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.
Shop Tales Part 2
Montegrappa makes fine pens by hand out of a shop in the rural hillsides of northern Italy where a great many fine products hail from. To get there, you must drive up a windy mountain road surrounded on every side by endless snow-capped vistas. You must drive that road in a fine Italian sports car. When you reach the top, a shot of espresso awaits you. Ciao.
Or so I imagine, I’ve never been. But they do have this promotional video showing a sculptor carving a block of wax that would eventually serve as the cast for a silver casing for what would eventually become a $30,000 pen.
On the more modest end of the scale, the 1912 line of pens is rather pedestrian. Cast in resin with premium metal accents. Between the two are special edition pens, like the Ferrari editions of their rollerball and fountain pens – sitting at about $3-8,000 a piece. Admittedly, at this price range, the Montegrappa pen is out of reach for those who Montegrappa crafts their stock for. Those who are writing novels, poetry, and music. For those who turn blank pages into works of art – the Montegrappa is too beautiful of a pen. Rather, their product ends up in the hands of lawyers and doctors who sign forms that move around livelihoods and fortunes. Or the pen sits in a display case of a home I will likely never be welcome in.
I worked with Bridgette on days I covered the split shift – when the shop had to stay open through lunch. She was an older lady, the kind who had spent her life doing all the things you were supposed to do but then decided to spend the last half of it divorced from her husband, available to her grown children, and teaching adults to paint watercolors at night school. The watercolors she made and sold and paid her rent with were gorgeous and careful, meticulously crafted. At lunch, she ate vegan meals and drank weak, lukewarm coffee. During the day she was here, at Paradise Pen, spending hours carefully polishing inventory and changing light bulbs and coming up with new ways to style the desk set displays.
“I don’t give a god damn who he is; he’s not getting a discount. Full price. Hell, charge him extra,” in comes a man one day, Bluetooth headset in his ear, strolling the corridor of the mall. Everyone in Denver has some familiarity with Franklin Azar. He is the Strongarm. He is the lawyer from the television ads. He buys up blocks of time between the local newscast and Jeopardy, and even more after late-night programming ends and before the daybreak reports – when he knows hospital waiting rooms have their TVs on, muted, in front of an injured audience.
In the business of luxury goods, you inevitably work with lawyers. The ones on our client list were those who bought Mont Blancs by the case to engrave for new partners. Others just liked to collect. Few had anything nice to say about Azar. He ran a settlement mill; he rarely stepped foot in a courtroom.
“He’s done well for himself” is the only halfway nice thing they can say before they change the subject.
And here he was. Tall, potbellied, and carrying in a waft of cigar smoke after him. His attention was half on the call in his earpiece, half on the display cases around him. Eventually, he either hangs up the call or mutes it – the Bluetooth never leaves his ear – and looks right at Bridgette to say “I hear you have the Ferrari pen, I want it.”
I pull it from the case. The brilliant red colors, the gold nib, all encased in a resin box the size of a clock radio. He grabs it, scratches the nib across a pad of paper. Nothing.
“This is broken,” he says. Matter of factly. Rudely.
“We can give you a well to dip into,” Bridgette says, uncapping the tester bottle of Waterman ink. Azar dips carefully, dribbling ink to the pad, waving the pen around. This is someone who wanted an $8,000 fountain pen after a lifetime of writing with Bics.
We watched patiently, nervously, neither of us wanting to send damaged inventory back to Montegrappa. His pudgy mitt squeezing the hardened resin like a reluctant trophy wife.
“I own three Ferraris, so it seemed obvious I should have this,” he says this directly to Bridgette. Bridgette: the painter and driver of a modest Honda. Bridgette, delicate in every feature and objectively living a humble life – why wouldn’t she be impressed by three Ferraris?
I take the pen, rinse the ink from it, and give it a polish before setting it in the resin box. I polish the box and rest it gently inside a shopping bag. Bridgette takes Azar’s credit card and runs it through the machine.
“I shop here all of the time, and the other lady usually gives me a discount.”
I doubt this is what the craftsmen of Northern Italy expected. I doubt they wanted their works of art to be given at a discount to a man who owned more cars than he could drive at once.
Bridgette smiled and nodded, “Of course.”
“What are you doing for lunch today?” He asks her. She politely lets him down, saying she had plans to eat lunch with her husband. Azar gets notably quiet. He scribbles his signature down on the receipt. He then tears the shop bag down the side, flips open the lid of the box, and puts the pen in his pocket.
I could only imagine the terrors within that pocket. Keys, loose change, a cigar cutter. All rattling around resin that will never again know smoothness or beauty.
He leaves. The smell of old cigars lingers in the shop through the rest of the week.