If you’re planning on attending your first fountain pen show, there are a few things you might find useful before you step through the doors for the very first time. Whether you’ve been using and collecting fountain pens for less than a week or for many years, your first time at a pen show will probably be equally overwhelming. I recently attended my “first” fountain pen show (I had been to one many years ago, but as a vendor, so I didn’t really get to experience it from the other side of the table), and have quite a few tips to share.
What Is A Fountain Pen Show?
If you’ve never been, one question you might have is “What is a fountain pen show?” A pen show is basically a big gathering of fountain pen collectors, manufacturers and vendors who all get together to buy, sell and trade pens. It’s not only pens, though. You’ll find ink, paper, pen cases, pen parts, accessories, pen-related clothing and many other things related to fountain pens. You’ll find vintage pens, modern pens, handmade pens and custom, one-of-a-kind pens. You’ll get to look at, touch and even use many of the fountain pens that you’ve only ever seen online and always dreamed of using. In short, a fountain pen show is basically like fountain pen heaven.
Basics For Attending Your First Fountain Pen Show
When you attend your first fountain pen show, you will be overwhelmed. It just can’t be helped. The sensation of walking through the doors into a room filled with rows and rows of tables covered in shiny pens, not to mention hundreds of people talking about and using pens, is enough to make any fountain pen user giddy with excitement. Then you’ll be faced with the daunting question of where to start? How does this work? Is there any etiquette I need to know about? This is where a little planning can be extremely useful. Here’s a quick list of some of the basics that will help you survive your first fountain pen show:
What should I bring to the show (and other basic tips)?
- While most pen shows are held at hotels with restaurants, definitely bring some snacks and water to sustain you throughout the day.
- While most vendors now can accept payment via credit card, it’s a good idea to bring some cash as well. I think the ATM at the pen show I attended ran out of cash every day of the show.
- Bring some paper for writing and ink samples A fountain pen friendly notebook works best so that you’re not fumbling with loose sheets of paper. If you don’t have one or forget one, you can always purchase one at the show.
- Bring a bag to carry your purchases in. Some people say that you should avoid backpacks, as they make it difficult to navigate a crowded show floor, but I was able to wear one without much difficulty, especially early in the day when there were less people. If you don’t want to bring a backpack, bring a bag that you can comfortably carry all day.
- Head to the show early! Not only will the show floor be less crowded, but you’ll also be more likely to purchase what you’re looking for before someone else buys it. While you should try and start early, you should also plan on spending a good amount of time (the entire day if possible) at the show so you don’t feel rushed and have a chance to visit every table a few times.
- Before you get to the show, make a list of what you’re looking for. Of course, this includes pens, but don’t forget about inks, paper or even accessories like pen cases. Once you get to the show you’ll probably experience a sensory overload, so having a list that you took time to think about before the show will be very helpful when you’re feeling overwhelmed and don’t know where to start.
- Speaking of where to start, I’d suggest doing a casual walkthrough of the show before spending too much time at any particular table. This will give you a feel for what’s available and can help you plan where you’d like to spend more time. The one exception to this is if you’re looking for something very specific and hard to find, in which case you’ll want to track it down as soon as possible before someone else finds it and purchases it.
- Take frequent breaks! Chances are you’ll be on your feet a lot, not to mention you’ll start to become desensitized after looking at thousands of different fountain pens and hundreds of different ink colors, so be sure to get away from the show for a bit to sit down, have a snack and let your eyes and body rest for a few minutes.
- Because you’ll be on your feet a lot, be sure to wear comfortable shoes. A fountain pen show is definitely not the place to choose style over comfort.
- Set a realistic budget before you go to the show. This is probably one of the most important things that you can do. You will be tempted by pens that are way outside of your budget. You will want to buy more things than are on your list. You will make impulse purchases. By setting a budget before you go to the show, you can know how much you are able to spend and hopefully stick to it. To quote Samson, a person who I met at the San Francisco show, “You can have it all, but you don’t have to have it all at once.”
- On a related note, I started to experience a numbing as to how expensive pens actually were. I was looking at a table of beautiful vintage Omas fountain pens and many were over $2000. When I came across a few that I liked that were between $800-$1000, they seemed like a great deal and I actually considered buying one, even though that is way more than what I would currently consider spending on a pen. Don’t let the high price of the many beautiful pens you’ll see influence your budget.
- Don’t expect to find amazing deals on restored vintage fountain pens. Instead expect to find amazing fountain pens that you might not typically have a chance to purchase. A pen show is not a flea market. Dealers at pen shows purchase, restore and sell pens for a living, so you can expect to pay a premium but fair price for restored vintage fountain pens. While you might be able to pick up the same pen on eBay for less money, you won’t have any of the same confidence or assurances as you will when you purchase from a known vendor at a pen show. Not to mention that you’ll get to talk with the vendor, touch and examine the pen and maybe even learn a bit about its history while you shop.
- Most vendors are perfectly fine with you picking up and examining a pen, but if you’re unsure, it never hurts to ask first.
- What about bringing your own pens? You should definitely bring a few (or many) of your own pens. Not only will you get to share some of your collection with other pen users, but you might even have a chance to get a pen that’s giving you trouble tuned by a professional nibmeister.
- Finally, if you have any pens that you don’t want any more, a pen show is a great place to sell or trade fountain pens. If you’re selling to a dealer, keep in mind that they’ll only pay a portion of what they can potentially sell it for, so while it doesn’t make much sense to try and sell them a modern pen, it might be a great way to sell an unrestored vintage pen. You can also sell or trade pens with other attendees. In fact, I came home with a pen that I wasn’t able to find at a dealer table, but a friend of a friend had one that they were willing to sell at a very fair price. Score!
What Else Goes On At Pen Shows?
While most people attend a fountain pen show to purchase fountain pens, there are many other aspects to a pen show that should not be missed. For example, at the San Francisco Pen Show there were many pen-related events that you could participate in if you wanted to step away from the buying side of the show for a while. For example, there were ink-testing stations set up throughout the show with over 700 different inks that you could sample. This provided a great opportunity to sit down for a few minutes, chat with other pen enthusiasts and try out some inks you’ve always wanted to use.
On the educational side, there were various classes and workshops taught by some amazing pen people that you could either drop into or pre-register for. There was a pen dash (imagine educational speed dating) where groups of people learned about various fountain pen topics in 15-minute intervals. This gave attendees an amazing opportunity to informally chat with some past and current pen legends such as Paul Erano, Ralph, Leigh Reyes, and many others.
There were also some great social events. The first night of the show saw a pen auction that helped to raise money for the Pen Collectors of America. The second night of the show there was a social mixer with a live band! And, all throughout every day of the show, especially every evening after the show ended for the day, there were groups of people everywhere (but especially the hotel bar/restaurant) hanging out talking about, showing off and using fountain pens.
Don’t Be Intimidated
The social aspect brings me to my final point about attending your first fountain pen show. Don’t be scared or intimidated by all of the people at the show who might know more than you or who have a collection of pens that you can only dream of having. Pen collectors are typically very open, friendly and generous, so chances are if you walk up to a group of people you don’t know sitting around playing with their pens, you’ll be welcomed into their group with no hesitation. Furthermore, they’ll probably instantly trust you and gladly hand over their beautiful pen collection for you to try out. I know that it sounds crazy, but that’s just how it is!
Not only is hanging out with other pen people a great way to try out a bunch of pens and inks that aren’t yours, but it’s also a great way to learn a thing or two. Pen people love to talk about pens and love to educate other people about pens. If you have a question, ask it! If someone knows, you’ll probably get a very detailed answer. Furthermore, it might just lead to the beginning of a great friendship.
For many pen show veterans, the main reason to continue to attend fountain pen shows isn’t to buy new pens (although they always come home with a few), but the social aspect of meeting up with friends that they met at last years show or haven’t seen since a show earlier in the year. Just take a look around during the show and you’ll see people with huge smiles on their faces giving each other hugs and chatting about what they’ve been up to since the last pen show. It’s a very close-knit community and a wonderful one to be a part of.
When Will You Attend Your First Fountain Pen Show?
If reading through this has you really excited about attending your first fountain pen show, but you don’t know when or where any pen shows are happening, a quick google search should help you find a show close to you.
Personally, I had an amazing time at the 2018 San Francisco Pen Show. Having lived in SF for a few years and getting to know many of the people who put on the show, the show was a great mix of new experiences and seeing old friends. I was able to track down everything on my wish list and still stay within my budget! I made some new friends, got to try out some amazing fountain pens and came home with lots of new stuff to try out and review. Although I doubt that there’s anything that I can imagine “needing” in the next few months, I can’t wait for the Colorado Pen Show in early October. While I might pick up a few things, I’m super excited to take a class or two, see old friends and hopefully make a few new ones!
If you want to see more pen show photos, check out the Instagram hashtag #sfpenshow for lots of photos from this year’s show.
Hi, my name is John. I’m a Colorado-born professional photographer who recently moved back to Denver after spending 3 years in San Francisco. I’ve been using and collecting fountain pens for over 20 years. I got my first one in college when I got bored taking notes with ballpoints and pencils. Since then I’ve bought and sold hundreds of pens, but have consistency in my love of Esterbrooks.