As Sting so nearly put it, I'm an Englishman in New... South Wales1. As a pen enthusiast this presents me with a quandary. Living in Australia brings with it sun, sea and a lifestyle I adore, but it also comes with exchange rates, sales tax and a captive retail market that the big stores merrily abuse2. All in all, this makes the price of purchasing pens prohibitive. And yet purchase them we must.
Salvation has come in the form of the internet. Pens have arrived at my abode from the US, UK, Netherlands, Germany, Poland, Hungary, Italy, Japan and on occasion even Australia. I have had some hits - and great bargains, and also a few misses that will end up on the Fountain Pen Network/FP Geeks classifieds section when I get round to posting on the forums enough to qualify3.
The thing is, there is a great little pen shop just by my office. The owner was calligrapher to the Queen; her husband is a nibmeister; and they have moved away leaving it in the hands of a wonderful young man. He is about 25 going on 1925 - for an Australian he certainly comes across as an eccentric English aristocrat. Last week he tried to sell me a long shoe horn topped with a silver lion's head. He has his own fine china tea set on the counter as he "couldn't bear to drink from anything else."
I love going into the store and chatting to him - pens and penmanship is truly his passion - and looking at the owner's incredible collection of 1940's pens on the wall. We banter, catch up on pen news, and it is a form of engagement I cannot get on the internet. He is both a fount of knowledge - he regularly visits the Visconti factory in Florence and helped design the new Aurora Oceania - and a spigot of absolute bull. A powerful combination in a salesman. And yet I know I am unlikely to buy a pen from him. I'll never say never, but their prices are generally double what I can source the pen for elsewhere. I am comfortably off, but not rich enough for this not to make a big difference to my pen buying budget. In any case, part of the fun of collecting pens for me is in the finding of the deal. (See an upcoming post for my proudest moment so far...).
I am uncomfortable with taking advantage of a small business - particularly since I have gotten to know the staff. Previously I might have brazenly asked to try a pen so I knew I was ordering the right nib size from Europe, but I can't bring myself to do that any more. (It's actually quite an impressive feat of salesmanship for him to have built that relationship so quickly - they have another branch with less friendly staff where I would have far fewer qualms). All this means though is that I still buy the pens online without trying them, and if I get it wrong, send them back for a nib swap - it is still far cheaper, but the only winners in this equation are the overseas stores and the postal services.
I want stores like this to remain alive so that I can talk to someone who shares my enthusiasm (no one at the office does)! So how do I support my local store while retaining my hard earned dollars? My first thought was to purchase accessories from them - inks, paper, refills etc. But they are also double the cost, and they carry a limited range, so that doesn't fly 5. I am a strategy consultant, so I have been giving this some thought, but I have gone on long enough, so my conclusions will have to wait for the next post!
Thanks for reading, and if you have any thoughts on this, let me know!
1 (although I did used to live in New York and had that song running around my head for an entire year)... ↩
2 I'm aware that this as a first post may seem parochial, but the same should apply to small local stores even in the US. You with your free shipping, Amazon4, JetPens, Goulet, Pen Chalet etc etc. Harumph. I actually use a drop ship company and order most things (pens, paper, shoes, underwear, guitar stuff etc) from the US. They put it all in one box and send it over. It is like Christmas. ↩
4 This may be hard for some to process, but Amazon is not in Australia. Neither the website nor the river. I don't blame them, it is a small market, shipping inventory here is expensive, and a huge country to distribute across, so cost/benefit is low, but just think about that. Having lived in the UK and US, living in a country with no Amazon or equivalent is like going back to outdoor toilets. Or worse, dial-up. ↩
5 Although bizarrely I have just found that they carry Pelikan Edelstein ink at less than US/Europe prices - time to stock up... ↩