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The Pen is Mightier than the Keyboard

A boy's fascination with tools of generations past

Elizabeth Rau
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The Ink Spots were a hugely popular vocal quartet in the 1930s and 1940s that paved the way for rhythm and blues and rock ’n’ roll. I know this because my 11-year-old son, Henry, likes pens as much as, say, baseball or good French films. Henry is especially fond of fountain pens; the kind that can be wonderfully messy and leave – you guessed it – ink spots on the kitchen table, fancy sofa and white sheets. I have no idea how the Ink Spots came up with their name – maybe they were pen enthusiasts too – but I do know that a smart company on the other side of the Atlantic is using their songs to sell pens, hence the Ink Spots-Henry connection.

Not long ago, Henry was browsing the internet for information about pens when he came across a website called Kaweco, a 130-year-old German pen company. He entered it, and the Ink Spots (Orville, Ivory, Jerry and Charlie) started to croon: “I don’t want to set the world on fire. I just want to start a flame in your heart.” I was smitten, and not by the pens. The next day, I bought the Ink Spots Greatest Hits and thanked Henry for introducing me to the group. He thanked me for promising to be a patron of his new hobby.

It’s unusual for a kid to show an interest in pens. Most boys collect rocks or Red Sox T-shirts, at least back when they were winning. Henry likes to venture outside the box. For a while, he was charged up by yo-yos, and we have a shoebox of Duncans to prove it. Then he moved on to making duct tape wallets, even launching a business that boomed for 23 days. The pen fascination began in the fall. Henry and his friend, Theo, were searching about for something to collect. “How about pens?’’ said Henry. “Sure,’’ said Theo.

Trips to Staples ensued and in less time than it takes to click a Bic, Henry had pens from all walks of life: Uniball Jetstream, a sleek black pen with a fine tip; Dr. Grip Roller Ball, a chunky pen with a comfortable grip; and Pilot G2, a popular pen with a “smooth writing experience,’’ according to Henry. One day, Henry walked into the Brown Bookstore with a $10 gift certificate in his pocket, expecting to buy a paperback. “I saw a giant wall of pens,’’ Henry recalled. “I was like, ‘Whoa!’’’ He settled on a Parker Jotter. “I really liked the click of the pen,’’ said Henry. “I took it to school the next day and started clicking. Now I click the pen if I can’t remember the answer to a question. There are a lot of good things about pens – put that down.’’

By winter, our house was the pen capital of the East Side. Pens in pickle jars. Pens in old coffee cans. Pens in the empty thermos. I opened a drawer in the bathroom and found a Pentel EnerGel X Roller Ball next to a tube of Crest. Henry is a tinkerer and soon discovered that one of the joys of pens is taking them apart. They are complicated creatures, what with all those cartridges and tiny coiled springs. Putting them back together is not as fun. Springs and little tubes of plastic soon dotted our domestic landscape.

Collectors are expansionists by nature, and Henry is no exception. The hohum G2 soon gave way to more refined pens, a shift accelerated by Henry’s discovery in a lonely living room drawer of a gold-plated Cross pen inscribed with his name. A friend had given Henry the pen years ago. Lost, now found, Henry was beside himself. “It was a good pen," he recalled. “I thought about taking it to school, but knew 14-karat gold and middle schoolers don’t work together."

Fountain pens came on the scene during an evening stroll to the East Side’s Wayland Square, where he spotted a poster of a Lamy in the window of Runcible Spoon, a charming shop that sells stationery and luxury soap. Henry was with his dad. They were talking about moon tides and then, well, I’ll let Henry take the microphone. “I walked in the store and felt out of place," said Henry. “Most 11-year-old boys don’t end up in a shop of fine – whatever. But seeing the writing instruments I felt more at home. The Lamys had a totally different design than your normal click pens." Henry exited a satisfied customer, a Lamy Safari in hand.

Henry and Joan, the owner of Runcible Spoon, became fast friends. With his birthday money, Henry also bought an ink well and a converter for his Lamy. He has his eye on the Lamy Studio, a step up. I’m sure there will be more trips to the Square this summer. Henry says he likes pens because he loves to write and because they are amazing tools. I mean, really, think about it. “It all started with a feather and ink and now it has moved up to Roller Ball pens and who knows what’s in the future,” Henry said. “Computers are everywhere, but a pen is more personal. It’s one with you."

One of Henry’s special pieces surfaced in a dusty box during a recent attic cleanup: an antique pen passed down from his great-grandmother, Sophia. Henry did some research and identified it as an Eclipse desk pen, minus the base. The find assumed greater importance when I told him that the ink spots on the green felt on our old desk, also from his great-grandmother, were probably made by Sophia’s pen. That set his world on fire.