This recently opened Dundas West shop represents a brick-and-mortar manifestation of the growing online ink–enthusiast community.
Just over a month ago, former school teacher Liz Chan and her husband Jon opened Wonder Pens, a highly specialized retail outlet devoted to pen, ink, and paper.
How they got started: “It all began when I got Liz her first fountain pen on a trip to New York,” says Jon. “She used it, she really liked it, and it became a hobby of both of ours. We found that we ordered a lot of our products from the U.S. and there weren’t too many options for us in Canada to pick up what we wanted, so we decided to take the plunge this year and create a business. We started off online in April and we had a lot of interest from the fountain-pen community. Believe it or not, there’s quite a community—there’s a lot of people who are interested in and dedicated to fountain pens as a hobby. We got a lot of traction that way, so we decided to launch a brick-and-mortar store.”
For Liz, the tactile nature of their product demanded the move from online to a storefront. “We always wanted to open a store,” she says. “It’s hard to buy a pen without trying it first—it’s nice to be able to see the inks and see the colours.”
Working as a shopkeeper has also provided Liz with a welcome respite from the demands of her previous job. “Compared to running a classroom, this is a really peaceful job,” she says. “It’s sometimes a little stressful, but not compared to having 30 adolescents looking at you. There’s something nostalgic about running a little shop like this.”
The neighbourhood: Many of Wonder Pens’ customers are already fountain-pen enthusiasts who come to the shop from all corners of the city. However, the shop’s Dundas West locale has helped expose them to many new potential clients. “This neighbourhood ended up being a really good fit for us,” says Liz, “or the other way around. There are a lot of very creative people here who can appreciate something that’s handwritten or that takes a little bit more time. There’s a big streak of independent shops here, which is really nice, and the businesses here have been really supportive. There have been times when people have come in and bought a fountain pen and ask to fill it up here because they’re just going next door to sit in the coffee shop.”
The enduring appeal of pen and paper: “Technology is so convenient and so pervasive that you can’t avoid it,” says Liz. “I think the renewed interest [in fountain pens] comes from being able to take a pause from that and step back. It’s not that all of a sudden a fountain pen and a notebook are going to replace writing your emails but I think, because technology is so instant and so easy, being able to write something has so much more meaning. Writing a letter is so much more significant, because it’s so easy to just text sometimes.”
One task, not easily replicable on a computer, is especially enjoyable for Liz. “There’s nothing as satisfying as crossing something off your to-do list—you can’t really do that with your computer.”
Maintenance tips: For many, the appeal of a fountain pen is in its reusability. “A lot of our pens take either disposable cartridges or use bottled ink,” Liz says. “A lot of people would rather use the bottled ink, rather than continuing to toss out those little plastic cartridges.”
A fountain pen, however, does require a little upkeep. “You can get a disposable ballpoint,” says Liz, “and there’s zero maintenance at all, but I don’t think a fountain pen has as much maintenance as you might be worried about. I’ve heard of people using their fountain pens for years and years and never having to clean them once, because they’re using it every day and the ink is continually flowing. It’s when you’ve left it to dry that it gets clogged, and then the maintenance issue comes up and it seems like more of a hassle. If you use it regularly, you don’t have to worry as much about it.”
Fountain-heads: One might be surprised to learn that there is a highly engaged internet community devoted to fountain pens. “That’s putting it lightly,” says Liz. “There are definitely people who are really into their pens and their inks and their papers. But if that’s their thing, that’s great for them. You can go on all these forums and see people who look at and compare the subtle differences between the different shades of black, the drying time, and things like that. There are a lot of subtle differences, but if you’re just looking for a pen and a bottle of blue ink, you’re fine, too.”
Within this community are many collectors. “The Lamy Safari is definitely its own breed when it comes to collecting because they put out so many limited editions. We definitely have people who come in just to get the limited editions to add to their collections. But we don’t sell vintage pens and I think a lot of the really hardcore collectors may be going on eBay for the very valuable collector’s items. We’re aiming more for a market where you’re going to use your pen and you’re going to use it every day without being scared of damaging it or scratching it. We’re trying to sell something that people are going to use every day as an extension of themselves.”
Someone looking to buy a fountain pen for day-to-day use doesn’t necessarily need to spend a great deal of money. Says Liz, “I think if you’re looking for a good pen that will last you a good amount of time—20, 30, even 40 years—you could spend around $40 or $50 and be fine. Oftentimes, people will start to buy more pens and more inks and that’s where it starts adding up. That’s not always necessary, though. There are people who can buy one Safari and that Safari will last them as long as they need. For people who are brand new to fountain pens, we’re selling a lot of seven dollar Jinhao fountain pens, and that’s cool, because they can walk out of here with a fountain pen and a bottle of ink for $20 and be good to go.”
Wonder Pens, 906 Dundas St. W.