Monday, September 5, 2016

Pen show frictions, Part 4: users vs collectors

Previous posts in this series: Part 1: retailer shoppers vs tradersPart 2: the Generation GapPart 3: meet the older collectors.

The great majority of collectors, whether their focus is vintage or modern, use at least some of their pens. Many users also collect to some degree or another. Yet despite the considerable degree of overlap, there are fundamental differences, with each group most strongly interested in things that are of very limited to no interest to the other. This divergence of priorities inevitably leads to tensions, since fully accommodating both groups at the same time isn't always possible.

At pen shows, for example, most vintage sellers group their pens by brand and model, to cater to collectors, rather than by nib type, to cater to users. A request for a specific nib type may not be received with enthusiasm by a seller whose pens are not organized accordingly -- not out of any animus towards users at large, but rather out of irritation at being personally inconvenienced. It's a bit like going to a farm stand, and instead of asking for three apples or a pound of green beans, asking for five different items of produce between four and five inches long and red. The first few times, such a request would likely be met with amused surprise -- but it would not be long before both the surprise and the amusement would wear off.

At least at the farm stand doing the selection oneself is an easy out; at a pen show, it entails opening up and examining every single pen on a table -- inefficient, inconvenient, and disruptive. Add in the time and space required to dip-test any suitable candidates, and the seller's total combined hassle factor for serving the average user ends up dwarfing that for the average collector. Sellers set up to deal with collectors are even less favorably disposed when the average user doesn't spend as much as the average collector, and after going through all of the above, often doesn't buy anything at all.

Note that this situation arises entirely innocently, rooted as it is in a fundamental mismatch between what the buyer is seeking and what the seller is set up to provide (paralleling another mismatch outlined in our Part 1: retailer shoppers vs traders). And there has already been a degree of bridging of this divide, for as some users have shown their willingness to pay as much or more than collectors, collector-oriented sellers have become more user-accommodating. This trend has been visible online for some time now, but has been slower to be felt at shows -- not surprising, given the practical impossibility of making a table full of pens keyword-searchable. Nonetheless, it is now common for sellers to add color-coded nib grade labels or to put out a tray specifically devoted to pens with flexible and italic nibs, even if their main focus remains the collector market.

Unfortunately, not all of the hostility between users and collectors is so easily dealt with, or so benign in origin. For users, a pen is primarily a tool. For collectors, it is primarily an artifact. But while virtually all collectors also appreciate pens as tools, a not-insignificant number of users are indifferent or even hostile to considering pens as artifacts. This asymmetry is well illustrated by how online discussions of when and whether to use a mint and stickered vintage pen typically play out. Collectors will urge that it not be treated as a user, showing their consideration for the user point of view by pointing out the ready availability of non-stickered equivalents. Collecting-sympathetic (and pragmatic) users will concur, advising that the stickered pen be sold or traded for a lightly used example plus cash, leaving everyone better off. But then the collecting-hostile users will weigh in, declaring that pens were made to be used and that leaving one unused is fundamentally wrong. The moral absolutism underlying this point of view is what has made it so uniquely divisive, leading its exponents to look with contempt upon those who see things otherwise, and to taunt them with gloating accounts of destickering mint pens and putting them to use.

This goes way back. Years before the current crop of bloggers took up their pens, anti-collector sentiment was already bubbling away in online forums. And though it may not be so apparent now, at least some of the nastiness was fueled by a form of the ancient delusion that when prices are high, it is the storekeepers who are to blame. With blind disregard for the realities of supply and demand, dealers and collectors were scapegoated, blamed for running up pen prices on eBay and sucking up all the affordable pens from antique shows and shops. Collectors were accused of not really loving pens, of being soulless hoarders, violators of the moral imperative that every pen must be put to use and not enjoyed in any other manner. And if the accusations are no longer repeated quite so often and so openly, the underlying sentiments live on, as in the ongoing use of the expression, "the 'C' word", which jokingly-but-not-really makes "collector" out to be an epithet too vile to be uttered aloud.


Dr Jonathon Deans said...

It's interesting in your previous post that you explored the role of dealer inventory in managing short-term fluctuations in supply and demand. Essentially, this must be a process, in part, whereby dealers withhold items from sale to prevent the market being flooded and prices falling. Yet in this post, you argue that dealers were unreasonably blamed for high prices.

There's an obvious tension between these two claims. I suspect that some dealers were in a position to exercise market power before the advent of eBay: they may have been a significant supplier in a local market or niche area and could push prices higher or lower depending on how much inventory they made available. This is doubly true where dealers might have mutually agreed to limit the availability of inventory. In such circumstances, criticism of dealers for this behaviour strikes me as entirely reasonable.

I do not know how dealers reacted as eBay undermined their businesses, but if dealers continued to withhold inventory then they may also be somewhat responsible for the high prices -- an inevitable result of surging demand without a supply response. My impression is that many dealers resisted selling online, and the price crash discussed in the previous post is a result of their inventory finally migrating online.

Of course, this is only my impression as a relatively recent member of the pen community and I'm open to more information and other perspectives. I'm not sure if you saw my email but your historical perspective and insight is invaluable and much appreciated.



David said...

The ability of dealers to moderate short-term fluctuations in supply and
demand was always very limited -- not so much market control as a degree
of buffering. Nor was this a matter of collusion, or even necessarily
anything conscious. Rather, it was a simple case of dealers (and trading
collectors) buying pens when they came available cheap, while not dropping
their asking prices right away if demand softened. No one dealer bought
all that much, nor was willing to buck the market for very long, but
cumulatively their collective conservatism did damp volatility.

There really wasn't much in the way of withholding inventory. Most, after
all, were really dealer/collectors, very few in it as anything more than
part-time. And if you think dealers resisted selling online, you are
mistaken -- as soon as they saw they could get good prices on eBay, there
was a massive flood of new sellers.

David said...

And to clarify, the vintage pen market was and is widely dispersed. Thousands of independent dealer/collectors, hundreds of thousands if not millions of pens in circulation -- controlling such a market simply wasn't possible. Not even regional control, for long before eBay, pen collectors routinely traveled all over the US to buy and sell at pen shows.