On display in Terry Wiederlight’s downstairs office is not a pen, but a sword. This is ironic since he is the owner of the only fountain pen store left in New York—Fountain Pen Hospital. Perhaps the sword, which was a gift from a fountain pen company representative, is as a reminder of the saying “The pen is mightier than the sword.”
No doubt the saying is true. What is not so clear is whether the pen is mightier than the laptop, tablet, or even smartphone. Compared to this modern threat, the sword has become no more than a quaint historical relic, as benign as a butter knife.
Yet the Wiederlight family has braved enough storms to realize that among the never-ending variety of products purveyed on the World Wide Web, there is also a nostalgia for products we loved to use before the digital tsunami engulfed us.
The Act of Writing
There are those of us who miss the way words just flow from the nib of a fountain pen, the smell of ink, the feeling of paper, and the pleasure in giving or receiving a handwritten letter or message.
With the decline in fountain pen usage, cursive writing has, unsurprisingly, also gone out of favor. Having to print each letter by hand is not just a clunky way of writing, it also conditioned us to unreservedly embrace using a keyboard. Now we can simply pound the keys for the sake of a uniform, expedient end result.
According to Jake Weidmann, the youngest by about three decades of only 12 master penmen in the world, “If we abdicate everything to the machines that we create, what we are doing instead is creating a world that is void of human influence.”
Despite the fact that cursive writing has been reintroduced into the elementary school curriculum, students are not obligated to use fountain pens, for practical reasons no doubt. Yet the ergonomics of using a fountain pen are unique; so is the pleasure and the aesthetic results.
Cursive writing with a fountain pen, as opposed to printing each letter with a ball point, differs greatly in the way it looks—the nib of a fountain pen being able to produce a multidimensional line even in the hands of the beginner, and when it is done well, the effect is undeniably beautiful.
From my own experience of having written only in cursive writing since elementary school, where we were categorically not allowed to use anything but a fountain pen, I have made some interesting observations.
The act of linking the letters together in a (hopefully) elegant flow records the conscientious efforts I have made to read, write, and spell correctly; the marks I make on paper signify my commitment. We have even coined this idea in the expression that we commit our thoughts to paper.
This lends a certain gravitas to our character in general. It taught me patience and perseverance before rewards. Not to mention, everyone’s handwriting is so much a reflection of personal style and personality.
According to Wiederlight, the younger generation is starting to get a taste for writing with fountain pens and children love to experiment with the color inks. But, if there is to be a proper revival, schools would need to lead the way and, at the very least, encourage and educate students in the merits of writing with a fountain pen.
There used to be 13 fountain pen stores in New York, and according to Wiederlight, the reason why Fountain Pen Hospital is still in business is due to his, and his team’s, innovative approach to promote the company.
He proudly recounts how the weekly “Tuesday Mania,” a 24-hour sale, attracts over 10,000 people online globally in a buying frenzy that combines the thrill of the chase with a love for writing instruments. Collectors await for the day to acquire much coveted limited edition pieces.
This reflects Wiederlight’s passion for the business side of things and his particularly astute sense of timing.
As fountain pens went out of style during the 1970s, the company started selling office supplies as well. But although they supplied even the World Trade Center, this was a relatively short-lived success.
“When I saw the first Staples come in, I thought, we have to go back to our roots,” said Wiederlight.
So in 1986 they moved to the current premises in Tribeca and only grew the fountain pen business, which turned out to be a wise decision.
“I love what I do,” he said adding: “I still believe in paper.”
Next year, 2016, will mark 70 years since the Fountain Pen Hospital has been in business. Started by Wiederlight’s grandfather Al, and his father Phillip, it now employs a small army of people that includes his daughter Erica, and Wiederlight’s brother Steve, as a partner.
The name, which Wiederlight would have liked to change, reflects the store’s early beginnings when it used to be a place for repairs.
The name is even less likely to change since it has recently been mentioned in a best-seller. Wiederlight points to the highlighted sentences where the Fountain Pen Hospital is mentioned in “Driving Heat,” the book penned by fictitious crime-writer Richard Castle from the TV show “Castle.” The real writer—the ghost writer who shall remain anonymous—happens to be a friend of Wiederlight and, obviously, a great fan of the store.
Other, less anonymous celebrities who have graced the store are Jack Black, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom Hanks, and Kevin Kline.
How satisfying would it be to ask any of them for an autograph and be handed one that is printed?
The handwritten is so much more desirable because it records the writer’s personality and feeling in that particular moment, made by his or her own hand—the moment passes yet the inscription remains, in all its richness.