Sunday, June 26, 2016

Pen show frictions, Part 2: the Generation Gap

While clashing expectations regarding the nature of pen show commerce (see Part 1: retailer shoppers vs traders) appears to be the largest single cause of recent show-related frictions, other factors are in play. That the lines of division have been perceived in terms of age is not an accident -- though as we shall see, this is more a matter of correlation than causation. At American pen shows, the swap-meet style traders are predominantly older, while the buyers unfamiliar and uncomfortable with swap-meet style trading are predominantly younger. In part this is the natural result of new enthusiasts finding themselves in a collector-to-collector trading environment for the first time, but it is also due to the manner in which pen shows and the community of pen enthusiasts have evolved, which opened up a generation gap that persists to this day.

When I began collecting pens in the second half of the 1980s, organized pen collecting was still a new field. Just ten years before there had been no magazines, no guidebooks, no clubs, no shows. Much still wasn't known; of what was known, much was unpublished. With a bit of legwork, one could buy pens cheap at flea markets and antique shops, shows, and auctions -- pens that were then brought in staggering quantities to pen shows where they were quickly traded, sold, and resold.

Pen shows back then were virtually all vintage. The reason was simple: that's pretty much all that was available in the way of interesting and affordable fountain pens. There was next to no retail or restoration infrastructure. To be a pen geek entailed scrounging, swapping, and learning to do one's own repairs. And though I refer here to collectors and collecting, that doesn't mean that no one used their pens -- quite the opposite. Then as now, most pen collectors were both collectors and users, the big difference being that vintage pens were so affordable and abundant that most active collectors pretty quickly ended up with far too many for them all to be used. At that point, one would either have to stop acquiring (no!) or embrace the realization that even pens that one doesn't use can be enjoyable to own for different reasons.

Through the 1990s, pen collecting steadily grew. There were more collectors, more resources, more information. The pen market was strong, and interesting new pens were introduced, carving out a growing presence at pen shows. There were online forums, but the main action in pens was still face-to-face. What changed everything in the space of only a few years was eBay. By the end of the 1990s the old days were largely gone (in the USA, that is -- the changes took longer elsewhere). The pens that once could be found at flea markets, general antiques shows, shops, and auction houses, were now sent to eBay instead. The central exchange for pens fresh to the market had been the pen show. Now it was online. At the same time, eBay opened up pen collecting to an unprecedented degree, drawing in pen lovers worldwide with no previous contact with pen shows or other pen enthusiasts. eBay was like a full-time pen show, and in combination with online collecting forums, offered formidable competition to the world of shows and club meetings.

The immediate effects of these developments were dramatic enough; their long-term effects were greater yet. While a few collectors and dealers managed to keep up, most did not. Show organizers hired publicists to get their events mentioned in local newspapers and broadcasts, but did next to nothing to promote themselves online. Many pen clubs and collecting organizations were equally remiss. As a result, the first-generation collectors of the pen show era and the second-generation collectors of the online era failed to connect. Even if show organizers and club leaders had seen what needed to be done, however, the task would not have been easy. By the time pen collecting began to move online, many first-generation collectors were getting older and less active, and while most were fine with buying and selling on eBay, very few ended up participating to any significant degree in online forums (far more time-consuming, it should be noted, than monthly or bimonthly club or show attendance). This was especially the case for the more advanced collectors, first-generation leaders but virtually invisible online. Second-generation pen enthusiasts thus ended up relying on their online communities, where leadership was more a function of participation than of experience or depth of knowledge. Relatively few found their way to pen shows (the hassles of flying post-9/11 played their part, too) and when they did, they tended to stick to themselves and follow their own interests. In some cases this was constructive -- new attention to underappreciated brands and models, for example -- but in others, less so. Knowledge and experience that should have been passed on, wasn't. Friendships that could have been, weren't. And while eBay and the internet seemed to have rendered the pen market fully visible, this apparent transparency was an illusion that kept many from realizing how much of the picture they were actually missing.

One telling symptom of what was lost is the still-anomalous distribution of strength and weakness in the pen market. In any field of collecting, an episode of market weakness normally plays out in a predictable pattern, with demand for the very best pieces remaining strong, the low end holding steady, and the middle collapsing. Yet from the end of the 1990s into the early 2000s on, something very different happened in the vintage pen market: the high-end pieces went weak, with the mid-range holding steady and the low end strongest of all. Demand for certain brands and subfields also shrank -- typically the more esoteric items, including ephemera. This wasn't so much a natural change in tastes as a massive reboot. It was the commonly available items in the low to middle range that the internet generation had been exposed to; the rare and the esoteric remained too remote, inaccessible, and incomprehensible to make it onto their collecting radar, let alone their want lists. There were exceptions, of course. And the overall level of knowledge has steadily increased -- though it sometimes feels like watching the wheel being reinvented. More progress has come in the last several years, as social media platforms have allowed a comparative handful of advanced collectors to share and discuss notable items from their collections with the pen community at large. Meanwhile, more online collectors are making their way to pen shows, yet too often there is more parallel play than mixing and interchange.

So where do we go from here? The fact that this has become a topic of conversation strikes me as a good sign, and an opportunity to clear up misunderstandings and misperceptions. There is no shortage of good will in the pen community, which should pull it through (and together) in the end.

Pen show frictions, other entries: Part 1: retailer shoppers vs tradersPart 3: meet the older collectorsPart 4: users vs collectors

1 comment:

Thoughthebrowser said...

David, you have opened my eyes with your clear examples explaining the subtext of things I have observed, but not understood. Both posts are gold. I am a self taught shade tree nib mechanic, who started by trying to duplicate the writing of a Lamy 2000 OM nib I purchased almost 40 years ago. I learned from reading pen porn on the internet, and like the results of my work. I can feel a lever filling noodle coming into my world. Doesn't seem so bewildering now. Thank you