WFIT

No Room For Erasers, As Technology Deletes Pen Businesses

Nov 7, 2013
Originally published on November 7, 2013 1:09 pm

We tweet. We text. We email. But how often do we really write anymore? Not much, if you look at the business of selling pens — or "fine writing instruments," as shop owners call them. With their writing tools becoming obsolete, pen stores have folded, including a century-old shop in New York.

But despite the tech-heavy trends, a few old-fashioned pen stores are still holding on.

Wood Shelves, Ink Bottles, And Sinatra

Walking into Daly's Pen Shop in Milwaukee is like leaping back in time. Ninety-year-old, custom-made wood storage cabinets line the walls, antique ink bottles lurk on the shelves, and Sinatra songs serenade customers as they walk in.

The pens range from the Japanese Pilot Namiki pens — retractable fountain pens that range from $150 to $300 — to the Waterford pens, as in Waterford Crystal.

Daly's owner, Brad Bodart, points out classic Cross Rollerball pens for $40, and fancy Montblanc fountain pens that sell for $1,000. He says that whatever the price point, a good pen completes the package.

"You have a nice pair of shoes, you have a nice belt, you have a nice handbag, and you have a nice pen," Bodart says. "Nothing bothers us more than seeing a businessperson pull a Bic out of their pocket."

Before The Email Era

Daly's opened in downtown Milwaukee in 1924, when most business and correspondence was done on paper. Bodart says he doesn't know of an older pen store that's still in business.

Just in the past few years, Bodart has seen his sales plummet by nearly half. He's able to keep his store open because of expanded online sales and a side business selling antique pens on eBay.

"I won't lie. The electronics have taken a bite out of the writing instrument business," he says. "But there's a core group of people [for whom] pens are just embedded into their soul, and we still have a good, viable business."

Like Writing With Butter

Public school teacher Lisa Marie Menefee just popped into Daly's to get ink for the Montblanc pen her husband gave her 20 years ago.

Menefee says she loves pens, and the feeling of writing with a good one.

"Oh, I love the way it feels, but most of all I like the way it looks on a page," she says. "It seems to have an impact on what I'm actually writing."

As Menefee walks out with new ink cartridges, two women walk in looking for fountain and calligraphy pens.

"We drive all the way from the North Shore of Chicago to come here, because this is the only pen store," says Susan Lane. "I mean, there's one downtown but it isn't as fun as this is."

She tries out an emerald green and gold Visconti.

"Oh, nice, this is an old-time brand," she says. "This is like writing with butter." The two friends buy it for $295.

A Pen For The Tech-Savvy Youth

A few weeks ago, Brad Bodart closed the original 1924 Daly's store and moved the antique furniture to a new space across town. He wants to preserve the store's old-timey feel while cultivating a new generation of pen lovers.

"This would be the Cross Tech 3," Bodart says, holding the $55 pen that he's marketing to young people who'd rather have a cool phone than a fine writing instrument.

"You have your rubber stylus on the back for all your smart tablets," he points out. "You have a ballpoint in black, a ballpoint in red, and a pencil. So it's one unit — for the person that needs to do everything in one instrument."

While he may not be able to beat the prices you can find online, Bodart is hoping that people continue to value the experience his shop provides — feeling the weight of a well-made pen. And, yes, actually writing something with it.

Copyright 2017 WUWM 89.7 FM - Milwaukee Public Radio. To see more, visit WUWM 89.7 FM - Milwaukee Public Radio.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And on this script here, David, this upcoming script, I made a few changes with a pen; I actually wrote something, which is becoming more rare with all the tweeting, texting and emailing we do. No surprise, sales of high-end pens are in decline.

Some specialty pen shops have held on - including one in Milwaukee that claims to be the oldest in the country. Erin Toner, of member station WUWM, reports.

ERIN TONER, BYLINE: Walking into Daly's Pen Shop is like leaping back in time - 90-year-old, custom-made, wood storage cabinets; antique ink bottles; and "Ol' Blue Eyes" serenading customers.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WITCHCRAFT")

BRAD BODART: We start with the Pilot Namiki pens, which are made in Japan. They're retractable fountain pens. They're very popular; range from $150 to $300. We go into the Waterford pens, as in Waterford Crystal. They do...

TONER: Daly's owner, Brad Bodart, is pointing out classic Cross rollerball pens for 40 bucks, and fancy Montblanc fountain pens that sell for a grand. He says whatever the price point, a good pen completes the package.

BODART: You have a nice pair of shoes, you have a nice belt, you have a nice handbag, and you have a nice pen. Nothing bothers us more than to see a business person pull a Bic out of their pocket.

TONER: Daly's opened in downtown Milwaukee in 1924, when most business and correspondence was done on paper. Bodart says he doesn't know of an older pen store that's still in business. Just in the past few years, Bodart has seen his sales plummet by nearly half. He's able to keep his store open because of expanded online sales and a side business selling antique pens on eBay.

BODART: I won't lie - electronics have taken a bite out of the writing instrument business. But there's a core group of people that pens are just embedded into their soul; and we still have a good, viable business.

(SOUNDBITE OF CASH REGISTER)

LISA MARIE MENEFEE: I love pens.

TONER: Public school teacher Lisa Marie Menefee just popped into Daly's to get ink for the Montblanc pen her husband gave her 20 years ago.

MENEFEE: Oh, I love the way it feels but most of all, I like the way it looks on a page. It seems to have an impact on, actually, what I'm writing.

TONER: As Menefee walks out with new ink cartridges, two women walk in looking for fountain and calligraphy pens.

SUSAN LANE: We drive all the way from the North Shore of Chicago to come here 'cause this is the only pen store. I mean, there's one downtown, but it isn't as fun as this is.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHATTER)

TONER: Susan Lane and her friend fall fast in love with an emerald green and gold Visconti.

LANE: Ooh, nice. To me, this is an old-time brand.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: This is like writing with butter.

LANE: This one is, too. Buttah - it's like buttah.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Try it...

TONER: They'll take it, for $295.

(SOUNDBITE OF CASH REGISTER CLOSING)

BODART: OK, I think we're set, right?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yeah.

BODART: Well, good. Now, going forward...

TONER: A few weeks ago, Brad Bodart closed Daly's original Milwaukee store from 1924, and moved the antique furniture to this new space, across town. He wants to preserve the store's old-timey feel while cultivating a new generation of pen lovers. Here's what he's marketing to young people who'd rather have a cool phone than a fine writing instrument.

BODART: This would be the Cross Tech 3. You have your rubber stylus on the back, for all of your smart tablets. You have a ball point in black, a ball point in red and a pencil. So it's one unit for the person that needs to do everything in one instrument.

TONER: How much is that pen?

BODART: That one is 55.

TONER: And while he may not be able to beat the prices you can find online, Bodart's hoping people value the experience his shop provides - feeling the weight of a well-made pen and yes, actually writing something with it.

For NPR News, I'm Erin Toner in Milwaukee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.