Norwich resident specializes in modern, vintage pens
Since the pandemic began in 2020, many more people are journaling and writing letters the old-fashioned way in a style from the late 1800s and early 1900s.
This is occurring even though “it’s faster, cheaper and easier to send an email,” said Norwich resident Nathaniel Cerf, owner of ThePenMarket.com. His online business sells modern, limited edition and vintage pens, as well as pen/pencil sets and inkwells to people all over the world. He also repairs many different types of pens.
“I think people really like the experience of unplugging (from the computer) and actually having a tactile moment,” Cerf said during a telephone interview. “So with writing, a lot of times it’s very soothing for people to be able to sort of noodle out their thoughts with a pen in their hands and some paper. It’s both a physical and psychological sort of effect that really helps to I think inspire some creativity and let people work out some more complicated thoughts that they might not be able to just rip out on a computer keyboard.”
For most people, he said vintage pens are classified as those from the 1970s to the 1920s. They used to be referred to as self-filling pens, because “they had some sort of internal reservoir that you could fill and refill the pens with.”
Cerf said many people opt to use vintage pens when writing, because there are nibs or writing tips that can write anything from an extra fine line that is as thin as a baby’s hair to really thick lines, as well as “specialty nibs like a stub that has a calligraphy-style look to the way the writing comes out.”
Then there are flexible nibs, which he said, “can go from an extra fine line to maybe one or two millimeters thick,” which are helpful when working on Spencerian script writing.
Pen materials range from hard rubber and plastic to celluloid and metals. Some pens with “beautiful filigree work” on metal portions of the pens “are works of art,” said George Dunbar of Fuquay Varina, North Carolina, during a telephone interview. “I’ve got several of those. Waterman was a classic.... You look at these things and you say, ‘Oh my God. Those are beautiful.’”
Dunbar, a retired Detroit city planner, who has been buying, selling and trading with Cerf for two years, said he enjoys collecting and displaying vintage Sheaffer, Parker, and Waterman cartridge pens and using modern cartridge and converter pens to write with.
Currently, Cerf said there is “an explosion of interest in ink.” Instead of buying traditional blue or black ink, many people are choosing from “hundreds of different colors and hues of inks that help to further express themselves however they want to in their writings.”
Dunbar said he loves the subtlety and flow characteristics of Japanese inks and usually uses black and blue inks. If he wants his message “to pop out on the paper,” he uses green.
Cerf’s customers are split about 50-50: About half of them love vintage pens and prefer the older styles, designs and filling systems and the way that the nibs write. “Then there are people who are strictly into modern pens and really love all of the features and benefits of the modern fountain-pen experience.”
Pens made by American companies in the 1920s through the 1950s “were extraordinarily well designed and manufactured,” said Dr. Tobias Goodman, president of the North Stonington Historical Society during a telephone interview. He also trades and purchases pens from Cerf. “He’s very sociable and interesting, but he’s also sincere, ethical and knowledgeable and he does a very good job with these fountain and dip pens.”
Goodman’s favorite pen is a “modern, streamlined” Parker 51 fountain pen with a medium nib, because, “They’re wonderful to write with; it just skims along. There’s no resistance.”
The former Westerly Sun book reviewer said he “always writes in longhand with a fountain pen first. Then I type it after that ... I still think better with a pen in my hand.”
Each vintage pen has a story and people are fascinated by their corporate history and types of people who used them, Cerf said.
“I once sold a pen that was engraved with the name of a guy who invented the rotary engine for airplanes. So it was sort of a novelty pen that ended up going to an aviation collector who knew who that guy was.”
Most popular: “Parker and Sheaffer pens from probably the 1920s into the 1940s and 1950s, which was really sort of the golden age of fountain pens.”
Cerf also sells pens similar to those used to sign various surrender documents at the end of World War II, such as the Parker Duofold Jr. used by General Douglas MacArthur during the Japanese surrender.
He said he once saw a photo of a pen with a lengthy engraving for evaluation that was a 1919 Christmas gift from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (author and creator of Sherlock Holmes’ character) and his wife to a friend.
Most of his pens range from about $19 to $500. However, some limited/special editions and very rare vintage pens can cost as much as $4,000.
“Pens have never gone out of style. They just sort of have a different function and purpose in our modern world than they might have had 30-40 years ago,” said Cerf, a member of the North Stonington Historical Society.
He said many of his customers are looking for signature pens for closing important deals, something that is luxurious and “maybe also have a certain talking point about it that makes the whole ceremony more official.”
Montblanc, an extremely expensive German brand, is the most sought-after modern pen in the business community, Cerf said. Their most famous pen is the Montblanc 149, which they have been making since the 1950s, and costs about $1,000 brand new from the factory. He usually sells secondhand models for $400 to $500. “So you have a lot of people who are looking to get a Montblanc 149 to impress their clients, but at the same time hoping to save a little bit of money instead of buying the brand new ones.”
Others like to collect novelty and limited-edition pens that are “very unique and fun,” such as one shaped like Jean Pierre Lepine’s “Freeride” (motorcycle design) and Omas’ 1995 smoky, pearl-gray celluloid “Omas the Cinema,” which celebrated 100 years of cinema, and Visconti’s “Van Gogh” fountain pen.
Even though Cerf manages his business completely online and ships items to customers, Cerf said he trades “lots of emails and phone calls” with his customers. He also meets many people in person when he travels around the country to fountain pen shows. In fact, he said he met his fiancée, Dawn Sillars, at an Ohio show in 2018 and they had “instant chemistry.”
He added, “I’ve never had this much in common with anyone.”
Cerf, now 46, first became fascinated with pens when he was about 9 years old after discovering his grandfather’s old 1928 Sheaffer Lifetime Balance pen in his grandmother’s desk and she let him have it.
“I found a bottle of ink at a stationery store and I just started writing and I loved it. And ever since then I’ve been sort of addicted to pens.”
After learning how to repair many pens from an artist friend, he found manuals and learned how to repair even more types. In about 2005, he consigned secondhand pens at an antiques mall in Sioux Falls, South Dakota while working as an assistant city editor at the Argus Leader.
In 2007, he started his online business part time. It became a full-time venture 10 years later.
Short, humorous/mystery stories written by him, his father Art Cerf (retired journalist) and friends have also been part of his website’s blog since the beginning of the pandemic. “We thought, ‘How can we help people deal with the isolation and misery of the pandemic?’ So we looked to a very, very old and famous book called ‘The Decameron,’ which came out after the Great Plague of the 1300s in Italy by a guy named Giovanni Boccaccio.” (As a way to entertain themselves while staying isolated for 10 days, 10 people wrote a new story nightly, which added up to 100 stories.)
That project has finished. However, Cerf is planning to release two books in serial form to the website to keep people entertained.
For more information about buying, selling or trading pens, go to ThePenMarket.com, email Nathaniel Cerf at info@ThePenMarket.com, or call him at (847) 708-5062.
Jan Tormay, a longtime Norwich resident, now lives in Westerly.