A Pencil Shop, for Texting the Old-Fashioned Way


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Photographs by Jennifer S. Altman for The New York Times

About 500 years after a graphite deposit was discovered in England and sliced into the first pencils, a store devoted to pencils has opened in Lower Manhattan. If the enterprise seems belated, well, it is. Who uses a pencil anymore?

Pencils are like fax machines and margarine: They do a job, sure, but other things do the same job better — pens, email and butter, respectively. You can write a letter in pencil, but it’s more adult to write in pen. You can solve a crossword in pencil, but it’s more courageous in pen.

And yet, here’s the thing: Being in the presence of an obsessive hobbyist is intoxicating. Any kind of hobbyist, no matter what the locus of her attention.

The monomaniac at the helm of C. W. Pencil Enterprise is Caroline Weaver, a 24-year-old Natalie Wood look-alike with a pencil tattooed on her forearm. Her store is the size of a juice box, with a checkered floor and jars of yellow button chrysanthemums sprinkled around. With its spanking newness and luminous blocks of color, the place looks like an Edward Hopper canvas. (Or, as the website Racked put it: “This Fancy Pencil Store Is Begging to Be Instagrammed.”)

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Caroline Weaver, the owner, is a 24-year-old Natalie Wood look-alike with a pencil tattooed on her forearm.

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Jennifer S. Altman for The New York Times

And it really does sell mostly pencils. Which is insane, but in an entrancing way, as if Captain Ahab opened a boutique of whale trinkets.

On the first day I visited, Ms. Weaver sat behind the counter, springing up often to highlight the virtues of this or that pencil. “This was John Steinbeck’s favorite pencil,” she said of a Blackwing 602 ($2). Its slogan, printed on the shaft, is “Half the Pressure, Twice the Speed.”

When I asked which pencil she used most, Ms. Weaver indicated a marbled Creamsicle-colored number with “Made in India” stamped on the side (30 cents). “I also like this one at the moment,” she said, offering a pencil from the century-old company Caran d’Ache ($4.50). “It’s made of beechwood.” There was no eraser on the pencil; instead, a shiny nub lacquered with a Swiss cross gleamed at one end. (Possible subtext: The Swiss don’t make mistakes.)

For those who prefer the whiff of lily-of-the-valley to graphite, a package of scented pencils ($8) from Portugal smells like a rich lady’s hand soap. For Sudoku enthusiasts, Ms. Weaver recommends a pencil with an ultrafine-tip eraser ($2).

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Jennifer S. Altman for The New York Times

The store is organized with the space-saving rigor of a ship’s cabin. Pencils are displayed upright in glass jars labeled with their origin: Japan, Germany, France, the Czech Republic, Tennessee. Framed vintage advertisements on the wall depict the likes of Booth Tarkington shilling his favorite pencils. (Tarkington’s advice to young writers: “Use pencils. Write on thick paper. Sharpen two or three dozen rather soft pencils before you work. Use pencils with erasers on them — and use the erasers!”)

An elegant woman lifted a pencil with a crabbed grip. “Samantha, remember when you wrote like this?” she asked a younger woman.

“I still do, Mom,” came Samantha’s withering reply.

On a second visit, the store was overseen by a different woman who knew just as much about pencils. To a young lady seeking a gift, she urged experimentation. Would the young lady like to try a triangular pencil? How about a chubby pink pencil that functioned as a low-tech highlighter? A pencil shaped like a cigarette, to freak out the customer’s mother?

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Photographs by Jennifer S. Altman for The New York Times

To a man interested in writing sheet music, she recommended an antique IBM pencil, designed to show up dark when scanned by an early computer, and so suited to someone who may be scanning his musical inventions on a 2015-era machine.

I asked the man why he’d chosen that particular pencil. “Because it’s cool,” he said. “And how often can you buy a functional thing from the 1950s in mint condition for $5?”

Good point.

The “functional” part of his reply is especially apt. Because pencils have a credible use, this single-minded store is able to transcend its novelty status. It’s more like a guitar shop than, say, a place devoted solely to popcorn or ice cream sandwiches (both of which are actual stores that exist within a five-block radius of this one).

If you make a purchase (and it’s hard not to, given that you can pay with pocket change), your goods will be wrapped in a box and tied up with string.

Henry David Thoreau could stick his hand into a bin of pencils and grab exactly 12 in one swoop, a “Rain Man”-like skill that impressed his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson. I bought 12 pencils from C. W. Pencil Enterprise in honor of the Transcendental trinomials. The total cost: $12.



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