2016 LA Pen Show Day 1: Thursday
Although it may shock my loyal readers to hear, I’m fairly new to the fountain pen hobby. I know it seems like my fount (pun intended) of overflowing pen knowledge must have come from decades of world-weary experience with fountain pens (stop laughing!) but I still haven’t hit the third anniversary of the purchase of my first pen. (February 23, 2013, in case anyone was wondering.) Since I clearly subscribe to the fake-it-’til-you-make-it school of content creation, I like to pretend expertise when I prognosticate and pontificate from my platform of perfidy.
Although I do not possess the aforementioned decades of hard-won pen experiences (pensperience?), I do have a couple of traits that have helped me pull off the charade of The Pen Habit for the last three years: I have a very good memory and I have a deeply-ingrained ability to spot patterns. These two skills together help me quickly synthesize information that is often based on more than just the easily accessible facts.
I begin my write-up with this unusual intro because I feel it necessary to remind you, gentle reader, that I don’t have a lot of experience with pen shows. I couldn’t define a “normal” show for you if I wanted to. That being said, my experience at the LA show was not at all what I was expecting. I found myself comparing and contrasting my experience at my first-ever pen show (DC Supershow, 2015) with my experience at my second-ever pen show (LA, 2016) to try to understand why my experience in LA was enjoyable, but left me feeling a bit unsatisfied by the trip.
Day 1 – Thursday the 11th.
I arrived at the Seattle-Tacoma airport early-ish: about 7:00AM for a 9:45AM flight. I sailed through security and quickly wandered over to one of my favorite eateries inside the airport, Dish D’lish. I ordered my usual: a bacon cheddar strata (which, for the uninitiated, is like a cross between a muffin, french toast, and an omelet…and is completely delicious) and a Diet Coke. Or as I like to call it, Food of the Gods.
It’s silly, but I love getting to the airport early, eating something hearty, and then spending the next hour or two walking from one end of the airport to the other before settling down into my cramped airplane seat. So, after downing my Strata and refilling my Nectar of Life (aka Diet Coke), I set off down Terminal A to see the sights.
The Seattle Airport isn’t a huge airport, but of all the airports I’ve ever visited, it does the best job of integrating artwork into the space. There are little bits of local artwork everywhere, and most of it pretty cool. As I wandered the halls of the nearly empty terminals, I was once again struck by how pleasant it was to wander an airport built with an eye both to functionality and aesthetics. A lot of airports (*cough*LAX*cough*) could learn Seattle in that respect.
I eventually took the tram back to the other end of the airport and my gate, which was crammed full of people. The harried counter crew were trying to juggle a waitlist of over 20 people, including an extended family of young kids who had, somehow, never actually been assigned seats on their tickets. The very patient Alaska Airlines employees eventually called for volunteers to give up their seats for a voucher on future travel. Feeling so satiated and relaxed from my lovely stroll, I realized that my flight, as currently scheduled, would arrive four hours before I could even check in. I figured that I might as well delay my flight for a few hours in exchange for what was essentially a free flight for the DC Show in August. I put my name on the list and waited.
Both fortunately and unfortunately, by the time the plane boarded, it turned out that my seat was no longer needed and I was allowed to board the plane. As a result of my delay in boarding, however, the overhead luggage space was completely full which meant that my roller bag, containing my entire fountain pen collection and my camera gear, would need to be checked. I pulled the flight attendant aside, informed him I was carrying some very expensive equipment, and would REALLY prefer not to have it out of my sight, and he very kindly allowed me to store my bag in their closet at the front of the plane.
An uneventful flight, quick baggage retrieval, and a white-knuckle taxi ride later, I was at the hotel.
The Los Angeles Pen Show, despite its moniker, is actually held in Manhattan Beach (The proximity to the airport likely having sway in that decision) at the Manhattan Beach Marriott. It lacks, perhaps, some of the refinement of a higher-end hotel, but makes up for it in sheer size. The hotel desk staff, which was uniformly attractive in a way that you can only find in Los Angeles, was friendly and cheerful when they informed me that my room was not yet ready, due to my having arrived four hours before check-in time.
In the meantime, I took advantage of the cavernous lobby. I pulled out my laptop and began editing an upcoming video while waiting for my room. After an hour or so of that, I put my laptop away and wandered over to the other side of the lobby, where the vendors for the upcoming pen show were setting up tables in the long hallway that ran along the large ballroom. The ballroom (in which the majority of the show’s tables were to be set up) was in use by another group, and so only the hallways outside the room and a small back room were open to the vendors setting up. This was, I was to learn later, not really what people had been expecting.
I registered for my weekend trader pass ($65). When the man behind the desk said, “You could have saved $10 if you had registered ahead of time, I rather testily replied, “I would have, but the only way to do so was via a check. I don’t even own a checkbook. If you had some way to register and pay online, I would have months ago.” He grunted inarticulately, and handed me my badge, a pin, and a printed schedule for the show, and I went on my way.
My little exchange with the attendant at the desk was indicative of a problem I saw throughout the show, and that I have seen to varying degrees in both shows which I have attended to this point: they’re stuck in the past. Considering that a large focus of pen shows are writing instruments from 100 years ago, I suppose a reticence toward modernization is unsurprising. It’s disappointing, but unsurprising. Online registration, the ability to pay with a credit or debit card, even a moderately usable website: these are all easy things to implement, and would help easy the management of a pen show. But there is a real resistance to change and modernization that I experienced over and over again during my time at this show. I’ll go into it more in my later write-ups, but I felt a very us vs. them mentality between the old guard vintage pen traders and the younger, newer entrants to the hobby like myself.
I didn’t want to try to navigate my way through the show floor as I was still lugging both of my suitcases and my backpack around with me. So, I returned to the other side of the lobby and wheeled myself over to the lounge restaurant for a late lunch. The service at the lounge was uniformly poor the entire weekend, so I sat there for 20 or so minutes reading and waiting for the waitress to deign to wander over to my table and take my order.
Whilst I was thus waiting, I ran into Chris Manning of Silver Hand Studios. I met Chris in DC the previous August, and he had kindly lent me one of his beautiful Gothic Overlay pens to review. We had run into each other online occasionally since then, and so he joined me at the table. I ordered a turkey burger and fries, he some chips and salsa, and we ate and talked pens.
After our meal, we retired back to the lobby seating to wait for our rooms and chatted some more. Eventually, my room became available, so I left Chris (who was still waiting for his room) to check in and drop off my stuff.
By now, it was 3:30 in the afternoon, and the Thursday portion of the show was supposed to end at 5:00. A lot of the tables still weren’t set up completely, and many vendors were missing, but I wanted to poke around and see if I could run into anyone I knew or see anything fun that first day. It was during this initial stroll through the hallway and the back part of the ballroom that I discovered that many of the vendors at the show were in something of a sour mood.
Having never attended a pen show as a vendor, I don’t really understand the finer details of what was going on in this show–but people were steamed. Apparently, the fine print of the agreement for exhibiting at the LA Show specified that exhibitors and traders were not guaranteed table space on Thursday or Friday; even then, they were only guaranteed 1/2 of the tables for which they paid. Or something like that. I don’t know the specifics.
In the past, this had been less of a problem because the vendors were able to set up in the ballroom as early as Thursday, and were able to leave their setups in place for Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. The year, the main ballroom wouldn’t be available until after 2PM on Friday afternoon, so those vendors who had purchased several tables and were hoping to set up on Thursday for the whole weekend quickly found they were not able to get all of their tables. In some cases they weren’t able to get tables at all. For some vendors, this was less of an issue: their tables were simply cases of pens that they zipped closed and took back to their rooms at the end of each day. But for other vendors, especially the retailers (as opposed to the collectors) this was a much larger problem. Their tables included shelving, piles of ink, paper, and other items that couldn’t easily be taken down at the end of each day. One vendor told me that their table took almost four hours to set up, and they weren’t going to be allowed to set up their full space until Saturday morning.
Nobody was happy, and you could feel it in the air. I stopped and chatted with a few different folks I had met in DC. I checked out a few tables and looked at a couple of pens, but the atmosphere of the whole show was off. None of the major retailers were set up, some hadn’t even arrived at the show yet, and even if I found a pen I liked, the chances of me even being able to find the same vendor the next day would be iffy since they’d all be moving tables or may not even get to set up at all. In the end, I went back to my room, took a nice, long nap and a hot shower, and went out to get some of the worst chicken teriyaki and sushi for dinner. (I mean, that’s not what I set out to get; it’s just what I ended up with.)
That night, I headed down to the bar in what had fast become my favorite part of a pen show: the after-show pen sharing. I brought down several pens, and a group of three or four of us sat around a table and shared out pen experiences. I met some new pen friends, and we had a generally pleasant time.
Compared to my experience in DC, the post-show bar scene was low-key. In DC, my first Thursday night there, over a dozen pen folks commandeered a huge table in the middle of the bar armed with a bunch of pens and pads of paper. We laughed, tried out each others’ pens, had some drinks, and made new friends. In LA, by comparison, the lounge was set up with smaller tables and there wasn’t a great communal space to gather. That first night, we had a really nice time in our small group. I met a couple of great folks, and we had some fun times, but I missed the energy of the bigger crowd from DC.
In the end, we were all tired from our trips and retired early. I went back up to my room, finished up a letter I had started on the plane, and went to bed, hoping that Day 2 would be a bit more pleasant.