RP August 2013

RP August 2013

I must admit that Sheaffer pens, as well made and attractive as they can be, have not been an important part of my collecting. But one Sheaffer, in particular, played a major role in starting me in a life of pens.

It was the mid-1970s and both my wife and I were in grad school in Los Angeles and were as poor, as graduate students usually are. As a result, our recreation and travel was very local. And one of our favorite destinations, about a hundred miles to the north where arid Southern California gives way to the Mediterranian landscape of California’s Central Coast, was Santa Barbara, which in the 1920s had self-consciously created itself as a quaint mission town where local ordinance dictated that even McDonalds stores had to be built in the mission style of architecture, replete with adobe red pantile roofs. The result was charming for all its artificiality, and these trips allowed us to get away from the pressures of school and study.

Our trips there centered not so much on the mission or other “historic” sites, but on wandering through local crafts and antiques shops and food. In particular we were fond of a Mexican restaurant that my family had frequented since my childhood, located in the Paseo, an arcade with centered on an open courtyard between State and Anacapa Streets in the heart of the downtown shopping area. Parking on State Street, the center of tourist Santa Barbara, was always a problem so we usually parked a few blocks south and entered from the back, on the Anacapa side. To the right of the entry was a used bookstore, not one of those dark warehouses packed from ceiling to floor with ranges of dusty volumes, cast off willy-nilly from the past. This shop was clean and well-lighted, free of clutter, with a sparkling glass storefront that admitted the soft light of spring. The collection was carefully curated with select books, manuscripts, maps and autographs as well other artifacts attractively displayed in nicely lit cases. We often stopped in, usually just to browse, and occasionally we found there a volume we could afford.

Since middle school I had written with a Parker 51, a single jewel Blue Diamond Vacumatic in cedar blue with an alloy cap given to me by my dad. But in my junior year of college it was stolen from me and sometime later I replaced it with a much less interesting late aerometric model. Still, I used that to write the first drafts of my school work and to mark the papers of those whom I helped to instruct as a teaching assistant at UCLA. As most people did, my wife wrote with whatever was around and cheap, usually a disposable rollerball or ballpoint.

On one of our visits to Santa Barbara there was on display in our favorite shop a single Sheaffer Valiant from the late 1940s. It was a rich brown celluloid with a broad gold filled cap band and the signature two-tone Sheaffer Triumph nib that wrapped around the business end of the barrel. In an era before pens became collectible, it lay there, unremarked and solitary, in a glass case among maps and manuscript pages at the front of the shop near the cash register. Sharon noticed it, admired it and for $6.00 it became hers. After a quick trip to my favorite pen repairman it was good to go and she would use it for another decade.

The only problem, at least from my perspective, was that she, who cared little for pens, now had a more interesting pen than I did. And even before I began collecting that seemed to be an issue for me. Although it would be several years before I began to actively accumulate pens, that Sheaffer could be said to have started me down this same happy path we all have taken.