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August 2011: The Golden Boy Turns Into the Man of Steel

Extra Fine Points Index  ]

BY DON FLUCKINGER • So today I was cruising Connecticut playing hooky from life. It wasn’t aimless, however; I had a mission: Lately I’ve focused my stuff-finding powers on upgrading my wardrobe without breaking the bank.

In the past, these stuff-finding powers helped me start fountain pen and pocket watch collections on a shoestring budget. In the early days of eBay I even built a little cash pile to blow at pen shows by hitting garage sales; you could get dumb stuff like a Life board game from the 1950s for fifty cents and flip it for fifty bucks on the site.

It’s time to for me to drop my pretensions about steel nibs. Steel-nibbed pens make great sense for the hobby for two reasons. Extra Fine Points

Once the novelty wore off and bidders got wise — and the PayPal/eBay industrial complex did its best to monetize every single part of the transaction — I quit. It’s much more difficult to make a buck that way nowadays. Not impossible, but I have a life from which I can’t often play hooky, and it requires more bandwidth than I have to give.

Paper Doll Don

Paper Doll Don

Plus, I get bored. The thrill’s in the chase. Once I chase down enough stuff to do a personal end-zone dance, I find something new to chase.

But this clothing thing: It’s amazing what quality clothing — in near-new condition — can be picked off at charity thrift stores. That, and working outlets. (Buyer beware: Places like Brooks Brothers and Ralph Lauren lard their outlets with cheap “diffusion” goods; you have to know your labels and look twice to make sure you’re getting the “good stuff” and not outlet-only junk aimed to cash in on unsuspecting shoppers.) Not necessarily popular brand names by designers who buy huge ad spreads in glossy magazines, but well-made clothes that won’t look faded or worn out after a couple wearings. Stuff I couldn’t possibly afford new unless I felt like starving the kids.

I had no clue what was waiting for me in thrift stores until recently. I’m still kinda learning the lay of the land, but it’s been fun learning. The chase is the thrill.

My road trip was a successful attempt to validate a theory I had: Hit thrift stores in towns where, say, there’s a well-off population of donors feeding them. Like in Connecticut, where some folks take their fine clothes to the dry cleaner before donating them. Unbelievable what awaited me in exchange for a few five-dollar bills.

I’ve never had any positive or negative attitude about how upscale or downscale a place is; to me, it just…is. And either it has what I want or it doesn’t.

So why is it I am such a snob about gold nibs? I thought, as I was cruising back home on that lovely stretch of I-84 East between Hartford and the Mass line where the rolling, wooded hills are just gorgeous, a cool salve for having to put up with the hordes of pushy Nutmeg State drivers who insist on cutting you off in the fast lane so they can drive their Lexus SUVs five miles an hour under the speed limit in your face. (I should go easier on them; they’re probably the same people who take their fine Italian suits, shirts and pants to the dry cleaner before donating them to charity thrift stores).

It’s time to for me to drop my pretensions about steel nibs. Steel-nibbed pens make great sense for the hobby on two fronts:

First, there’s the economic one. Today’s fountain pens are perceived by many people as a luxury item. But in this recession-depression economy, luxuries are the last things on many people’s minds. Or if they’re not (witness the lengths I drove to pick up a used pair of Loro Piana wool slacks today for six bucks — but you really can’t tell they’re used), people are finding creative ways to acquire them that don’t involve full price.

The bad economy could hold a silver lining for the fountain pen hobby, as less-expensive, steel-nibbed pens make their way out on to the primary and secondary markets. More people can afford to come to our hobby, which had been pricing new collectors out of the game. Steel-nibbed pens could be a sustaining life force for our hobby into the next generation. As much as I salivated over the four-figure pens of Michel Perchin (R.I.P.), they weren’t really appealing to the wider audience that the well-built $100-$200 steel-nibbed pens of 2011 can attract.

Fountain pen
Fountain pen

Michel Perchin “Fabergé” Blue Ice LE, enamel on sterling, 1997,
and Bexley Corona in Blueberry Cream, 2011

Second, there’s the historical one. For collectors, it’s kind of nice to see a well-rounded lineup of new pens that more accurately represents the Golden Age than, say the 1990s. So many of us wonder how cool it would be to have lived when a selection of pens was available at the corner drug store from steel-nibbed Arnold and Estie and Wearever warriors to the likes of the Sheaffer Masterpiece and the Eversharp Coronet.

Fountain pen
Fountain pen

Arnold pen and Eversharp Coronet (1930s)

Fountain pen
Fountain pen

Edison Hudson and Pelikan M101N (2011)

I’m not calling for some enterprising entrepreneur to buy the rights to the Wearever brand and flood the market with millions of dollar pens — and I’m certainly not holding my breath waiting for the second coming of the Parker “51” — but face it, our parents and grandparents had choices we didn’t have just 10 years ago. Think back: The Web boom had just gone bust, gold was cheap, gas was $1.66 a gallon, and the magpies had taken over pendom.

Maybe this whole exercise was a means for me to justify playing hooky from life today. Maybe it’s time for me to focus my stuff-finding powers on something new. In fact, if I don’t stop soon, I’ll have to either donate half my clothes to a thrift store or build another closet to make more space.

In the meanwhile, I’ll quit thumbing my nose at steel-nibbed pens. They clearly deserve a place in any true pen aficionado’s closet, er, cigar-box pen case.

cover Further Reading: Reconstructing Italian Fashion: America and the Development of the Italian Fashion Industry, by Nicola White
So, what exactly is it about Italian fashion that Americans like? White takes a whack at explaining the phenomenon and how our wallets funded its rise to popularity from the post World War II years up to now.

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
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