Part of my mission in 2019 is to write more about this wonderful community, not just pens. So I’m dusting off my interview series, “behind the pen”. And my first victim? John Hall, owner of one of the UK’s best-loved stationery shops, Write Here. Let’s see what John has to say about the issues of the day…
Ant: Write Here has been going for quite some time now (2004, according to your website). How have you seen the stationery market change in that time, and what do you think is in store for 2019? Are you feeling positive?
John: I’m feeling very positive about the future. Quality stationery has gone from mainstream to niche, but the niche is growing. There’s a strong market and an increasingly discerning clientèle. There are some very strong brands, like Leuchtturm, Rhodia and Lamy, but people are still looking for something new and interesting.
Ant: Because I’m a real enthusiast and live in a stationery shop wasteland, I buy a lot of my pens online, from all over the world, from many different stores — but I try to buy from specialist shops and avoid Amazon. A lot of these stores are nevertheless online-only. How do you think brick and mortar pen shops like yours can stay viable and relevant in today’s market?
John: We sell online as well as in the shop — the shop still outsells the web, although the gap is narrowing and will probably reverse this year. There aren’t too many shops selling pens left, and small-town independents seem to do well in the local market. I do wonder how people can make truly informed choices online — especially with a pen, as the interaction between weight, surface, balance and the feel of the nib creates a wealth of choice. It’s noticeable in the shop that most customers now come in with a good idea what they want to buy having looked at our website. However, with the chance to try pens they will often leave with something very different from what they’d originally come in for. Bricks and mortar shops deliver a tactile experience!
Ant: I think it’s safe to say that the last couple of years have seen a lot of new people pick up a fountain pen for the first time. As a “real” pen shop, you’re a valuable source of advice for these people. What kinds of people are buying from you — are they young? When beginners come into your shop, what tips do you give them, and what are the pens that you recommend most often?
John: Depends, but for us the answer for beginners is often Lamy. Something like the Safari is a great place for anyone new to fountain pens to start – simple, safe and a pleasure to use, inexpensive converter, easily replaced nib and, if you’ve not used a fountain pen before (or for a while) a brilliant introduction to the pleasure of using one. We usually suggest that they stick to cartridges at first, but will usually mention the range of inks that are available.
Ant: It was great to meet you face to face at the London Pen Show a few months back. What’s your view on the role that pen shows play in the industry, and do they need to evolve along with the market as a whole?
John: Pen Shows are a great way to meet our online customers, and go some way to make up for the lack of shops these days. I’d like to see a consumer facing stationery show — pens, paper, journals, the lot. I think it is a shame that so few pen brands attend — I’d like to see them supporting the shows and shifting the focus a bit more to contemporary brands.
Ant: I definitely agree that it would be great to see more pen brands at shows, like in the US.
Ant: In the past few months I’ve had quite a few duff nibs and pens, from several different retailers and manufacturers. Without necessarily damning any of the individual manufacturers you stock, what’s your view on the state of pen quality control? Is it a big problem, what’s causing it, and what can the industry do about it?
John: Ouch. Hope that’s not me! It’s a fairly small but significant problem. Back to the excellent Lamy, I’m afraid. Very seldom problems, and if you look under the nib of an unused new one you’ll find out why — there’ll be a little residue of blue ink because it’s been write-tested. However, most pens are not tested and often problems come from a mis-set nib — usually fairly easy to fix, and a visual check would often spot it. We’re happy to write test if requested, but we know that some customers prefer to get their pens box-fresh from the factory — we understand that. So I’m afraid that the solution probably lies with manufacturers checking quality before the pen comes out.
Ant: What new products are you most excited about right now?
John: We’re very much into Taiwanese eyedroppers at the moment! [Ed: check out my review of the Opus 88 Koloro — I have an Opus 88 demonstrator on the way!] Good quality, quite reasonable. At the top end of the market, I’m delighted to see that my old pals from OMAS’s new company has produced a winner with the Feel — building on their success with the Write Here SCRIBO. The nib was too good to lose!
Ant: Some brands seem to capture the public imagination and blow up on Instagram. There are others that make fantastic pens that for some reason or other don’t seem to get that traction (I’m thinking here of Cleo Skribent and perhaps Graf, too). Are there any “hidden gems” that you’d recommend people come to with an open mind?
John: I’m afraid that you’ve got the two I’d have gone for — Cleo especially. Maybe not the most stylish, but the quality shines out and they are wonderful writers.
Ant: One of the big trends I’ve noticed in recent years is the influx of far-east manufacturers like Wing Sung, PenBBS and others selling super cheap pens on eBay (some of which are “homages” to pens like the Kaweco Sport; PenBBS has now introduced a Bulkfiller like Conid’s, at a tenth of the price). How do you see this affecting established mid-tier manufacturers like Lamy and Kaweco, and how is it affecting retailers like you?
John: Oh, crikey! Yes, you can get a knock off Lamy Safari practically for less than the shipping cost. And sometimes they’re OK, but sometimes still overpriced! However, I understand that Lamy’s fastest growing market is…China. Great brands somehow manage to sprinkle magic dust over their products that seems to make them inherently more desirable than imitations. Sincerest form of flattery, etc….
Ant: having just received a PenBBS 355 Bulkfiller, I can tell you the difference in quality from the Conid is like night and day. And my Jinhao 992s cracked on their own! So I probably agree with John here…
Ant: We seem to be in the age of the Limited Edition, from premium Montblanc writers-edition pens down to Lamy Safaris. Do you think this kind of artificial scarcity and rapid portfolio turnover is a good thing?
John: I guess it generates demand, but which I like, but it makes inventory management trickier. It’s hard to judge which ones will fly and which will wind up on a shelf gazing reproachfully at you. But the Lamys and TWSBIs are inexpensive fun, and you can’t really have too many pens, can you?
Ant: How many pens do you personally carry with you? What’s in your pen case today?
John: Two or three. I usually carry one of our Write Here Scribos. I’ve also got a couple of John Sorowka Specials — one a TWSBI RBT 580 with a titanium nib which he has breathed on. The other is made up from old OMAS 360 bits he picked out of the bins in Bologna, again with a very sweet OMAS titanium nib — it’s my grail pen. The Visconti Homo Sapiens is in my backpack.
Ant: I’m a proud owner of one of your Scribo collaborations. What was it like partnering with Scribo and getting involved in actually creating a pen design? What kind of feedback have you been getting on the Scribo and Scribo 2? Are any plans in the works with Scribo for this year?
John: I’ve known most of the Scrittura Bolognese team for a few years, and they are great to work with. The food in Bologna is pretty good too. Feedback on the pens has been outstandingly good — what has surprised me a bit is the number of people who have two, or even three, of them. That is really positive feedback!