This article appeared in Issue 24 (August 29, 2013) of The Magazine. We are currently crowdfunding a book from our first year of publication! Back the project to get a hardcover book or an ebook. Visit our Kickstarter page for details.
Gabe Bullard also looks into the issue of whether the crowdfunded fountain pen, Visionnaire, is a bulk-ordered standard item from China in “Blurred Visionnaire” (Dec. 16, 2013), also on Medium.
Pretty much every Tuesday, Myke Hurley and Brad Dowdy chat on Skype for about an hour. Their conversation is recorded and released as a podcast. Thousands of people listen, with more subscribing each week, even though the topic of the conversation has been the same for nearly 70 episodes.
Hurley and Dowdy talk about pens.
To an outsider, a generic Bic user, or the kind of person who will write with whatever’s handy, it might seem insane that thousands of people listen to two men discuss pens every week. But for the people who like a good line and a nice barrel, to designers raising hundreds of thousands of dollars on Kickstarter to revolutionize pen prototypes, and to people who buy and sell imported pens online, it all makes perfect sense.
The podcast is about pens, but it’s also about two people sharing their joy about a slightly offbeat hobby. Hurley and Dowdy live on different continents. Ink and the Internet brought them to each other, and thousands more to them.
And in the podcast, listeners hear themselves. They hear addictions grow and interests expand along a path they’re either already familiar with or eager to saunter down. Writ large, Hurley and Dowdy are the plume-wielding poster boys of this composition-minded community.
The Pen Addict podcast grew out of Dowdy’s blog of the same name. Hurley liked the site and recruited Dowdy to make a show into an extension of Dowdy’s writing. (It started on Hurley’s 70Decibels network, which has since merged into 5by5.)
“When we started, I asked ‘Who wants to hear a podcast about pens?’” says Dowdy. “He said, ‘Who wants to read a blog about pens?’”
But the Myke Hurley of the first episode is different from the Myke Hurley of today. The old Myke liked good pens. He wrote with a gel-ink Pilot G-2, a Lamy Safari fountain pen, and what he calls “nondescript but nice stuff.” Today’s Myke is a bit more advanced as a scribbler. He writes with a TWSBI Diamond Mini stub nib fountain pen and a Retro 51 Tornado; he ranks the Tornado among the best pens ever made. He also has a growing collection of limited edition Field Notes pocket notebooks. (As does Dowdy, who says “If you’re taking an interest in how your pen writes, what you’re writing on is as important as what you’re writing with.”)
“[When the show started], Myke just had a few pens he liked. He didn’t know why he liked them,” says Dowdy. “Now he’s with me, talking about pens for an hour a week. He can’t help but get caught up [in] the conversation.”
Hurley has noticed the change, too. “My levels of interest and knowledge have increased exponentially after we started the show,” he says.
“He cracks me up,” says Dowdy. “He gets a big kick now out of getting something before me. That’s how I know he’s been bitten by the pen bug.”
For Hurley, pen choice is personal. The pen defines the style of writer, from the type of line it leaves on the page — bold and thick, neat and thin, or colorful and eye-catching — to the message it sends to others.
“Everybody in the pay bracket above me is using Montblanc pens,” says Hurley, who works in marketing for a financial company. He prefers better-writing and less-expensive (but not necessarily cheap) pens. And they still send a message.
“Every material choice that we make is an extension of our own personality in some way. I’m making a very specific choice to use something which is important to me,” he says. “I spend time finding those things. They’re a statement I’m making. I will spend extra for items I find to be of a higher quality.”
When someone wants to borrow a pen, Hurley is careful. “I grab my case that has 15 pens in it and give them a very particular one.” Because some pens aren’t for everybody, and no one wants to loan out something they’ve invested in and not have it be returned.
“People comment in meetings a lot. ‘That’s a nice pen.’ Then they pick it up,” he says. “And inside, my brain starts to scream because it means people will attempt to use my pen.”
Walking a fine line
It’s easy to become a pen addict. Just try a better pen. That’s how Dowdy got started. He’s had an affinity for fine-tipped pens since he was a child, but a lucky find at a Staples set him on his current path.
“I saw a Uni-Ball 0.38 mm gel ink pen. I bought three four-packs and thought, ‘I’m never gonna see this again,’” he says. “I loved the pen, it was an awesome pen, but I got to thinking: If they make this now, what could I find online?”
Hurley agrees that that first investment can grow. “You can grab the biro from the store cupboard or you can pick up a G2 for a buck. Already then, that jump in writing experience is massive. That is such a great-quality pen for its value,” says Hurley.
The Pilot G2 is nice, but maybe the grip isn’t ideal. Maybe a finer point would be better. Once a writer puts down a better line, the quest for the perfect pen begins. So thousands of addicts like Hurley and Dowdy have gone online to find better pens.
Pen fans have formed a solid community online, with blogs like Dowdy’s providing news and reviews (reviews written by hand with the pen being reviewed) and with sites like JetPens and Cult Pens providing access to tools. The interest in pens with needle-thin points may not be strong enough to keep them in stock at office superstores, but online, the market is wide enough to support specialty stores, like JetPens, which opened in 2004 and specializes in Japanese pens. (JetPens sponsors The Pen Addict blog, and Dowdy once worked for the company.)
“When we first started the business, we were all students in college. We were doing 10 orders a month. Now we ship 400 to 500 orders a day,” says Shu Yao, co-founder and CEO of JetPens. Yao says sales keep rising, jumping about 40 percent each year. Most of JetPens’ orders — 95 percent, according to Yao — are American.
She suspects that many of the pens end up in the hands of people like Hurley and Dowdy; people who don’t write constantly but who appreciate using something nice when they do. (Neither Hurley nor Dowdy is a professional writer. Dowdy is a Unix administrator. Hurley says he mostly uses his pens for meeting notes.)
“I’m not sure [the online pen craze] is just recently taking off. It’s always been there. It’s just more exposed now,” says Yao. And now, the addicts are fueling manufacturing.
Che-wei Wang and Taylor Levy of the design studio CW&T love the Pilot Hi-Tec-C pen but hated its plastic casing. With its fine point, low price, and gel ink, the Hi-Tec-C is an affordable step up from the G2. It’s easy to understand why it was the first pen sold by JetPens.
Wang and Levy knew they could create a better experience for penheads — a precision-crafted, stainless steel barrel and a square sleeve that could hold replacement Hi-Tec-C cartridges. “We really wanted a super-durable, indestructible housing, as an homage to how much we like the ink cartridge,” says Levy.
Wang and Levy’s Pen Type-A Kickstarter project had a modest goal of $2,500. “We just thought our friends and family would support us,” says Wang. They ended up with more than 4,000 backers and over $280,000. Now CW&T sells the pen for $150. (A $50 pledge to the Kickstarter project earned a pen.)
“It’s definitely the most popular thing we sell,” says Wang. But Wang and Levy weren’t addicts when they designed the Pen Type-A, and they weren’t aware of how devoted pen lovers are.
“We kind of knew [about the pen community],” says Wang. “We were aware of JetPens and other little sites that sold. We didn’t know how big it was.” (Despite this success, and even though another pen project is in the works, CW&T isn’t planning to go into barrel-making exclusively “We’re not a pen company,” says Wang. “We’re not that interested in pens,” adds Levy.)
Pen projects on Kickstarter offer something valuable to addicts: a chance at the perfect pen. Dowdy and Hurley say they hear frequently from readers and listeners who want to know what pen will suit all of their needs. Such a pen likely doesn’t exist, but anyone could go for years (and go broke) searching.
“I love the idea of having things that were made with the intention of not designing with cost as the number one priority,” says Will Hodges, who just finished a very successful Kickstarter campaign for a machined-metal pen that accepts G2 refills.
“There have been tons and tons of good projects,” says Dowdy, who regularly discusses the projects with Hurley on the podcast, sometimes with Dan Bishop of Karas Kustoms, a small manufacturer that went far over its Kickstarter goals for a bolt-action pen and a metal click-style pen. “There are millions of dollars’ worth of pen barrels on Kickstarter.” Indeed, a search for the word “pen” on Kickstarter brings up a handful of other projects for custom-crafted pen barrels or fountain pens, many of them funded several times beyond the request.
“I think we’re in an age now where we’re very fortunate to have access to things and have those things be super-super customized to what our needs are,” says Dowdy. “That can be anything. It doesn’t have to be a pen. We can go online [and] find things we never thought existed before. For me, it was a very, very fine-tip pen. For years and decades, I could never find that. Once I found it, I thought, ‘There [have] to be more out there.’”
Making a point
The Pen Addict doesn’t have the most listeners among podcasts Hurley produces. But it does generate the most feedback.
“People say they found the show and now they’re using this [type of pen],” he says. “We get that a lot; people saying their wallets are empty. It’s a different kind of community. You’ve got stuff to share. People aren’t taking pictures of their laptops and sending them to us every week. But they do that with pens.”
In the 70-plus hours they’ve recorded, Hurley’s knowledge of pens has grown significantly. He’s gone from someone who likes a handful of nice pens to someone who seeks out nib types and interesting designs.
“I was sure that my budget for this stuff was going to increase. I had no idea. On my desk here, I’m surrounded by pens and paper,” he says. “My room is a serious fire hazard.”
Dowdy, the titular pen addict, has also gone deeper into the pen world. He’s now a fountain pen user, and he’s being encouraged to put his own pen design on Kickstarter. “There’s a very core group of people who contact us a lot,” says Hurley. “They’re real fans of the show and of Brad. If we talk about a pen we really enjoy, they’ll buy it, too. It’s like a journey we’re all on.”
It’s a journey without a destination. There is no single best pen. There’s no way to own every writing tool, notebook, or desk accessory. And once people discover the simple joys of quality tools, they’re only a couple of searches away from finding Hurley and Dowdy.
And if pens go mainstream, they’re not worried. “It means more good stuff is coming,” says Hurley. And that means more opportunities to test out pens, in search of one that’s perfect.
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Gabe Bullard is the program and news director of public radio station WFPL. The rest of the time, he edits Toothpick Swords, a cocktail blog. He lives in Louisville, Kentucky.
- The term biro, a brand of low-cost pen and also a British slang word for ballpoint pens, comes from László Bíró, who invented the ballpoint pen.
- Japanese pens (including the Pilot G2) are celebrated for their extremely fine points, gel inks, creative design, and relatively low cost. To quote the JetPens site: “[Japanese manufacturers] approach pens like Audi approaches cars, constantly innovating and implementing improvements through countless product models and product lines. They compete to develop the best formula for gel ink, or to engineer a pen tip that can survive the roughest writing habits.”
- The Magazine’s editor interviewed Wang and Levy for his New Disruptors podcast in February 2013, and then again as part of a panel of subjects at a live event in November.
- The Visionnaire fountain pen recently raised over $300,000 with an initial goal of $15,000. This project had a 60-day fundraising window rather than the 30-day window on many pen projects. Also, it’s been quite controversial in the pen community.
- In what may be one of the more baffling displays of pen-and-paper nerd dominance, when conservative firebrand Glenn Beck launched his own line of blue jeans and dry goods, he sold pocket notebooks similar to those created by Field Notes.