A small idea, deftly executed.

Pencil Profits.

We’re huge fans of Caroline Weaver’s pint-sized pencil empire. To us, she’s proof of the power of doing one thing remarkably well (and appealing to the small-scale, human side of today’s data-driven world)

Source: Bloomberg

In the battle between the physical and the digital, the scales of judgement appear, right now at least, to have sided with the 1s and the 0s. Bookstores have floundered, ebooks and the Kindle are still going strong, local newspapers are dying by the minute, schools have considered replacing textbooks with iPads, and instead of novels and nonfiction, our noses are buried in our smartphones and tablets as we tap away at our endless streams of distracting alerts. It’s a scene captured perfectly in the song “Little Lights” by experimental bluegrass outfit, Punch Brothers. “Look at us,” croons frontman Chris Thile over a mandolin backdrop in his falsetto whine, “we’re glowing.”

The decay of the physical — the pen to paper, the paper in hand — is quite apparent. And while “the cloud” and our glowing screens take over, the almighty pencil, the once-prized tool of the deceased, the cursive-writers, and the literary, refuses to die.

As Bloomberg reports, the enduring draw of wood and lead has in fact yielded a chugging little business for one 200 square foot shop in Lower East Side Manhattan. The name: C.W. Pencil Enterprise, a “tiny empire” says the publication, created by a young (25 at the time of the article) Caroline Weaver, who certainly knows her stuff.

She lights up when pointing out Walt Disney’s and Steinbeck’s particular model of choice, the Blackwing 24, described by her as “probably the most iconic pencil ever made in America.” Conversely, she hates mechanicals, as “they don’t smell like anything” and because “The lead is so small you can get no line variation out of it.”

Her operation, a profitable one, is doing just fine, but faces substantial competition from the big boys, most notably Pencils.com, Amazon, and EBay. But unlike them, she’s not selling her carefully-selected pencils as commodity items. It’s purely for the love of the game, as it were, and she has no grand ambitions of scaling her modest emporium beyond its current size. Opportunities to expand in both headcount (and we would assume, locations) abound; so too have offers for investment. Ms. Weaver, however, has stood fast: “I didn’t start this because I want to be a business lady,” she explains to Bloomberg. “I started it because I really wanted to sell people pencils.”

As with most things quaint, small-scale, and nostalgic today, hipster allusions are inevitable. But Ms. Weaver shows much in the matter of good business sense, not least of which is a clear distaste for endless, undisciplined growth, and the vanity of size. For her it’s simple: to find the best pencils available, both in and out production; to make them easily available for purchase online; and to provide her customers with a physical space to learn, explore, and buy in person. The economics of the business at this early juncture bode well: its profitability is owed to a clientele that skews young on average, but top 15 percent, the high rollers — those who spend between $3,000 and $4,000 per year — skew over 40. Further evidence that Ms. Weaver’s company offers something that appeals just as strongly to the hip young adult, as it does to the older customer whose purchases, we suspect, are fueled by practicality, rather than a romantic notion of the past.


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