Eperiment 17: The Chicago Pen Show & The Meaning of Pens

I just returned from the Chicago Pen Show, and it is safe to say that it was an experience I will remember for quite some time. I had been to one other pen show, but this was the first time where I was able to spend the entire weekend at the show and really take it all in. 

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I went to the show expecting that I would meet a few people, try new things, and learn. I certainly did all of those things. But as I reflected on the experience as I drove home, the thing that was most surprising to me was how much meaning was infused throughout the weekend. 

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It may seem strange to call a weekend of pens and inks meaningful. It seems strange to most that such a weekend even exists at all. When people inquired as to why I was in Chicago and I subsequently told them that "a pen show" brought me to town... their responses ranged from blank stares to "Wow! You must be really tired of writing!"

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I admit that less than a year ago the idea of a pen show seemed strange to me as well. Even after one day at another pen show earlier this year, I didn't quite get it. But after 72 hours of being immersed in the culture of this hobby, the light bulb finally went off for me. 

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Because the pen is such a universal experience, most find it difficult to imagine a hobby centered around such a humble, inanimate object. In the majority of settings- pens are an afterthought. At their best, they serve a necessary but declining purpose in our culture, and at their worst they serve as a consumeristic status symbol. 

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But in the tiny micro-culture of a pen show, pens are none of those things. You see, here- pens are not just inanimate objects. And let me tell you first hand, they truly take on a life of their own.

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If pens are merely objects, it's easy to wonder how one or two rooms with tables of pens could possible consume anyone's entire weekend. But as you begin to wander around, you realize that these objects are actually more. A pen may be commonplace in today's society, but these aren't just any pens. People don't typically accidentally come upon a collection of fountain pens, or buy or use them by chance.

Every person and every pen in the room arrived purposely and intentionaly, and that means every person and pen has a story to tell.

When you re-imagine the room in light of these stories, it's suddenly hard to imagine how anyone could get through the room in one single weekend. 

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Everyone's story is different of course.

Many are drawn to pens because of the long and fascinating history of their use. Every vintage piece speaks to some aspect of how things used to be, and every pen has a long and winding history behind its specifications. Walk up to any vintage dealer at a pen show, and you'll see what I mean. You can easily talk for half an hour or more about a single vintage model of a single pen. I can not recommend this experience any more highly- the curiousity and passion of these storytellers are contagious. And that is what they are- storytellers so much more than sellers. The wealth of knowledge in a single room during a show is truly stunning- and the generosity with which the majority of the people in the room will share this knowledge with you is amazing.

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Many others are drawn to pens as a form of self-expression, and the uniqueness and beauty of those expressions is on full display at a show. For some, pens are a gateway to a creative outlet or emotional or mental release. For others, the uniqueness and customizability of the pens themselves bring individuality to common every-day experiences and tasks. Each pen is filled with creative decisions of its own: brand, model, design, nib, filling mechanism, ink choice, etc. This is why you can find pen afficianodos in every common area of the show hotel long after a formal day of buying and selling at a show closes. Trading of pens and trading of stories. The longer you listen, the more you see it's less about the former, and more about the latter. A New York executive sits side-by-side with a Midwestern artist and Southern machine shop mechanic. A millennial passes a pen to Generation X and Y as a Baby Boomer looks on.

Pens are just the proxy for the stories that are common ground. 

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The more of these stories I hear, the more I see my own use of pens and other anolog tools as a intentional rebellion. Rebellion against a society and self that are obsessed with efficiency. Rebellion against the part of me that values checking off boxes over meaning and purpose. An intentional, quiet space that forces me to slow down in sea of never ending noise. A meditative routine that gives my days cadence and rhythm.

But that is just one story.

There are entrepreneurs and historians, artists and scientists, skill-builders and craftsman, learners and collecters. Pull up a chair to the table, and as the pens and papers are passed, so too are the stories. Listen carefully, and gradually line-by-line it will all become clear to you.

The meaning of pens. 

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