“It’s good,” he said hunched over with his back to me. “The last few months, people are buying two-, three-, four-hundred-dollar pens.”
“I don’t know why,” he said in response to my mumbled question. “They say things are getting better.”
He straightened up and turned around, now holding the pen-sized tan cardboard box he had been looking for.
“It’s not been so great the last week, but that’s probably because of the holiday,” he said. It was the Thursday after Labor Day.
I mumbled something about Christmas helping as he slipped my father’s birthday Parker under the ribbon inside the box.
“Oh yeah,” he said about Christmas.
“There you go,” he said about the box.
A stone’s throw west of the Magnificent Mile, between an alley and a Potbelly Sandwich Shop that spent the 1930s as cheap eats for the Tower Town bohemians, there is a little shop that sells pens.
Not just any pens. Magnificent pens. Pens that swirl ink like art. Pens decorated like van Gogh paintings, like Amerigo Vespucci maps. Thick Parkers, MontBlancs and Lamys. Slim Cross mechanical pencils — Cross pens are out of stock and, the salesman says, out of fashion.
It’s a small shop. You have to be buzzed in.
Dan the Pen Man, as the website I checked later called him, was short and stern-looking, with a mop of white hair and a set of burly white eyebrows. He was calm and Midwestern. The phone kept ringing while we talked.
Decorations were scant beyond ads for pens. By the phone there was a collage of funny drummer-related pictures from the Internet — a baby with sticks, a mock inspirational poster about drummers I couldn’t read, a few hot 1970s women wearing “I Prefer the Drummer” tank tops. A few pictures of Dan the Pen Man drumming at various gigs were scattered around the store.
A table behind the counter had a framed Newsweek from when Reagan and Gorbachev signed a treaty to eliminate intermediate-range nuclear missiles. They signed using Parker Pens, of course.
Now I was checking out. I asked if he took credit cards, then laughed at the idea of someone paying cash for these luxury beauties.
“That happens,” he said. “A guy came in and bought a $200 pen with cash.”
He peered at the paper receipt log pouring from the register.
“No, it was $175. We’ve had people pay for $800, $900 pens in cash.”
I don’t know how a store selling opulent versions of something you can get by the dozen at the Mag Mile Walgreens two blocks over is making it through this fiscal Guernica, but it somehow is. I don’t know how they’re surviving with good sales and ringing phones.
I’m glad they are though. It’s nice to think that people value what the pen man sells. It’s nice to think that people still want a little class and a little elegance when doing no more than signing their names.