The DC Pen Show 2021 Experience

Attending a pen show ranks as one of the essential, bucket list items for a true pen enthusiast. Besides having unprecedented access to scores of exhibitors selling pens from all around the world, the pen show is about community. In the USA, there is no bigger event than the DC Fountain Pen Supershow.

Of course, things were different in 2021 than in years past. 2020’s show was canceled due to Covid. The show’s founder and organizer, Bob Johnson, passed away in September. Exhibitors like Luxury Brands of America (distributors of Noodler’s Ink, Platinum, and Colorverse) backed out last minute due to the Delta variant’s increasing transmission rates. Yet, the show went on.

As with most pen shows, the DC Fountain Pen Supershow is held at a hotel’s ballroom and exhibition space. Usually used for weddings, conferences, and other special events, these rooms are converted into a huge Candyland of pen exhibitors and traders. The Falls Church Marriott at Fairview Park has served as the venue for the DC Pen show for several years, offering a fair “Pen Show room rate,” complimentary breakfast buffet, and terrible wi-fi.

Spotty reception aside, the hotel provides ample space and amenities like water refreshments and Amodex to clean your inky fingers in the bathroom sink. Since many exhibitors decided to opt out this year (Luxury Brands, Edison Pen Co, Anderson Pens, Fountain Pen Hospital to name a few), the ballrooms felt a little less crowded than usual. I made the trip on Friday to spend the day on purpose to avoid the crowds and get a chance to chat with vendors before they get overwhelmed with the weekend crowd.

The DC Pen Show is scheduled with Thursday and Friday being “Weekend Trader Only” days that require a Weekend pass of $50. The general public can attend the show for $10 on Saturday and Sunday. If you’re a hardcore pen enthusiast who wants to connect with dealers and get a jump on the exclusive or limited edition items on offer, it is best to purchase a Weekend pass and go on Friday. As I can attest from personal experience, the pace is a lot more laid back and easier to interact with than on Saturday.

DC Pen Show 2021 grand ballroom

The DC Pen Show is split between one major ballroom and a side ballroom. The main ballroom is 18,000 square feet with an adjacent foyer that borders three sides of the ballroom. The side ballroom contained about 1/8 of the exhibitors and was only accessible if you exit the main show area. The smaller number of vendors was definitely noticed in this area.

When we first arrived at the show, we got our customary pen show lanyard and name tag. Not only does this tag act as your ticket into the show, but it also allows other attendees to put a name to a face. If you frequent social media, it’s advisable to write your username (like @inkjournal) on social media. This year’s show was sponsored by Yafa Brands. They debuted a new limited edition pen called “Psycho.” So, everyone’s show badge had their name and the word “psycho” printed underneath it. Fitting for pen addicts, I guess.

Since many folks couldn’t attend the show this year due to the pandemic, I was hoping to utilize live streaming to share the experience. However, not only was there no Verizon cell phone reception, the complimentary hotel wi-fi internet was abysmally slow. So, I had to settle for posting pictures and videos on Instagram stories later in the day.

From the moment you walk into the DC Pen Show, you are bombarded with pens, inks, paper, and more. It’s overwhelming, even for an experienced pen enthusiast. Right at the entrance to the ballroom area, Pilot Pens had a table that ranged from their everyday Pilot Varsity and Explorer models to their $2,000 Namiki Urushi Emperor fountain pens. Ironically, the expensive pens were at the end of the table closest to the lobby entrance doors. I was nervous about their safety.

The types of exhibitors at a pen show can be categorized as follows: collector/trader, retailer, nib meister, solo pen maker, and distributor. A collector/trader will have an array of exotic pens, usually scarce limited editions, vintage pens, and other hard-to-come-by items displayed in a pen tray or large case. A full-service retailer like Bittner, Crazy Alan’s Emporium, Bertram’s Inkwell, Dromgoole’s, and Vanness will carry an assortment of new, in-box modern pens along with other complementary accessories like ink, refills, and paper. A nib meister might also sell pens but usually specializes in nib customizations, tuning, and repair. If you are looking to have nib work done at the show, it is advisable to book an appointment with the nib meister prior to the show. Solo Pen Makers and smaller boutique manufacturers are the scrappy and exciting segment of the pen industry that shows the true creative spirit of this industry. The pen makers are usually tabled by the business owner and offer an intimate, one-of-a-kind experience in obtaining (or customizing) your new pen. Distributors often represent more than one of the bigger, world-renowned brands like Montegrappa, Visconti, Diplomat, and so on. Distributors exhibit to support their retailers and spread brand awareness to the general public - usually, they do not sell merchandise directly to the consumer.

Yafa brands, the show’s official sponsor, claimed several tables in the front corner of the ballroom, as well as part of the foyer closest to the entrance. They represented several brands including Private Reserve, Conklin, Monteverde, Pineider, Diplomat, and Tibaldi. On Saturday, they gave the first 200 paying attendees a goodie tote bag with a complimentary bottle of the show ink, named “Bob’s Blue” after the late DC Pen Show founder, Bob Johnson. Also, attendees received a Monteverde Monza fountain pen with the words “DC PEN SUPERSHOW” engraved on the cap.

In contrast to the marketing polish of the established brands, the independent, small pen maker feels like a “Mom and Pop” shop. At the tables of independent makers like Ryan Krusac, Franklin-Christoph, Hinze Pen Company, Carolina Pen Company, Turnt Pen Company, Galen Leather, and Kanilea Pen Company, to name a few, you’ll be met by the real craftspeople behind the gorgeous pieces on display. This is where you can get a truly one-of-a-kind writing experience customized to your liking. Some makers may have the ability to custom grind or tune your new fountain pen nib on the spot. Most are willing to accept custom work with your particular specifications.

Full-service retailers can also have a “Mom and Pop” feel about the shopping experience. As often is the case at pen shows, the owner/proprietor of the pen shop will be working the table, guiding prospective customers toward their desired writing tools. Lisa Vanness was helping writers find their perfect shade of ink at the Vanness 1938 table. Michael Dromgoole of Texas-based Dromgoole’s was more than happy to help find a Leonardo or Retro 51 pen for your collection. If you needed a pen refill, Adam and Bert from Bertram's Inkwell had a massive selection of compatible cartridges for fountain pens, ballpoints, rollerballs, and more.

If you enjoy shopping the major luxury brands like Visconti, Montegrappa, and Pilot, the distributor tables displayed a full range of writing instruments including new releases to add to your wishlist. The newest releases include the Visconti Homo Sapiens Lava Color in Blue Ultramarine, Esterbrook JR Paradise, Pineider Psycho, Diplomat Aero Citrus, and Narwhal Key West Las Coloradas Purple (and more). Unlike the independent makers, the distributor tables are worked by brand representatives. While they are associated with the pens they sell, they are several degrees removed from the hands that make the pens.

Following the foyer toward the back of the main ballroom, DC Pen Show attendees found several tables of bottled ink. The ink testing station, a long-time staple of the show, was back for the 2021 show. In years past, the ink testing tables took place in a meeting room on a different floor. Due to the drop in exhibitors this year, bottled ink occupied the back corner of the foyer, sprawling out over several tables. At these stations, you can fill up a pen, dip test a pen, or swatch various colors on paper.

side ballroom at the DC Pen Show 2021

One of the most impressive spreads of this year’s show was the Galen Leather corner in the side ballroom. Yunus and his family tabled a gorgeous assortment of leather products of all shapes and sizes. If you needed a carrying case for any of your writing tools, this was the place to get it. Galen had so many tables, they flexed by dedicating one table to serve Turkish coffee and delightful treats to visitors.

After speaking with Ian Schon a few times on the phone in the last year, I wanted to meet him in person at the show. Fortunately for him, his table was always at least a couple of people deep, even on Friday. Unfortunately for me, I couldn't find an appropriate time to chat with him. He had an amazing selection of colorful Pocket 6 fountain pens with wild, colorful finishes and faceted patterns that dazzled the eye.

Besides the showstopping pens, I enjoyed looking for other ephemera. At the River City Pen Company table, I found adorable polymer clay pen rests made by a 20-year-old artist from Georgia. If I was looking to redecorate my study, I’d pick up a few vintage pen ads that I found at a table in the main ballroom. Stickers, washi tape, wax seals, journals, pins, pen chests, and even chocolate could be found at various locations throughout the show.

The “haul” is key to the pen show’s enduring vitality. If you search #DCPenShow on Instagram, you’ll be treated to a spread of products collected by attendees over the weekend. While pens are usually the main purchase at a pen show, bottled inks, notebooks, and accessories are also a significant part of the show haul. The show’s success rests squarely on the shoulders of the exhibitors that come year after year. With such a large, diverse list of vendors, brands, collectors, and boutique specialists, the DC Pen Show is one of the largest shows in the world.

Being that I work for a pen retailer and have more pens and ink than I know what to do with, I didn’t feel the need to buy anything at the show this year. The only purchase I did make was for a cartoon Shiba Inu pen/pencil zip case for my daughter. It came with matching washi tape. Super adorbs. Instead of a new pen to cherish, I deeply enjoyed making real connections with friends, business associates, and new pen pals.

After a long year and a half of no pen shows or meet-ups, it was great to see familiar faces, including social media influencers like Vanessa Langton, PenBoyRoy, and Mike Matteson. I had the honor of eating lunch with the folks from Retro 51 and discussing upcoming pen designs with their designer, Richard. As a whole, the pen community is a warm and social bunch of free spirits. After such a long time away, it was uplifting to be physically present in this community of like-minded individuals again. Although we were masked, we could be together to share a laugh, talk about pens, and be seen.

I hope that the future holds more opportunities to engage with pen pals from around the world so we can rally around our love for the humble writing instrument.