are less vintage-friendly now than ever. This is particularly untimely given the current generational shift: many veteran collectors are no longer so active, leaving pen collecting increasingly dominated by newcomers – many of whom started online, few of whom have attended more than a handful of shows.

For those who buy and sell vintage pens, one of the most pointlessly grueling aspects of the typical American show is its sheer duration. Exhibitors set up for a minimum of three full days, and many if not most will stay behind their tables late into the night on at least a couple of those days. This made sense some years back when nearly everyone came to pen shows laden with fresh goodies and ready to trade. Back then one really did need every waking hour to see everything, and great things always seemed to walk in the door just as soon as one left for a meal break. Now, though, it only takes a day (or maybe two, at the largest shows) until everyone has had a chance to look at everyone else’s offerings. The odd latecomer may show up and be briefly mobbed, and the slow-to-decide may finally conclude deals begun days earlier, but the initial buzz will be spent long before Sunday rolls around.

Wouldn’t it be more merciful to limit the number of trading days, as well as the opening hours of the trading rooms? A few years ago such a move would have led to trading in guest rooms and the lobby, and heated complaints about unnecessary restrictions. From what I’ve seen over the past year or so, however, exhibitors are ready for someone to call an end to marathon trading. Those who show up early only to find no trading room yet available seem just as happy to have a little time for a relaxed meal or some sightseeing. Those who return to the trading room late in the evening only to find activity has petered out seem just as happy to be able to retire early or to socialize at the hotel bar.

The trend to open shows to the public for two days instead of just one is also hard on vintage pen traders. Standing behind a table and talking to curious newcomers all day is exhausting, and at few shows do public-day sales amount to anything much. As far as vintage pens are concerned, the public day is there to cultivate newcomers and casual collectors, with the additional occasional opportunity to buy something brought in off the street. Years of experience have demonstrated that these functions are served as well by one day as by two. So why are so many shows adopting the two public-day format? Because of exhibitors who make, sell, or promote new pens, who have found pen shows to be a particularly cheap and lucrative alternative to conventional gift and trade shows.

This is no minor conflict. Some see the mix of old and new at pen shows as a marriage made in heaven; I see it as an unequal partnership which has done much to accelerate vintage’s flight to the Internet. Although hotel rates have risen over the past several years, this does not begin to account for the increased cost of full show participation in the same period. Bigger and fancier exhibition spaces open for longer periods, larger and more luxurious hotels, extensive advertising, publicists – all these cost money, and all primarily serve the interests of commercial exhibitors. For them, setting up at pen shows is still a bargain, but vintage pen traders (almost all of whom are hobbyists or part-timers) are feeling the pinch. No wonder show attendance and participation is down in vintage – it is as if the local car collectors’ Sunday swap meet had been colonized by the big auto manufacturers and turned into a glitzy weeklong car show.

So what is to be done? We can start by accepting that new pens and old pens attract very different audiences. While many on the vintage side cling to the belief that buyers of new pens should be courted as potential converts, the conversions are taking place online, not at pen shows. The hard fact is, the vast majority of new pen buyers would no more buy an old pen than shop for clothes at the Salvation Army. At the last Washington show there was a steady parade of showgoers who took one glance into my display cases, snorted "old pens, huh?", and turned on their heels. Of those who did stop to look, a large number abruptly lost interest upon ascertaining that the pens on display were neither ballpoints nor rollerballs. Manhandling and breakage of valuable pens has also become a serious problem with so many people about who think they are in a department store.

If we are to continue having shows where both old and new pens are offered, why not have separate display areas? This has already been done at pen shows in Italy and France. If organizers are serious about maintaining a healthy vintage presence at their shows, however, this may not be enough. Currently, pen show table rates are more expensive than selling online, somewhat above average for specialist antique and collectible shows for objects in a similar price range, and downright cheap compared to new-product trade shows. Basic economics dictate that if vintage flight is to be halted, organizers will have to keep a lid on further rate increases or adopt a two-tier pricing structure. Of course, organizers may choose to let rates rise to the maximum level professional exhibitors prove willing to pay, in which case pen shows a few years hence may resemble those mass-market convention-center car shows more than ever. For some, indeed, that is the goal; promoters of one new show were overheard this past year discussing the possibility of excluding vintage sellers entirely.

This attitude seems to be the exception. Still, how many show organizers are so committed to vintage as not to be swayed by the money new pens bring in? It is just a matter of time before vintage pen enthusiasts realize that they will have to stake out some shows that are truly their own. Pen collectors are an easy-going bunch, and many will find restrictions on what may be exhibited objectionable; it is all too clear, however, that antique shows and group shops that are similarly restriction-averse soon end up swamped with reproductions, Beanie Babies, and other worthless junk. Yet restrictions need not be enforced with fanatical strictness in order to be effective. How different pen shows would be if exhibitors were required to keep their focus on old writing equipment, even if other items were also on display!

As we have already noted, much of the expense of putting on current pen shows comes from the need for fancy hotels with large exhibition spaces. Vintage-only shows could be run much more economically. Publicity expenses could be cut considerably, and above all given more focus. Instead of advertising to the general public, efforts could be directed towards the many collectors and traders who don’t attend shows – especially those active online – emphasizing the benefits of meeting face-to-face, examining items in person, and doing without the hassle of photography, cataloging, correspondence, and shipping.

Consideration should also be given to show venues other than hotels, particularly in more expensive cities. This has been the norm for European shows for some years now. While the rising cost of metropolitan hotels has forced at least two conventionally-run American pen shows into less desirable locations in the last few years, the London show is now held in one of the most central locations in one of the most expensive cities in the world, yet participation cost remains very reasonable. London is a one-day show, with other pen-related events – Bonhams’ fall auction, a Writing Equipment Society meeting – held at different locations on preceding days. A similar format is used at Lyon, though there the main event is a rather elegant show entirely for makers of new pens, to which the various vintage events are attached.

Over the last ten years show organizers have steered a careful course, responding to changes as they came along and trying their best to keep everyone happy. Up until recently this served the vintage pen community well, but bolder action is now needed. As long as Sunday walk-ins are courted more assiduously than weekend registrants, as long as participation costs continue to rise, vintage trader and collector attendance will continue to erode. Pen shows are facing competition like never before; if something is not done soon, victory will go to the Internet, leaving us all the poorer.


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Copyright 1999 David Nishimura. All rights reserved