‘There’s a lot of pen people’: Vancouver Pen Shop survives pandemic, celebrates 35th anniversary
Posted November 12, 2021 10:30 pm.
Last Updated November 13, 2021 1:12 am.
When Shannon Gray applied to work at the Vancouver Pen Shop she was new in town and needed a job. That was 26 years ago, and the people she’s met while working there have become her “village.”
The brick-and-mortar stationery shop on West Hastings is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year.
The cheapest pen is 89 cents, the most expensive is around $5,000. There are ballpoints, felt tips, and pencils — but their specialty is the fountain pen.
“There really is something for everyone,” Gray says.
Anyone who wants to hop online and browse their inventory is out of luck, online shopping is not an option. The reason why they won’t go virtual is the same reason Gray says they’ve stayed in business in an increasingly paperless (and penless) world.
“We always try to have a very person-to-person approach. We still wanted to really keep the hands-on” she explains.
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There isn’t a typical customer, according to Gray, but everyone who comes in has something in common.
“Yes, we get celebrities. Yes, we get politicians. Yes, we have lawyers and doctors. We have students and people that live in the Downtown Eastside. The one thing that everybody has in common is pens. Everybody that comes in here loves pens,” she says.
“I remember one time there were two customers in the store and one was one of the more affluent customers that we have and the other person really was someone who does live on the streets. They were just sitting there talking about pens. It’s such a great thing.”
Looking back on her decision to apply to work at the shop now, Gray says she’s always been a “pen person.” Her job has put her in touch with countless others who feel the same.
“I couldn’t even count how many pens I have. I can’t help myself. I love fountain pen ink and I love stationary. I love all that stuff,” she says, adding choosing her favourite pen “would be like picking your favourite child.”
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Like all businesses, the shop struggled when COVID-19 slowed the economy.
“In the beginning, it was super scary. We were pretty much shut down,” Gray says.
Like all downtown businesses, the lack of tourism hit them hard.
“No matter where you live in the world, if you come to Vancouver and you like pens, you’re going to come to the Vancouver Pen Shop. We have customers from all over the world,” she continues.
“We’re definitely a destination store for sure with the pen people — and there’s a lot of pen people.”
The wage and rent subsidies from the government helped them stay afloat, but business has rebounded enough that they were able to survive without that financial help.
No pivot to online sales despite pandemic
In addition to their faithful regulars, Gray says the business got a bit of a boost from people who were turning to letter-writing or journaling during the pandemic.
“A lot of people with the stress and anxiety, doing daily journals or weekly journals or however often they feel like they need to — it’s really a good, cathartic thing.”
The shop does have an active Facebook and Instagram page to showcase the new arrivals in the store. They will ship purchases to customers who can’t come in, but even the pandemic wasn’t enough to push them to pivot to an online store.
“We talked about going online during this time, but we actually decided not to in the end.”
They did make some changes over the last year and a half, renovating the space to make more room for social distancing, and expanding the products they carry to include more art supplies, wax seals for letter writing, and paper products. However, their carefully curated collection of fountain pens, along with ink in a veritable rainbow of colours from chestnut brown, to hot pink, to olive green is what keeps people coming back.
In 2020, at least 84 street-level businesses in Vancouver’s downtown core were shuttered, nearly half of them independent ones.
Gray says even though business isn’t totally back to what it was before the pandemic hit, it’s going strong.
“We’re not going out of business, that’s not going to happen.”
Stuart DesBrisay got “bitten by the bug” of collecting fountain pens about nine years ago. Since then, visiting the Vancouver Pen Shop has become a part of his routine.
“I go there pretty much every week. I know the people very well, we’ve become good friends,” he tells CityNews.
“They’re just great people to deal with, just totally into fountain pens, and paper, and ink and the whole thing — and very knowledgeable. They collectively know so much about pens and can advise people very, very well, very accurately, whatever they’re looking for. They’re just super nice people to deal with.”
In addition to Gray, the store is staffed by Fernie Lacelle who has also been there for over 25 years. Owner Margot McRae started working at the shop soon after it opened in 1986, taking it over from the original owners in 2009. Their newest full-time hire was a customer for 23 years before moving behind the counter.
DesBrisay says he knows enough about pens and prices and what he likes to find what he wants or needs online. But he doesn’t.
“For me, nothing replaces the personal touch when you’re right there in person,” he says.
“With pens, most particularly fountain pens, hands-on is pretty much essential. You need to find out in person if a particular pen really suits you — how it feels in your hand, the way it writes.”
DesBrisay doesn’t eschew email or Facebook or any other paperless mode of communication, he says there’s just something more satisfying about writing in cursive with a fountain pen.
“It’s much easier, a more natural grip. You just let the pen glide over the page. It’s a very nice way to write,” he says.
“I still like to put pen on paper. I think it can help with memory retention, sort of clarifying your thoughts and writing things by hand. It’s a different thing because your brain is more engaged. You’re thinking along as you shape each letter and whatnot, whereas typing on a keyboard, it’s just the tapping motion and it’s always the same. Writing really involves your mind.”
‘Their service has always been something that stands apart’
Glenn Marcus’ love of fountain pens started when he was a child.
“I’ve been using a fountain pen like for almost as long as I can remember writing,” he says.
“When I grew up in Winnipeg, you actually used a fountain pen in Grade 4. That’s when you move from pencil to pen, Grade 4 was when all the students had to go out and get a cartridge pen to use at school.”
He’s since visited pen shops all over the world, starting a list of the best ones more than 20 years ago. He still keeps it up to date on his website Glenn’s Pens.
“More seem to be closing than opening.”
Based in Vancouver, Marcus has been a customer of the shop on West Hastings for decades.
“The business of pens is most successful when the store is service focused and they actually build a relationship with their customers, and that’s what Vancouver Pen does very well,” he says.
“Their service has always been something that stands apart from other stores. They’re not out to sell you the most expensive pen that they can get you to buy. When you go in there to buy a pen, they’ll ask you what are you going to be using it for, they’ll ask you if you had a price point that you were thinking about. They are excellent at helping you come to the conclusion of what pen is right for you.”
Marcus’ collection of fountain pens is vast, and catalogued in a database. One thing he notes about people who collect fountain pens is that they don’t generally leave them in the box or on the shelf.
“The majority of the people who are buying pens, buy them to use them,” he says, adding people still do appreciate the handwritten word.
“The reaction I get from people when they get a thank you card that’s written with a fountain pen on some good quality paper is quite encouraging. It has far more impact than someone getting an email. There is real power in the value that people hold when they get something in writing now.”
In speaking with owners of pen stores in the U.S. and Europe, he says there’s been a bit of a surge in the popularity of fountain pens.
“It’s not just elderly people who are buying pens for their kids, or, someone who’s always used a pen,” he says.
“Notebooks and fountain pens are the in thing now, so this is good news for Vancouver Pen, and good news for pen stores everywhere.”