BY DON FLUCKINGER • The first time I met Frank Dubiel, I instantly understood the reputation that preceded him — and that had earned him the not-so-secret nickname “Cranky Franky.” I believe, as he sat behind his table at one of those late-1990s Boston pen shows in a collared short-sleeve dress shirt, peering up at me through his trademark half-lenses, that his first words were something like “What do you want?”
|Today I put fingers to keyboard to write about Frank Dubiel, a monolith of the pen-collecting hobby and, more importantly, a friend.
Maybe that was a New England thing. I was at my first show, and even today the native Ohioan in me hasn’t quite adjusted to the brusque nature of communication up heah, despite having had a dozen years to get used to it. Or perhaps there was a thimbleful of truth in the moniker and indeed Frank was being a little more surly than the situation warranted.
Either way, it took me a while to warm up to him, and vice versa. The icebreaker came a year or two later, when I told him I liked his book.
Frank Dubiel might have earned his cranky rep through his outbursts at pen shows and his even more passionate rages on the numerous online pen forums he haunted, but it was that passion that made him a great man in this hobby.
It inspired the creation and publishing of “Da Book,” whose real title will never be spoken again, probably. That singular gift to the hobby, in its low-fidelity, quick-printed, comb-bound glory, launched thousands of would-be pen repairmen — a few of whom ended up actually fixing a pen, many more who decided to leave it up to the pros once they understood just exactly what it took to disassemble their treasures. (Things like open flames and homemade tools.)
But Da Book was more than a repair manual. Part folklore, part verbatim technical ramblings from pen-company literature, part voodoo, and part cautionary tale (as in, if you don’t do this my way, you’ll break your pen, you nitwit, just like I did the first time I tried it!), Da Book gave us back so many things the hobby had lost to the decades.
It took a while for us to realize what we’d lost. From the time the pen companies wound down production to the time we collectors realized that fountain pens were superior writing instruments, the composite knowledge of the companies' repair people had pretty much evaporated. Frank resurrected that repair information, organized it, and made it available to the average collector.
At pen shows, once he started recognizing you, he became a friendly, lively guy, willing to give you encouragement, answer a question about a pen’s history or mechanics, or buck conventional wisdom and argue with you about something you’d just heard from another dealer. A walking database of the inner workings of many variations of many models of many manufacturers’ pens, he could identify the oddest pens you could find, and he could also tell you how to take them apart.
It is with both sadness and affection that I write this tribute to Frank Dubiel after hearing of his death. Yet in all the readers of Da Book, his legacy lives on. Oh, yeah — it also lives on at the alt.collecting.pens-pencils newsgroup, where — among many Frank classics — he posted amazing screeds detailing the chemical composition of various brands of ink that, if you haven’t yet read them, are quite an entertaining body of pen-collecting literature in themselves.
Some newcomers to the hobby might have found it difficult to understand or appreciate Frank Dubiel. But I thought him more than all right, another interesting — and smart — character, who added much color to this hobby’s tapestry of personalities. I’ll miss his countenance in the pen-show aisles.
Further reading: FOUNTAIN PENS THE COMPLETE GUIDE TO REPAIR AND RESTORATION, by Frank Dubiel
The one indispensable book for every fountain pen collector. If you repair pens, or collect pens, or use pens, or just want to know how they work, you need this book.
|Freelance writer Don Fluckinger lives in Nashua, New Hampshire, and is the son-in-law of Richard Binder. His articles have been published in Antiques Roadshow Insider, The Boston Globe, and on the Biddersedge.com collectibles Web site. Please note: Any opinions stated in this column are Don’s alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Richard Binder or this Web site.