We Talked to the Organizer of the Fountain Pen Supershow About Pencils

The world's most expensive pen is coming to Falls Church this weekend. Gel pens, not so much.
We Talked to the Organizer of the Fountain Pen Supershow About Pencils
Pens rule; quills drool. Image via Shutterstock.

When Bob Johnson picks up his phone, it’s noisy in the background. It is the Fountain Pen Supershow this weekend, after all, billed on its website in orange-bannered glory as “the largest pen event in the world.”

Johnson has headed up the event for all of its 27 years. Each year, pen lovers pack up their bags and make the pilgrimage to the Marriott Fairview Park in Falls Church, a type of hotel conference room-meets-mecca for those who heed the siren song of the pen.

Johnson, who used to live in Falls Church but now lives in South Carolina, was kind enough to take time out of his schedule to chat with us all about the importance of this event, the $1.3 million pen that will be on display, and what he really thinks about pencils.

So, believe it or not, I’ve never actually been to a pen event. What exactly happens?

The show starts tomorrow and goes through Sunday. We’ll have over 200 exhibitors from 13 countries. It’s the biggest fountain pen show in the world.

What kind of pens are we working with here?

Fountain pens, ball points, pencils, and roller balls, and if you want quills, somebody has quills, a lot of English pens…

Wow! That’s a lot. You obviously like pens. Why collect those and not, say, markers or crayons?

It’s smooth, it’s more bold, and it’s more demonstrative. I just enjoy it. I like the styling of pens. I’m retired, but I’ve been collecting for 35 years.

How many do you have, and, if it really came down to it, could you ever pick a favorite?

I couldn’t put a number on it and, no, I don’t have a favorite one. I like older pens, like old Waterman pens for the feel and smoothness and the flexibility of the nibs.

Do you have to take any special precautions to take care of collectible pens? Like, do you keep them in a special temperature-controlled room or give them baths?

They’re everywhere in my house. Some people are more particular and have trays and special cabinets. I just stick ‘em in a box.

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So tell me a little bit about this $1.3 million pen. That’s crazy!

It’s from Switzerland, and it’s here now in the US. It has diamond chips all over it, and it’s a very fancy-looking pen.

The Swiss make good pens then, right?

Oh yeah, they make the finest watches and the finest pens.

Have you ever been to Switzerland?

No.

Okay. So could I buy this pen if I wanted to?

I would think so. There’s probably not many people in the world here that can afford it.

Are there like, men in black suits with ear pieces following it? Do they travel to the show with it in a suitcase locked to someone’s wrist? How do they protect it?

I don’t know. I guess you just don’t tell everybody what you have in your pocket.

Seems fair. So do any famous DC people ever stop by to check out all the fancy pens? Scott Pruitt seems to like nice stuff; you might see him there.

No famous people have ever come that I remember.

Is it ever awkward when you put pencil enthusiasts and pen collectors in the same room? There’s got to be some kind of West Side Story tension going on there.

There’s no competition between pencil and pen collectors. They complement each other.

Okay, so you’re on a deserted island, and you can only have one pen. Which would you choose?

A Parker Duofold pen.

What do you think about Sharpies? Do you have any beef with them?

They’re very good for making name tags—name tags for pen shows.*

*Editorial note: That is a pen burn if we’ve ever seen one.

I used to have like, a whole carton of gel pens in elementary school. Can I get any at the show?

I don’t think anyone will have any gel pens here.

So, quills—tell me how you really feel.

They’re a novelty.

Do you think people would take me more seriously as a reporter if I used a fountain pen? Be honest with me, Bob.

Yes, you’d get some good comments. Why don’t you come by? Where are you right now?

My office.

There’s a mob of people here who’d love to talk to you.

Okay. I’m pretty busy, but I can try.

No I’m serious—take Exit 50 on the Beltway. You’d be overwhelmed by the mobs of people here looking for pens.


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Mimi Montgomery joined Washingtonian in 2018. She previously was the editorial assistant at Walter Magazine in Raleigh, North Carolina, and freelanced for PoPVille and DCist. She lives in Adams Morgan.