Editor’s Note: This is a piece by new contributor, David Pennington. Yes, that’s his real name. You can check out more of his work by heading to his website, Twitter, and Instagram. David has put together a series of posts about what it’s like to work for a fountain pen retailer, along with the story of how he got throw into the world of writing instruments.
I didn’t apply because I cared about pens or beautiful writing instruments. I applied because it was $11 an hour and they needed a warm body that looked ok enough in a tie to run their register. Here I was, a recent college graduate who spent the better part of the previous four years chewing on pen caps in the back of lecture halls. When it came to the idea of a “nice pen,” there was nowhere to start with me.
Sure, I had a collection of Uni Rollerballs that I liked the feel of when I wrote. For my high school graduation a member of my extended family – I don’t recall whom – sent me the gift set of CROSS pen/pencil that every high school grad in the early nineties (i Graduated in ‘03) received. Perhaps it was a mistake, or maybe it had been far too long since they met me, but they had gifted out a ladies set that was too narrow to hold comfortably. They sat in the gift box, in the bottom of a desk drawer, until I graduated from college, moved from that apartment, and slipped it into the enormous box of goods that I donated/disposed of at the nearby Goodwill. While my full name had been engraved on the pen set, no one has exercised goodwill in trying to get it back to me.
So what was the draw to work in a store that retailed pens and other fine writing instruments? Especially one in a shopping mall that served as something a little spendier than a gift shop, catering to the kind of customers who did not trust their shopping experience to be left to an online environment? I had graduated with an English degree and had set out in the world to become a writer. “Writer” in 2007, in the midst of an economic depression, was not a common term that came up in job searches. A 22-year-old working on a novel wasn’t exactly swimming in advance money from publishing houses. Among it all, the romance. The idea of Hemingway scratching out Moveable Feast on a Pelikan or John Dos Passos writing poems on prescription pads with his Mont Blanc.
Retail was never the goal, but at least I was surrounded by reminders of what I intended to achieve.
Like every first day, mine was orientation. The manager, Jen, was two years older than I, the daughter of the company owner, running this particular store to learn the company and eventually be promoted to something on the corporate level. Here was the register and how to cash someone out. Here is the giant closet filled to the brim with the elegant boxes all of the pens came in. Here is a drawer full of polishing cloths and glass cleaners. Here is a giant stack of catalogs from our vendors outlining every single detail of every pen they have made in the last twenty years. They told me to study it all and learn it all because I’d likely be selling pens to those who knew everything about it.
Jen took a two-hour lunch that day, leaving me to man the helm. Thursday afternoons at a mall are never terribly exciting. I polished a lot of glass countertops and listened to the light jazz being piped in through the PA. A man comes in, dressed business casual, not in anything of a rush.
“This is out of ink,” he tells me, dropping a pen on the glass countertop with a clatter. Pens I had that were out of ink were shaken in frustration, scratched across a blank sheet of paper, and ultimately thrown away. This pen, with its resin and gold accents and cap that felt as heavy as a silver dollar – this wasn’t something thrown away. I also had no idea where the refills were stored.
Making small talk as I started opening drawers. “So, what do you use this pen for?”
The man looks at me like I had just asked him for his shoe size. “Signing checks…notes…pen stuff, I guess?” Then he asks “What do you use them for?”
I had to tell myself not to say “writing novels.” That would have been too predictable.
“Commissions,” I say, maybe too matter of factly.
Ten minutes of failing to find a refill for his pen passed. The manager told me that we could special order whatever wasn’t in the store — not what he wanted to hear.
“Know what? Give me that one, does that one work?” He points through the glass at the CROSS pens. Down at one of the pens made for engraving, for graduation sets. Not unlike the one floating around in Goodwill’s inventory for all eternity.
“Yeah, sure.” I pull it out, scribble on a pad. It works.
“Just give me that one.”
I ring him up. $65. He doesn’t take the fancy box.
Five minutes later Jen returns. I tell her about the refill. She opens a wide drawer behind the counter with about ten thousand different refills in it. “When it doubt, they usually take these,” she says while holding up a small cylinder. A Schmidt rollerball refill. $2.95. Never saw that particular customer again.
My last day would be six months later.
The store would be closed in a year.
Within five, Paradise Pen would be little more than an authorized Amazon retailer.