A few years ago when Levenger stopped selling pens made by other manufacturers, I got a phone call from an angry customer. “What do you mean you’re not selling Pelikan anymore?” came the gruff male voice on the line. “You got me into fountain pens in the first place and now you’re only going to sell your own brand? Big mistake.”
The customer was an attorney and a persuasive fellow, and I explained my thinking like this:
Customers could buy Pelikans and other brands elsewhere, I told him, but they could only buy Levenger from us. And what customers bought the most from Levenger were, indeed, our own pens. I wanted to pounce on the opportunity and improve our own line of fine writing instruments. It would be a chance to explore new designs and while we were at it, to build up our line of refills.
The customer conceded I had a point and then signed off by reminding me we were making a big mistake.
We continued to explain ourselves to many disappointed customers in our stores and over the phone and in emails. We had a lot explaining to do, since at the time we stopped selling pens from other makers, Levenger was the largest retailer of fine writing instruments in the nation.
And now, I’m happy to report, we’re going back to selling those pens from other
I guess we have some explaining to do—again.
Windows into a new world
In truth, while focusing on our own product development was the biggest reason we stopped selling other brands, there were other reasons as well.
Fine pens were all the rage in the late 1990s, happily coincident with the cigar-smoking craze. But the yen for both cigars and pens fell off a cliff at about the same time, around the time of the dot-com bust. The fine-pen craze of the waning years of the 20th century turned out to be the last lucid moment of a dying patient.
By the 1990s, fine-writing instruments was a fashion business, with a gloss of technology about improved ink flow or resistance to leaks on airplanes. But those kinds of technological advancements were already quaint—not like back in the 1920s or 30s, when fountain pen technology was leading-edge. In the 1990s, fountain pen technical advancement was laughable. At Levenger we joked about developing new fountain pen ink (which we did) while Microsoft was coming out with its new version of Windows.
There was technical advancement going on with writing instruments, but it was in the highly automated disposable-pen sector, since that’s where the money was (and is still). It takes expensive machinery to make those inexpensive pens for offices, hotels and gas stations—those millions of pens we buy by the box and toss around as common property. (And the problem they present to the fine-writing instruments industry is that those cheap pens write pretty darn well.)
The writing had been on the wall for years that fine writing instruments were on their way to the back of the drawer. Most of the brands were acquired by large companies. There wasn’t much new product development going on as the new owners focused on their big businesses. The luster had left fine writing instruments.
Neither high tech nor high fashion
Their long slide into irrelevance was further accelerated by email. Handwritten notes became nearly as rare as compliments between political parties. People started sending invitations electronically. And while parents bullied children to send real thank-you notes, in envelopes with stamps, those same adults guiltily pressed the send buttons on their laptops. Then came PDAs, and people learned how to text, instead of crossing t’s.
Most traditional outlets for fine writing instruments—those quaintly named stationers—went out of business as Staples and Office Depot kerchunked themselves down at intersections across the nation. I remember a high-end pen rep excitedly telling me how they were pitching jewelry stores as a promising new channel. That opportunity proved illusory: woe to the husband who bought his wife a pen for the big event.
The hard fact was that by the end of the 20th century, the fine-writing instrument business was a fashion business that was unfashionable. Executives hoped they could imbue pens with the same mystique as luxury watches, and for a moment it seemed to work. But in the end, the clock ran out and the ink ran dry.
Focusing on what was True
It was in this milieu of a declining industry that I decided to pull the plug on selling the traditional brands. Since it was mostly Levenger pens that our customers were buying anyway, I wanted our staff to be able to focus on making more Levenger pens, and making them marvelous.
It worked. I’m especially proud of our True Writers, which became more robust and numerous in their colorful, retro resins. And we developed our line of heavy-duty, solid brass pens to fill a niche abandoned by the venerable Rotring company.
Most important were the Levenger refills, which are made with utmost precision in Germany. We expanded our offering, creating the industry’s first six-pack samplers of ballpoint and rollerball refills so customers could experience for themselves the many different ways pens can write. We coined the term Pen Outfitting to describe the process of helping customers explore the kinds of refills and pens most pleasing for them, given the various types of writing they do. As a result, customers can now achieve nearly all the kinds of writing they might like—from broad signatures to fine-point note-taking on 3x5 cards—and do so with attractive, affordable, lasting pens.
Time to bring back to Levenger the world’s best pens
So we achieved our goal. And then we realized another truth: Since we’re committed to Pen Outfitting at Levenger, we could do even better for our customers by rounding out—and ramping up—our own assortment with the best other brands in the business. And the good news is that while these companies make fewer pens, they are as marvelous at writing and as beautiful to behold as ever they were—perhaps more so.
So welcome back, Pelikan, with your deliciously flexible gold nibs. Welcome to those big tanks of ink you carry in your translucent barrels.
Welcome home, Sailor, and your amazing gold nibs crafted in Japan for the finest of Kanji-capable fine points, and the broadest of music nibs.
Welcome to Namiki, for your retractable fountain pens that write like a dream and seal away like proud turtles in their shells.
Welcome to Lamy and my favorite weekend pen—that ultra-light ballpoint you can’t even feel when it’s clipped on your polo shirt, and clicks ready-for-action under your thumb.
Welcome to the three pen brands whose ballpoints take Levenger refills: Pelikan, Parker and Waterford. Now our customers can buy a Levenger ballpoint sampler and try them in the full range of pens from these three makers.
But why throw technology into reverse and pedal back to pens? It’s not that we reject new technology at Levenger. In fact, we embrace it. But we also aspire to help our customers (and ourselves) achieve a Zen-like productive coexistence—delighting in the new while cherishing the old, and using both side by side.
It’s why we believe our Circa paper notebooks have a place in the world of electronic note-taking. And why we’re making our Levenger Press books ever more sumptuous with their paper and their ribbon and their gorgeous colors of ink.
Now that the fountain pen—that last mechanical reproduction of the quill—is officially obsolete, we can begin to truly appreciate it. We can revel in the ritual of writing, when we slow to dip our pen in an ink bottle, and accept with gratitude the pensive pause.
Sometimes it’s not about how quickly we can experience our world, but how slowly.
(Just ask David McCullough about that. Ah, but that’s another story, which I’ll share with you soon.)
In future posts I will lobby for the reestablishment of a certain afternoon delight—the kind that involves a pen, a card and an envelope. And I even want to suggest (gulp) that we unplug ourselves once a month.
Until then, do let me know what you think about Levenger reintroducing these grand pen brands. Just click on the Comments link below. (If you’re reading this as an email, click here and you’ll connect to Comment.
And while you can buy most of these pens elsewhere, I hope you’ll let us show you what Levenger customer service feels like.