Ink is still king at New York City’s Fountain Pen Hospital

Derrick Yarborough can’t forget the one that got away — the one he left alone on a Friday night, to be swept up by someone else by the time Yarborough realized he’d made a mistake.

Now, Yarborough gazes forlornly at potential replacements, each stylish and lovely but none matching the one he lost earlier this month, the one he took everywhere and kept close to his heart. After all, they’d been together for years: Yarborough and his Waterman pen.

“It’s tough. I’d had it a long time,” he said as he loitered in front of a display case last week at the Fountain Pen Hospital, a Manhattan institution that is accustomed to misty-eyed visitors like Yarborough. They stream in from the street, pen nerds in search of nibs, rollerballs and ballpoints and willing to spend sometimes thousands of dollars to repair or buy the cigar-sized item that promises the perfect scrawl.


At a time when traditionalists lament the loss of elegant penmanship amid the clacking of keyboards, the Fountain Pen Hospital is proof that ink remains king for many — and not just those old enough to remember when there was no alternative.

Yarborough, for instance, is only 38 and as well-versed in computers as in cursive, but he’s willing to spend $99 for an everyday pen. “I like the way they write, the way they feel,” he said as shopkeepers scrambled to keep pace with the holiday rush. Phones jangled nonstop as Steve Wiederlight, who with his brother Terry runs the business, prepared boxes for shipment around the world.

“I’m getting more orders every year,” Steve Wiederlight said somewhat breathlessly, explaining the appeal of specialty pens. “It’s like a status symbol. It’s like a piece of jewelry for a man.”

From the outside, the business’ simple sign and unadorned entrance on a bustling block near City Hall offer little hint of the buzz and bling inside. Shoppers and looky-loos browse among glass cases lining the vast, brightly lit showroom, where pens lie like gems beneath lights designed to highlight their golden nibs, pearly finishes and hand-painted designs that make them more than mere writing instruments.

Sure, there are plastic Bics selling for $1.98 near the front door, but the real draws are the exotic makes like Namiki, Visconti, Montegrappa, Michael’s Fat Boy and Pelikan, which sell for hundreds or thousands of dollars.

The Wiederlights’ grandfather and father opened the Fountain Pen Hospital in 1946, when the hospital part of the business was far busier than it is today. Now, the showroom and online sales provide the bulk of business, and the staff does most repairs at home.

But the “hospital,” a collection of tiny subterranean rooms invisible from the shiny showroom, retains its vintage flavor, from the ink-stained work tables to the tiny drawers holding thousands of nibs, springs, cartridges and other parts for vintage pens dating back to the 1920s.

Upstairs in the showroom, Dick Krane, a distributor with Kenro Industries, was sorting through neat rows of pens in every color of the rainbow that he had brought in to add to the store’s inventory.

“Writing is a form of expression. Sitting at a computer is not a form of expression,” Krane said, explaining why he believes pens never will go out of style. The right nib can give a signature the impressive flourish needed to round out an important document; a good rollerball sends the script gliding like silk across the page; the Space Pen by Fisher works upside down and in freezing temperatures.

“If you give someone a pen, it’s a lasting gift. Each time they use it, they’ll think of you,” Krane said.

And what if the recipient is like Yarborough, who admits to losing more than his share of pens? “You can lose anything,” Krane replied, echoing other pen fans who reason that you’re less likely to lose one if it cost more than a bag of pretzels or was presented as a gift.

If there were any doubts as to the passion some people have for pens, consider Pen World magazine, whose editor in chief, Laura Chandler, has a Google alert for “fountain pen” and whose glossy pages covered in high-resolution, colorful pictures are the equivalent of pen porn. Just as foodies have created gourmet goods from everyday items — think artisan cheese — pen lovers are doing the same thing with writing instruments, said Chandler, who credits the trend with helping sustain the industry through the computer age.

“This whole cottage industry has sprung up around pen-making,” she said, mentioning some pen-manufacturers-cum-artists that Bic users probably won’t know: the father-son team of Mark and Brian Gisi; Dan Symonds; Brian Gray.

“Some are really offering some competition to major brands. They can’t match them for quantity, but they make very nice handmade pens,” said Chandler, who notes that the Internet has helped the pen business. Entrepreneurs who once struggled to find quality parts for unique pens now find them online.

Over the years, celebrity pen-lovers such as Bill Cosby and O.J. Simpson prosecutor Christopher Darden have graced Pen World’s cover. The October issue featured Sylvester Stallone, grinning and balancing a thick, ornately crafted fountain pen between his thumb and index finger.

A skull, serpents and sword wrap around the colorful exterior of the limited edition pen, which Stallone — a pen collector — designed for the Italian manufacturer Montegrappa. The artwork is white-gold, as is the nib, giving this hefty pen — named Chaos — a $6,000 price tag. It’s a bit less if you opt for the rollerball version.

That’s nothing compared with the $30,000 solid gold Omas pen that Terry Wiederlight, the Fountain Pen Hospital’s co-owner, was expecting to be delivered. It was for a Vermont-based pen collector who had recently spent about $115,000 at one of the Fountain Pen Hospital’s occasional special expos — the pen world’s version of a wine tasting.

“People just have this fetish,” Wiederlight said, but he admits the industry has taken a hit as young people lose interest in pens. Years ago, pens selling for $1,000 or $2,000 “used to go out the door the way $50 pens do now,” said Wiederlight, who has turned to — what else? — the Internet to rev up sales. “We’re just constantly trying different things.”

That includes a jampacked website, a Facebook page, an electronic billboard at Times Square over the holiday season and a selection of pens that Wiederlight says appeal in particular to men who want bling but don’t want to wear jewelry. “A nice writing instrument for a man today is a status symbol,” Wiederlight said.

Bill Christian, a regular customer from Bloomington, Ind., begs to differ. He doesn’t know how to use a computer and relies upon a vast collection of pens for correspondence. “I don’t care how fancy it looks. It has to write,” Christian said. “If it doesn’t write, it’s like a unicorn. And I don’t need a unicorn.”

Every pen fan, it seems, has a favorite pen story. Wiederlight remembers the day Bill Cosby called about 15 years ago, looking for a vintage pen to give as a gift. Thus began a lasting relationship between the entertainer and the Pen Hospital.

Chandler likes to tell of two pen lovers, one in Florida and one in Wisconsin, who collected Esterbrook pens and for years bid against each other for Esterbrook pieces on eBay. Eventually, they discovered that each possessed a rare Esterbrook set. Rival bids gave way to romance, and last year, they were married at the place they had first met: the Chicago Pen Show. It’s one of the country’s biggest pen shows, along with the Los Angeles International Pen Show in Manhattan Beach in February.

For every happy pen story, though, is a tale of woe. Chandler still misses the Retro 51 Ya Ling that she used to finish a crossword puzzle on a plane more than a year ago. She tucked it into the seat back in front of her, and then forgot it when she left the plane.

Yarborough lost his Expert Matte Black Waterman ballpoint at work after leaving it on his desk when he left for the weekend. When he returned the following Monday, it was gone.