Material Culture

I like things. I’ve always been like that. I’m acquisitive. I have so much stuff that I routinely have to go through it get rid of some of it. I used to feel guilty about my acquisitive tendency, but I’ve become reconciled to it in the last few years.

My desk

I’m fascinated by things. I don’t remember when I first started haunting thrift stores, junk shops, salvage places, but I know that I was very young. There was something compelling to me about things that were old, things that had been so well made that they’d survived when shoddier things would have to have been thrown away, something fascinating about what time, and much handling, does to things. I liked the sheer variety of utilitarian things because they seemed to me to be a concrete expression of the ephemera of human experience, of the daily grind of, for example, working in an office. I like old office supplies, the heavy old Royal typewriters like the one my father used when I was a child, old staplers, hole punches, mechanical pencils. I wonder, always, whether the offices where these things were once so useful still exist, if people are still working there, or if perhaps they’ve been torn down.

I especially like old fountain pens. This is partly, I think, because I write so much and partly because I come from a family of writers. I’ve used a fountain pen for as long as I can remember and have been collecting them for at least twenty years. When I say “collecting,” I don’t mean that I’m stockpiling rare and expensive pens. Firstly, I don’t have the money to do that. Secondly, I buy pens to write with, not to look at.

I’ll go through long periods where I won’t buy any pens, but then I’ll start buying them again. Not many, just one or two. I couldn’t afford to buy more than that because they’re not cheap. In the beginning, I told myself that I was searching for the perfect pen and that when I found it, I’d stop buying pens. But I could never content myself with a single pen for long, no matter how nice it was. You might think that perhaps my standards are too high. It isn’t that, though. I love all my pens (the ones I have kept, anyway; the others I sell). It’s not that I become disappointed with the pens I have. It’s that I want more. I crave variety.

I’ve bought and sold many pens online. I’d never been to a pen show, though, until last weekend when there was one in Philadelphia, where I live. I didn’t need any new pens, of course, but I did need work done on a couple of pens I already had, and I needed someone to show me how to fill my Parker Vacumatic. The Vacumatic has a unique filling system that is not used anymore and is difficult to figure out. I knew there would be someone at the show who could explain it to me, so I packed up my Parker and headed for the Sheraton on 17th Street where the show was being held.

It seemed everyone in the pen world was there. There were lots of dealers selling both new and vintage pens, along with other writing equipment and arcane sorts of office supplies and pen ephemera. I was in heaven! I caught just a snippet of a conversation as I was wandering from one table to another. One of the dealers was talking to a customer:

“You have to have passion for something,” he said. “Passion is what makes life worth living!”

I suspect everyone there would have agreed. Most of the interest was in the old pens, the ones that had seen lots of use but which had been so magnificently conceived and constructed that they now, almost a century later in some cases, could still be used.

The biggest attractions at most pen shows, though, are not the pens. Anything can be bought online now, even the oldest eyedropper pens from the nineteenth century. No, the biggest attractions are the nibmeisters, the guys who repair old pens and, in particular, custom grind nibs. They can take a medium point and grind it down to a fine, put an angle on it for what is called an “oblique” nib, turn it into a “stub” or an “italic.” You don’t have to go to a show to get a custom-ground nib. You can mail a pen off to be reground. That takes a while, though (sometimes months), and, more importantly, you might not be entirely happy with the results. The nib might be too fine, or it might be scratchy. You won’t know, though, until the pen comes back, and if you aren’t entirely happy with the regrind, you’ll either have to settle for less than what you wanted or pop it back in the mail again and endure another long wait. If you get a nib ground at a show, on the other hand, you can sit there while the work is being done. You can try it out and give it back immediately to the nibmeister for an adjustment if you aren’t entirely happy with it.

I had a nib I wanted worked on. I’d started collecting Pelikan pens. I love Pelikans for several reasons. First, they hold more ink than most other pens, and second, they feel very good in the hand. Third, they have what are called “responsive nibs,” meaning nibs that give somewhat if pressure is applied to them so they feel just a little like how old quill pens must have felt. Their nibs tend to be a slightly broader, however, than the nibs on the pens I was used to, so I had brought my latest Pelikan to see if something could be done to it to give it a crisper line. I asked James Baer, of Monomoy Vintage Pen in Newton, MA. He’d shown me how to fill my Parker Vacumatic, so I thought he might also be able to help me with my nib. Unfortunately, he wasn’t doing any grinding at the show. He directed me instead to a young man named Tim Girdler sitting just a few tables away.

I had to put my name on a waiting list and then wander around the show until my turn came.

“What do you want?” he asked like a cook at a lunch counter. I had a Pelikan, I explained.  It had a “fine” point, but I’d started with Japanese pens and their “fines” were much finer so the Pelikan seemed a little “blobby” to me. I told him that I’d like him to put a slight slant on the nib, to make it into an “oblique” because I knew that would give me a crisper line.

He asked me to write something so he could see how I wrote, the angle at which I held the pen. After I did a little writing sample for him, he said he didn’t think that an oblique was really what I wanted.

“Let me try something,” he said. He took the pen and began to rub the nib on a little piece of emery paper.

“Now try it,” he said as he handed it back to me.

It was better, but still not what I wanted, so I gave it back to him and he got out his little motorized grinding stone so that he could work more aggressively on it than the emery paper would allow.

“How’s this?” he said eventually, and then added “you’re going to hate it.” I knew why he’d added that. He’d flattened out the nib like a stub, but he hadn’t bothered to smooth it yet. He wanted to see if I liked the line quality of the new grind before he put in all the effort to make it write smoothly.

He was right, I did hate it. And yet, and yet, it had just the line quality I’d been looking for. The only problem was that it was scratchy, but I knew that was fixable.

“I like it!” I exclaimed, a smile spreading across my face, “except, of course, for the fact that it is very scratchy.” I gave it back to him and he went to work on it again with the emery paper.

When he finally gave it back to me it was perfect. I mean it was really perfect! It had exactly the line quality I wanted, and it wrote very smoothly. He cautioned me that it would never write quite so smoothly as a regular nib. That’s the thing about italic nibs, he explained, they aren’t scratchy if they’re ground properly, but they aren’t so smooth as a standard nib either. There’s a sweet spot on them, he explained. You have to hold the pen at exactly the right angle or you’ll get a little drag. A standard nib is more forgiving, but it’s also less distinctive.

He said I had sixty days, or something like that, during which I could still have adjustments made, so I took his card, just in case. I’d heard him say to the person before me that he’d been a seminary student. I was surprised, though, when I looked at his card, to read “Tim Girdler Pens: Ministering Through the Perfect Pen.” He had made my life better, I realized, through the work he’d done on my pen, through the concern he’d shown for what I wanted.

I’m so happy with with my “new” pen, I’m just writing and writing, so happy now to have my pen just the way I want it. Passion is indeed what makes life worth living. Tim Girdler has it. It must have taken him years to become so skilled as he is now, skilled at something that he must always have known would never be in great demand. Tim Girdler has passion and he uses it to make people’s lives better. He isn’t the only pen person who cares for more than his own material wellbeing. Rick Propas, of “The PENguin Fountain Pens,” once offered to send me a whole tray of pens to practice repairing–for nothing, just because he could tell I shared his passion. I’d never met him either, but only corresponded with him via email.

Passion is part of what attracts me to things. You can see it in the design of things, in how they’re finished, in the attention to detail. You can see, in things, the shape of human aspirations. There’s a humanity that pervades things made by human beings for human purposes. This is even more evident, I think, in things that have been used. That’s why I like the patina of use. It shows the humanity of the thing, or the humanity that clings to it. I can’t get enough of that, or enough of the things that speak in that way of other peoples lives.

So I keep buying things, especially old pens. There’s a line I love in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Big Daddy, who has just learned he’s dying of cancer, is talking to his son about mortality. “The human animal,” he explains, “is a beast that dies and if he’s got money he buys and buys and buys and I think the reason he buys everything he can buy is that in the back of his mind he has the crazy hope that one of his purchases will be life everlasting!”

I wonder if it isn’t life everlasting that I’m looking for. I feel sometimes, when I’m trawling through other people’s discarded possessions, or sitting at my desk surrounded by things I know once belonged to people now long dead, that life everlasting is what I have in my things. It’s as if I’ve taken the lives of these other people up into my own, as if, in that way, I’ve created a timeless connection between us, a timelessness that is a little eternity of its own.

(This essay originally appeared in Counterpunch under the title “Living in a Material World.”

Bob Slate

Portrait caricature The financial crisis is changing the landscape in ways that I have yet to hear anyone talk about. Yes, Borders is gone, and God knows how many other mega chains have been hard hit. There are plenty of those left though. The real toll is on the small, independent merchants.

I took art classes at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education the year my husband was a visiting professor at Boston University’s law school and I was on sabbatical. I loved hanging out in Cambridge, not only because it’s an attractive little town with, as one would expect, several excellent bookstores, but also because of Bob Slate Stationers.

I’ve always loved office supply stores. I shop for office supplies like some women shop for clothes. I love to look at all the different fashions in legal pads and the more esoteric sorts of notepapers. I love files and pocket folders and binders, stamp pads and inks, the little rubber things you put on the end of your fingers to make it easier to turn pages. I love pencils, especially the red marking type that I use for highlighting text, so I can erase the highlighting later if I change my mind. I have a wonderful Faber-Castell pencil with a built in sharpener (not the expensive silver one, but a cheaper, more utilitarian green plastic one of the same design).

Fountain pens are my special passion though. I have a Montblanc, several Namikis and Pelikans, both new and vintage, a couple of Sailors and a no-name vintage pen that I got for $12 from an antique dealer and which had a real, honest to goodness 14K Bock nib. I have a rocker blotter and blotting paper. One would think that I already had every conceivable bit of paraphernalia related to writing, or to office work more generally. Yet I still love spending hours in office supply stores just to make sure that some new item hasn’t surfaced that I would want to add to my collection.

Bob Slate was a real, old-fashioned stationer. It had been a family owned and run business for more than 75 years. Not only did they have all kinds of beautiful laid paper and card stock, they had every type of pad paper in every color and ruling (as in “wide-ruled” and “narrow ruled”), including my favorite, that I could find nowhere else, a white, narrow-ruled legal pad sans the red vertical line that most legal pads have toward the edge of the left side. Bob Slate didn’t merely have Hemingway notebooks, they had every type of notebook and journal and a complete line of Rhodia paper products. They even had refill staples for my miniscule stapler that is about half the size of a Tot stapler and thus very handy to carry with me to class for those occasions when I give in-class essays. Best of all though, they had fountain pens and a staff who understood them. It was the only shop I had ever been in that stocked Pelikan nibs.

I remember thinking, after I discovered Bob Slate, how nice it must be to teach at Harvard, to be able to walk out of one’s office and over to Bob Slate in a matter of minutes! I’d never harbored any ambitions to teach at Harvard. Not that I’d turn down an appointment there, of course. It’s just that I’m a philosopher and jobs for us are so scarce that we tend to be happy to have any kind of teaching position at all. After I discovered Bob Slate though, I began to fantasize about getting a job at Harvard. I’d even take something in theology. That wouldn’t be too much of a stretch. I’m a Kierkegaard scholar, after all. The thought of working in such close proximity to Bob Slate was intoxicating!

I made my usual trek to Bob Slate a couple of years ago when I happened to be in Cambridge. I didn’t go to the main store, but to the one on Church Street, one of the two smaller satellite stores, just for a change. After satisfying myself that there was nothing new I needed, I bought some tiny staples and several of my favorite legal pads. I was surprised, however, when the woman at the register stamped “No Returns” on my receipt.

“Why no returns?” I asked.

“We’re closing,” she explained.

“Closing?” I said still dangling my little paper bag of purchases in midair. “Is it only this store that’s closing?” I asked hopefully.

“No,” she said, “they’re all closing.”

So that’s it. Bob Slate is gone. And now, suddenly, the idea of teaching at Harvard seems less attractive. I still wouldn’t turn down a position there. I’m not a blithering idiot or anything. But the idea of teaching there no longer has the romantic associations it had for me when I could imagine myself doing my weekly shopping for office supplies at Bob Slate, treating myself occasionally to Rhodia’s luxuriant version of the Hemingway notebook, chatting with the person behind the pen counter about the relative merits of rigid versus flexible nibs.

I’m afraid I may be coming across as flippant. I’m not. I’m devastated. Bob Slate is gone and I fear it may have been the last shop of its kind in existence, or at least the last on this side of the Atlantic. I don’t think I’ll ever get over the loss of such shops. They’ve been gradually disappearing for many years, those little stationer’s shops I remember from when I was a child. It was hugely important to me that they weren’t all gone yet, that there was a least one that looked as if it stood a good chance of surviving into the indeterminate future, surviving perhaps as long as I would. It was hugely important to me that there would be at least something left of the world of my childhood, something that could still have meaning for me as an adult.


This post appeared originally on the blog on my old website on April 16, 2011. I learned today, however, that Bob Slate was purchased by Laura Donohue, a longtime customer of store in the summer of 2011. The store has a new location. It’s now at 30 Brattle Street. Judging from the write-ups it received on its reopening, it appears to be doing well. Still, I figured a little PR wouldn’t hurt, so I decided to repost this piece.