Sunday, July 10, 2016

Pen show frictions, Part 3: meet the older collectors

So far, most everything posted about pen show frictions has been from the newcomers' point of view (our previous installments excepted: Part 1: retailer shoppers vs traders; Part 2: the Generation Gap). But as they say, there are two sides -- at least! -- to every story.

It is frustrating when older collectors rave about a recent article in the Pennant, yet have never heard of the blog whose posts the article distills. It is equally frustrating when younger pen lovers, fully immersed in the digital world, seem unable to connect with other enthusiasts without online assistance. When pen bloggers have discussed older collectors, it often comes across like a group of Victorian scientists pontificating about some exotic tribe: expostulating about the Other, inferring beliefs and modes of thought, all without having ever actually entered their world. Quite aside from the tone, the observations -- not surprisingly -- tend to be wildly off the mark.

I can't emphasize enough that pen show veterans are just ordinary people. Interesting people, by and large -- and sometimes a bit quirky, as one might expect from the pen-obsessed. Demographically they skew strongly male, white, and professional, though they run the range geographically and in political orientation. Their personalities are diverse; socially, they are in no way a monolithic bloc. The imputation of devious ulterior motives to them, across the board, is frankly absurd. In fact, each field of collecting has its own character and culture, and those with wide experience of different collector groups have often remarked on the unusually welcoming and sociable nature of the pen collecting community. I certainly had no trouble finding a place there, back when I was a poor grad student in my late twenties. Over the years I have seen many others warmly received, too. So I find it more than a little puzzling that this, of all groups, should be viewed with such distrust and hostility.

Though it was downplayed in my previous posts, I wonder if some of this may indeed be due to changing generational attitudes: not in the pen community specifically, but in American society at large. This would be exacerbated by a reduction in mixing across age groups. If your interaction with elders has been limited to family members and teachers, you may find that experience insufficient preparation for dealing with older strangers as equals. Exploring the question of generational change is a topic for multiple books, not a simple post on how pen enthusiasts might get along better. It bears consideration, though, and particularly as regards differing attitudes towards resilience and individual self-sufficiency. What one generation sees as supportiveness, the other disdains as coddling. What one generation sees as indifference, the other sees as not treating young adults as children.

I'd like to close this installment with a look at the belief that older collectors paid nothing for their pens, and are therefore greedy profiteers trying to rip off newcomers. Yes, pens could be found in the wild very cheaply thirty or forty years ago. Tales of Dick Johnson filling 55-gallon drums with flea market finds are part of pen collecting lore; nearly every oldtimer can also contribute a fish tale or three. The thing is, very few of the people buying back then are still active. Those that are, have been trading pens continuously since. So while they may have got their start on the cheap, you can bet that the great majority of the pens on their tables were bought within the last five or ten years, and at market price. For those who started later, say twenty years ago, pens could still be found in the wild, but it took time and dedication, a lot of driving and getting up before dawn. At the big antiques markets and shows, most of the pens were scooped up shortly after the gates opened (or, often, before) by a relative handful of hardworking pickers. Most pen collectors of that era ended up buying from the pickers or from each other, at prices that by the 1990s were, on average, no different from those today. And while there is no shortage of pen show sellers with what I like to call "optimistic" asking prices, in many cases the sellers are simply trying to get back what they paid for items that have dropped in price over the years -- of which there are quite a few.

Continued in Part 4: users vs collectors

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