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How To Work and Survive a Pen Show
A veteran's guide to the battle zone!
from the fountain pen of Len Provisor
There are about fourteen major fountain pen shows in the U.S. lately, and if you are new to pen collecting and happen to visit a large show, this can be an awesome challenge.

There is no one first rule. All the rules come first. Get organized, make a plan of priorities and how to attack the show floor and stick to it.

If you are like me at my first show, all these rules were history soon as I hit the first table. I was overwhelmed, totally unprepared for the enormity of choices and variety of materials shown. Blew my budget by the time I hit table number two. It took a few shows for me to conceive and stick to a sensible plan.

This is a typical reaction of a first pen show visit. Knowing what to expect can help considerably. You may have certain priorities such as new pens or vintage, parts or accessories. Your schedule may include the first few days before the open public day, which makes everything more flexible, or perhaps just the Sunday public show day.


Shows that start on a Thursday are usually comprised of early arrivals set up in a hospitality suite for private trading and exchanging pleasantries. If you are attending to buy pens, here is where you are able to get some nice first pickings. Most early arrivals are collectors with vintage pens, some L.E.'s and new stock. Almost all new pen dealers won't set up their large inventory until Saturday or even Sunday.

There is no firm rule as to prices being higher or lower on earlier days. Some sellers are motivated to sell needing cash for other purchases, others are firm on prices by choice. The same logic on the closing hours of the show on Sunday, some exhibitors need to sell, others will be at another show in a few weeks, so it does not matter to lower the prices. As always, one rule to keep in mind is if you see a pen you want, "Buy it when you see it". It may not be there five minutes later. If you see it, you want it, buy it.


This is a more organized day with exhibit tables in a smaller exhibit or ballroom. Today will have many of the total exhibitors planning to attend. Sometimes a little more casual, it's usually a more relaxed day of visiting tables and finding parts. Tables are usually shared due to space, but the room is most often open until very late evening to accommodate late arrivals. It's a good idea to get a good night's sleep for a very busy day with morning set-ups usually at 8:00 am. Some friends just don't know any better and will thrive on pen talk until 2-3 in the morning.


Saturday morning is usually a rush to grab a table and set up for sales. Sometimes it is half-tables only. Saturday will have 60 to 70% of Sunday's attending exhibitors. Sometimes called "Parts Day" today is the time to scout for parts and accessories. This can be a crazy day. Many dealers will rush in, drop their cases on their claimed table, and continue running to visit anyone else opening their cases for first pickings. Certain dealers are known to bring "good stuff", and are literally followed to their tables. Anyone new coming in with any kind of large boxes…are spotted immediately and are considered "Fresh Meat". What follows is called a "Feeding Frenzy".

You don't want to be in a "Feeding Frenzy" unless you really know everyone in the crowd. Believe me, you get real up close and personal. It is a total crush of bodies all squeezing, pushing, lots of heavy breathing and grunts to grab pens or prevent being squeezed out. It's elbows in the ribs, maybe a few toes stepped on and banged knees, If you happen to be up front, get what you want and get out fast, give another a chance to get an all important 3" or 4" closer with their arm's reach. Here you must especially show extreme caution and politeness. The seller may never have seen you before, everyone grabbing fistfuls of pens, and he can deal with one person at a time. If you have pens in your hands, they are considered yours with intent to purchase. Soon as you put them down on the table you relinquish rights and someone else will grab the goods. Cardinal rule #1, keep your hands with pens up in the air where the seller can see them. Get his price and pay for the goods. Don't ever step away from the table with anything without asking or telling the seller, and stay where he can see you. Put yourself in his place, it can be madness. I can attest to this personally.

Many years ago I came to one of my first shows in Chicago with about 20 large boxes filled with all the samples and extra pen "stuff" and dealer samples that had accumulated in my basement for 10-12 years. I came for fun. I had no idea what I was about to experience. It was Saturday morning, soon as I stepped into the room all eyes were following me. Well let me tell you, by the time I stopped at my table, I was completely surrounded, hands everywhere were offering to open the boxes for me and help me empty the contents. The plan was now a matter of survival. I was alone, diving under the table would do no good.

The "frenzy" lasted a few hours, it was a blurr of hands, arms and faces. Fortunately for me, a friendly looking man saw my plight, laughed and offered to help on my side of the table. I couldn't believe what had happened, and our pockets were bulging. Best of all my new friend has become a very good friend over the years.

Saturday is also Auction Day. The larger shows will preview auction goods from either Friday or early Saturday, so be sure to get a good look at anything you may want to bid. Auctions to me are the best entertainment of the show. Some incredible bargains, some outrageous selling prices especially if it's a "bidding war" between two buyers. Read the auction rules carefully. Usually you pay cash or travelers checks only immediately after auction, unless prior arrangements are made. Sales are final. The auction catalogs should always be kept as a good reference.


Some dealers will come for Sunday only, so you may see new faces. Most new pen dealers will line the walls of the room because they need the electrical for lighting. Exceptions are for other dealers that exhibit very large assortments of inks and papers for testing. You can sit, dip and scribble as long as you like. My plan of attack, is very simple. Enter the room, go right and just follow the aisles on the right side only. I'd make a quick tour on the first run around, lingering where I may. If you have a special interest, such as certain parts or pen brands, ask immediately if available in order to save time. Always politely ask before picking anything off the table, it may be more delicate than you think. If you break a pen by replacing a cap too tightly, or any reason…you own that pen. Don't even think of opening a section or removing a part without asking, better to have the seller perform the request. Remember also there is a code of honesty among pen collectors. Often someone, who is known, can pick up a pen from one dealer for inspection promising to return it later. If you are not known, and need an opinion from another on an item, bring that person to the table.

Don't think you will remember where you saw an interesting pen that you may want to see later. Either buy it right there and then, or jot on a memo pad the table number or dealer name to find the spot later.

Here is your greatest joy if you are looking for new pens. You can place in your hands the pens dreamed of or seen in your favorite pen magazines. Most are not inked, so you have to know what to expect in performance so homework is required, unless you are very impulsive or rich. Once you see the pen you are after, take a quick visit to other dealers for comparison pricing, but make your purchase before that item is sold. There may be only so many available. Best of all, at pen shows you are making new friends, seeing old friends, hopefully you are asking as many questions as you can and learning from one another. Get as many business and trading cards as you are able, phone numbers and e-mail addresses for further contact. Pick up as much literature and catalogs as you can. I maintain catalogs for several years as excellent reference material.

Some very important tools to bring to a show.

A good quality 10x magnifier, preferably with a light. A good idea if you are looking for vintage pens where a hairline crack in old hard rubber can not be seen with the naked eye. if you don't have one, they are usually sold at the show. If you are a stub or italic fan, bring a fine scale mm or cm ruler, unless you are so trained one is permanently etched into your eyeball. If it's papers and inks you are after, bring some of your own favorite pens to dip and use on various papers available from several dealers.

A good idea...print up some business cards with your name, e-mail or phone number, also listing your special interests such as Parker "51"s, Waterman, Parker, etc. Don't include your home address for obvious reasons. You don't want undesireable surprise visits. Hand these cards out to everyone. Get yourself known, you'll be surprised when you may receive a call months later from someone you met who remembered you were looking for a 1921 Parker Duofold in RHR. After all, it's all about pens and building relationships.

OK, #1 rule...a good pair of old well-worn in sneakers or shoes, a close second is ALWAYS bring something nice back home to your significant other. Believe me, it helps a lot when you disappear for a weekend.

Some show sponsors always have free giveaways also that make for a nice momento of the show. Sample bottles of ink, decorated mugs, tote bags, and advertising ink blotters usually given free. You'll also find books, magazines, repair tools, ink sacs, and almost anything related to pens, ink and paper. I would suggest the books and magazines as invaluable sources for more knowledge. By the end of the day if you planned the show correctly, you should be broke, have very tired feet or a sore back from leaning over tables, and have had the best time of your life, just itching for the next pen show to do it all over again.

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