A Pen Show Primer, or 9 Tips for Getting Your Feet Wet at a Pen Show

If you’re new to pen collecting or using  fountain pens, or even if you’re a veteran user/collector, you’ve probably heard about this strange phenomenon called a pen show.  What could be more nerdy or geeky than going to a hotel where people congregate over 5″ long shiny pointy things?  If you’re like me the first time I went I made sure not to tell anyone where or why I was taking off work.  I mean, how do you really explain this to someone who doesn’t understand pens?  You might as well tell them you are going to get on a rocket ship and explore the moon.  Truth be told, many people are actually quite fascinated by the idea, and I have had some interesting conversations with people about it.  In fact, I have some people who will ask me if I’ve been to a pen show recently, every time they see me.  They still think I’m weird, but I think there’s power in that.  🙂

But the question is, if this is your first pen show, how exactly do you prepare for it?  If you are not ready for what you are about to undertake, you may miss out on some opportunities, or worse, a pen or ink you just have to have.  And if there is only one show near you, you’re going to wait another twelve months to do it again.  Most first timers go with no expectations, but then somewhere around halfway down the second aisle they realize they had no idea what they had gotten themselves into.  The feeling that there are literally thousands and thousands of pens in one room can be overwhelming.  How to pick from all the available choices?  Allow me to give a few pieces of advice on handling this feeling and navigating the pen show.

1) Wear comfortable shoes – No, seriously, best advice I could give about going to a pen show.  If your feet are tired you’re going to be thinking about that and not the glorious pens everywhere around you.  You’ll be standing a lot, stooped over like a hunchback and last thing you need is sore and tired feet.  Do yourself a favor and wear your most comfy shoes and pair them with good socks.  I’d advise against slippers, however, because that’s just a little weird.

2) Have a plan, and work the plan – Ok, that sounded cheesy, but the point is, have some idea why you are going to the show.  Unless you’re a zillionaire, we can’t buy everything we see.  If you don’t know what you’re going to see let me tell you what you WILL see.  Lots, and lots, and lots of pens.  Vintage, modern, semi-modern, custom, inks, desk sets, repair supplies, people doing repairs, grinding nibs, paper, even watches, knives and leather goods.  What interests you?  Have you read a review of a pen online that sounded neat?  Always liked the look of a vintage Wahl Doric pen?  Want to try a flexible nib?  Looking for a really cool green ink?  Want to meet online friends?  Find something and write it down.  If you get to the end of the notebook, you’ve probably got too many things on your list, but then you may be that zillionaire I mentioned earlier.

3) Plan to learn – Even the veterans amongst us learn when we go to a pen show.  I was taught in life there will always be someone who knows more than you.  Well, at a show this is very true.  Even if you think you know everything there is about the Cool Pen Company of Nowhere, Illinois, someone else might know something else or have seen something you haven’t.  I’ve been collecting Esterbrook pens and ephemera for close to 15 years and almost always learn or see something I haven’t seen before, even after all this time.

4) It’s the People – Don’t be shy.  Put your full name on your badge, even if it says “weekend trader” or some such.  Have a FPN, Pentrace, or other online username?  Throw that on their as well.  Some of us *cough, cough * are bad at names and faces.  It’s not intentional, but when you see certain people only a couple of times a year, it can be difficult to remember absolutely everybody.  And when some people have online aliases like “PenDude43568” both names can really help.  We love to chat, so if you have a question, now’s your chance.  And make sure you grab business cards.  From everyone.  You’ll get home and wonder who that guy was you talked about such-and-such a pen about and wish you had his card.  I’ve been able to buy pens after shows when I ran out of money because I picked up the dealers card and contacted them later.

5) Public Days are BUSY.  Early trader days not as much – Public days are usually Saturday and Sunday depending on the show.  These days can be hectic for dealers as everyone is cramming into one room to see everything.  If you can make it to the show on one of the non-public days, you’ll likely have a better chance of getting some real face time with people.  They won’t be as rushed, and you will likely learn more.  Note these days come at a premium at most events and can be as much as five times the normal entry fee.  For some, the more relaxed atmosphere and the prospect of finding pens before the general public gets to them is well worth the extra fee.

6) When in doubt, ASK. – I’ve lost count of the number of shows I’ve gone too, but one thing is certain.  You’ll never have a problem if you ask a dealer to see a pen.  Ask to take it out of the case, and if you don’t know if it is a slip/friction fit cap or a screw cap, ask.  Unless the particular model has a screw on barrel (cartridge/convertor or eyedropper, for example), never attempt to take a pen apart.  Some dealers have fully restored pens, some don’t, some have a mixture of the two.  Some pens with lever boxes (Waterman and Eclipse, among many) can be damaged if you try to lift the lever to feel for the presence of a sac and all that’s there is a hardened, ossified sac.  Ask to try.  Ask before you dip the pen, and never expect to fully ink the pen.  Most dealers will only allow you to dip the nib.  Yes, I know, you can’t really get a true idea of how the pen flows ink to the nib this way, but to clean every pen after a show because they were all inked is not some people’s idea of a good time.  Ask for the price.  Many pens are not marked so you may not know the difference between a $50 pen and a $1500 one.  Many dealers will be happy to show you a rare pen as long as you ask and are gentle.  Be careful if you post the cap.  As a general rule on vintage pens at a show I do not.  Remember, many of these pens are 50, 60, 70, 100+ years old.  They are fragile, and a broken pen results in a bad experience for everybody.

7) Kids – bring them. – That’s right, bring them.  If your children are even remotely interested in fountain pens and can be well behaved, bring them along.  Many shows have Pens For Kids presentations sponsored by the Pen Collectors of America and will teach them about the history of writing.  The PCA also has scavenger hunts for the kids and free cartridge fountain pens are given away.  Always make sure your children follow rule 6 above and always make sure they ask before they see anything.  If they get tired and anxious, then just make sure they can continue to be well behaved until you are ready to leave.

8 ) Money – Ok, I said it.  You need to bring money.  But then again, you already knew that.  Here’s what you may not know though, most dealers only accept cash.  More and more dealers do accept credit cards, however, but never assume, and many will not accept a personal check either.  At shows cash is King and it always spends.  Many dealers are hobbyists trying to sell a few pens to get more pens.  They aren’t businesses and don’t want, or have, the overhead to accept credit cards.  For those with American Express, we recommend calling in advance to let them know you are going to a show.  We have had occasions where a card was declined because it was charged at one table by a vendor from Georgia and ten minutes later from us in Wisconsin.  American Express is more picky than the other cards.

9) Budget – know what you have to spend and what the price is of the things on your list.  If you did step number two above, you have some idea what you are looking for.  If item number one on your list is an eyedropper with a solid gold overlay, you’d better know that the price range for such a vague entry on your list is wide, and you’d better know what that price range is.  I jokingly say determine how much you can spend, then determine your list, then double the amount and add $100 because you will spend more than your budget allows if you aren’t careful.  Now, I’m not serious, and not telling you to go into debt just to buy pens.  Just be realistic about the money you have and choose wisely.  When you run out, you’re done.  That keeps both the spouse and the checkbook happy.  If you just have to have one more pen, usually there are ATM’s in the hotels somewhere, but never count on it.  Or if you followed my advice and grabbed a business card, you can contact someone when you get home and arrange a sale after the fact.  I’ve done it many, many times.

You noticed I didn’t even talk about money until the end.  Well, the reason is simple.  You go to a pen show, you’re going to probably buy something.  That’s easy.  But the fact of the matter is, at some point, you don’t really go to a show for the pens.  It’s the people you get to meet once, twice or a few times a year to share this crazy passion you have for pens.  You begin to wonder why the rest of your friends can’t all be this nice.  Then at some point in the evolution you stop talking pens with these people and get to know them better.  That’s what it’s really all about.

So make your list, check it twice and get thee to a pen show!

Brian & Lisa