President Clinton traveled to Philadelphia recently to sign a bill that makes electronic signatures as legitimate as their ink and paper counterparts, marking another step in the digital age's transformation of commerce and daily life.
But just blocks from the White House, customers at Fahrney's Pens remain devoted to their chosen writing instruments.
"Nothing will ever replace the incredibly tactile feel of a flexible fountain pen nib as it touches paper," says Donald Eismann, 58, a pen aficionado who traveled from Sumner, Wash., to visit the shop on F Street NW that he calls the "shrine of pen-dom."
"A digital signature is just a series of zeros and ones, encrypted and encoded," Eismann said, examining a Parker Sonnet Cisele, a sterling silver fountain pen with an 18-carat gold nib. "It has nothing to do with writing and creativity. For me, pens are an expression of my personality."
Such customers help explain the success of Fahrney's, a family-owned seller of high-quality pens that has managed to thrive in a decidedly low-tech business more than 70 years since it first opened. Sales are up 10% over the past year despite the proliferation of transactions conducted through electronic media.
Although there are no statistics on the luxury pen market, overall U.S. annual sales of writing instruments--including everything from fountain pens and ballpoints to mechanical pencils and markers--rose from $1.8 billion in 1995 to $2.3 billion in 1998, according to the Moorestown, N.J.-based Writing Instrument Manufacturers Assn.
Retailers, experts and consumers cite a number of reasons for the renewed interest: a backlash against the ubiquitous form letter and e-mail; a status symbol or conversation piece that executives can flash at board meetings; and nostalgia for a slower, more thoughtful time.
"When you hold a fountain pen in your hand, you're automatically transported back to an earlier era," says Ed Fingerman, president of the Pen Collectors of America, whose membership has jumped to 1,500 from 900 in the past two years. "You're already in the position to slow down and think about your thoughts before you write."
Fahrney's doesn't sell ordinary Bics and Papermates but "fine writing instruments" that include fountain pens, ballpoints and roller balls made by luxury pen manufacturers such as Montblanc, Waterman and Dupont. Prices range from $25 for a Schaefer student fountain pen to $12,000 for a solid gold Cartier fountain pen with emerald studs.
Among bestsellers is the $425 Montblanc Diplomat, an extra-wide fountain pen with an 18K gold nib that inaugurated the fountain pen's return in the 1960s.
"It's designed to be a status pen," explains Sally Ortuzar, Fahrney's vice president of retail sales. "It's oversized. It sends a message. It says, 'This is an important pen for an important person.' "
One of Fahrney's biggest customers is the White House, which places 10 to 12 special orders each year, said Fahrney President Chris Sullivan, 38, whose family has owned the company since 1972. The store has supplied pens for several Middle East treaty signings, and last year furnished about 150 engraved Cross ballpoints for NATO's 50th-anniversary meeting in Washington.
Each spring, Iowa plastic surgeon John Canady buys a new pen from Fahrney's when he attends an annual medical conference in Washington.
"[My wife] can't understand why anyone would be so interested in pens," Canady says, displaying his new Sensa cushioned-grip ballpoint. "I think it's a guy thing. It's a substitute for jewelry. But as opposed to regular jewelry, this also has some function."
"It's one of the few accessories that's sanctioned for men," agrees Nancy Olson, editorial director of Pen World International magazine, noting that 85% of its nearly 100,000 readers are men.
In 1929, Earl Fahrney opened a fountain pen repair shop in downtown Washington and soon started selling fountain pens and ballpoints, which were just starting to gain mass appeal. In 1972, Fahrney sold the store to Jon Sullivan, a stockbroker whose classmate had married Fahrney's daughter.
Last year, Jon Sullivan, 63, stepped down as president. This month, his son Chris moved the store to a historic building in a shopping district that's being revitalized by new stores, restaurants and hotels. The new store is twice as large and sells accessories such as stationery, diaries and address books.
To introduce a wider audience to the pleasures of writing with a fine pen, Sullivan says, he wants to start selling online: "Our challenge is to expose it to the younger generation."