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March 2007: Catching up with Pier Gustafson

Extra Fine Points Index  ]

BY DON FLUCKINGER • This year marks the 20th edition of the Boston Pen Show. I’ll have been to half of them at the close of the 2007 edition; last year was the first I missed since 1998.

While a lot of the elements of the show have changed — the coming of Noodler’s Ink, the passing of Frank Dubiel, and this thing called the Sheaffer Intrigue popping up at various tables — there have always been a few constants: The amiable guys from Fountain Pen Hospital nailing down the biggest chunk of real estate in the room and hanging their banner on the wall. There’s good old Jerry Jerard, making the sojourn from his Vermont abode and cracking everyone up with his dry wit.

And, as you walk in the room, immediately to your right will be collector-dealer-calligrapher extraordinaire Pier Gustafson.

What Gustafson always tells customers who are buying pens for the first time is, “Buy the one you want to write with, that makes you smile.” Extra Fine Points

Gustafson, co-founder of the show all those years ago along with Dubiel, brings a mountain of parts to each show along with his pens, his own complex and beautiful artwork, as well as an interesting assortment of ephemera. Once, I approached his table and inquired about some caps I needed for some 1940s and ’50s Sheaffers I’d bought off eBay — pens that were otherwise good to go, but their caps were unusable (except you couldn’t tell from the seller’s picture, imagine that).

The artist in residence with one of his custom calligraphy specials: A  no-name 20th century pen body fitted with a 19th-century flexible dip-pen nib

The artist in residence with one of his custom calligraphy specials: A no-name
20th-century pen body fitted with a 19th-century flexible dip-pen nib

He couldn’t rustle up the ones I needed, but said with certainty that he had them back at his studio, and that I should drop by sometime.

That was three years ago. It took me a while to take him up on his offer, but I finally did last month. After he dug out my caps, he agreed to chat a bit for Extra Fine Points:

EF: How did you get started with fountain pens?

Gustafson: I had used pens in college [in Minnesota], Rapidograph pens to draw with. It was National Handwriting Day, and on All Things Considered they spoke to this woman who ran a pen store in Minneapolis called the Good Service Pen Shop. I’d never heard of this place. I bought three pens from her: A mismatched tortoiseshell Conklin/Gold Bond thing, an Eversharp Symphony with a flexible nib stuck into it, and I can’t remember the other one. Oh, a brand new [expletive] Parker, a 180, I think they called it.

I was hooked on the flexible Eversharp. I went back the next week, and I’d go back every week or two. When I left for grad school the following year, every time I went back to Minneapolis I’d go back to her, Fanny Friedman was her name. Every time I’d go back, she wouldn’t remember me all that well. She could barely see.

I went back there one time I was home, and it was closed. She had died. Her next of kin were there packaging things up, they were open for people whose pens Fanny had been repairing. I said I didn’t have anything she was repairing but I really enjoyed her shop and was sorry she had died, blah blah blah. I saw a brown leather Parker pen case, zippered, a salesman’s thing. I asked if I could buy it, and they said no, they’d sold it to a couple in Rochester, Minn. I called them up … and I was their first customer.

They moved to Barre, Vermont … and later I got a letter from them saying they wanted to sell their business. I rented a van, drove up with my friends. There were boxes and boxes and boxes of parts. I packed up the van. We had boxes on the roof. From that point on, my art career plummeted because I was too busy playing with pens.

Home of the Pen God

Gustafson’s Pen God site, with its weird and wonderful
artwork and commentary, was a hobby favorite until AOL
reorganized all its users’ sites out of existence.

EF: All that playing with pens, though, got you rooted in the hobby.

Gustafson: I ran into Frank and ran the Boston Pen Show with him, ran the Commonwealth Pen Club for many years, wrote for Pen World for years.

EF: Did the pen collecting drive the calligraphy or was it the other way around?

Gustafson: I was an artist before, I loved lettering, and that’s why I bought the pens in the first place. Now I’ve probably got about 3,000 pens in my collection. I’ve hardly looked at them for years. My lust for them isn’t there. Mainly it’s because people who shared that passion with me aren’t around as much … we used to meet once or twice a month and share pen stories, try them out.

eBay and the Internet seemed to change that. What used to be there isn’t there for me.

EF: Interesting. I wouldn’t have come to the hobby without meeting people online. eBay and the Web opened this world up to me, I might never have discovered it otherwise.

Gustafson: It used to be, someone would say “Gee I just bought this ‘51’ I bought at the flea market and look at how beautifully it writes.” Now, it’s “Look at the ‘51’ I just bought on eBay, I was sniping it and [trails off].” … it’s all about the deal. It’s not about the object, it’s about buying it. How you can get it.

I don’t know what the difference is, but now it’s about the eBay experience, which is never a pleasant one, it seems. eBay will allow you to see a lot of pens and what someone in the world will pay for them. You can buy pens without putting your shoes on, which is valuable for some people, but you can’t try them out. I wouldn’t buy a pen [that way].

EF: How does being a calligrapher color your pen-collecting interest?

Gustafson: Calligraphy, right now, is driving it more than anything else. What I look for at pen shows is 14K dip pen nibs from the 1880s or so. Those are the ones I use for letter-making.

My taste in nibs is broader than it used to be. I used to hate “51”s but I had this “a-ha” experience where I woke up one day and realized that not only is the pen beautiful, engineered perfectly — I like to say George S. Parker invented the Duofold but God invented the “51” — there’s something perfect about that pen.

Fountain pen

There’s something about the “51”. I don’t know of other pens where this enlightenment falls on you. You think I’m some sort of nut, don’t you?

EF: No, these things happen. Richard and I simultaneously, independently just started picking up Targas, after years of decrying them. Eerily like when you go out to dinner, and two women at your table get up and go to the powder room at the same time.

Gustafson: It’s true that, if you look at something long enough, you should develop an appreciation for it. Not necessarily a positive one, I guess. I’ve gone from feeling nothing about something to liking it — or hating it — but it’s never been “hate to love” like with the “51”.

And it’s not all “51”s. It can’t be the squeezy ones, the aerometrics. Logically, aerometrics should be “perfecter,” but there’s something about the weight or something that doesn’t work right for me. I think it has to do with the earlier proportions of the cap.

EF: What advice would you have for beginners, let’s say they’re coming to the Boston Pen Show for the first time this year.

Gustafson: What I always tell customers who are buying pens for the first time who would say “I love the way this one looks, but I love the way that one writes”: I don’t care what you think about the one that looks nice, buy the one you want to write with, that makes you smile. It’s geared toward writing.

EF: Modern vs. vintage?

Gustafson: I’m always an old-pen person. Because they write better.

EF: Where do you draw the line of modern pens? Aerometric “51”s?

Gustafson: Aerometric “51”s still work. It’s pens that were made after they stopped making fountain pens, and started making ballpoints. When they stopped making fountain pens and then they made ballpoints, and then they went back to making fountain pens … they make pens that skip.

Ink splat

Gustafson didn’t produce this ink splatter — but he
would definitely be at home with the pen that did it!

Buy what writes for you. If you find a pen that skips, give it right back.

[A modern pen is] made not to get ink on you when you shake it. Old pens, you shake a pen and you get ink all over your suit. Pen companies know that people who buy their pens for hundreds of dollars today also buy suits for thousands of dollars, and they don’t want complaints, so they make them with [less ink flow].

If you’re not going to write and you just want to have an array of the most beautiful pens in the world … I have no idea how to build a collection.

I’m a collector of stuff, not a knowledgeable, focused collector. It’s always going to be a part of my existence, unfortunately. My collection of pens is more than an amassment of them, but one day I will have a great collection if I get rid of half of it. Now it makes no sense.

cover Further reading: The Calligrapher’s Bible, by David Harris

Inspired by Pier’s work and want to make a go at calligraphy yourself? Try this indispensable volume, which offers 100 example alphabets. This spiral bound edition costs a bit more, but that laying-flat thing is totally worth it.

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 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. Don Fluckinger
© 2007 Don Fluckinger Contact Us | About Us | Privacy Policy
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