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Tech-savvy pen collectors still think real ink

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Collector Yan Mann, 24, shows off one of his fountain pens. (Photo by Snejana Farberov)

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Pen collector Yan Mann, 24, shows off his Israel 60th Anniversary Special pen by Delta. (Photo by Snejana Farberov)

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Yan Mann's collection contains some 25 pens, including a $1100 Michel Perchin. (Photo by Snejana Farberov)

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Terry Wiederlight, co-owner of Fountain Pen Hospital, displays a collection of vintage fountain pens. (Photo by Snejana Farberov)

At a first glance, Yan Mann’s bedroom could belong to nearly any 24-year-old graduate student. Computer monitors sit side by side on his desk; a flat-screen TV nests on a shelf full of history books; and a Wii gaming console rests nearby.

A closer look paints a different picture: In front of the glowing screens, seven or eight elegant fountain pens light up when sunlight hits their ornate 14-karat tips. These trophies aren’t just for show.

Mann’s love affair with fountain pens began almost four years ago, when his friend brought him to Fountain Pen Hospital in Downtown Manhattan--one of the largest pen retailers in the country. Walking in the maze of glass showcases shimmering with gold spear-shaped tips, called nibs, Mann couldn’t resist and bought his first fountain pen for $132. He was hooked.

Mann is unemployed right now and lives with his parents, but that hasn’t stopped him from assembling a 25-pen collection during the past six months. The latest addition is a $970 Divine Proportion pen he ordered as a gift for himself for entering a doctoral program at Arizona State University. He's even borrowed money to buy a pen.

It’s an expensive hobby, Mann said, “but once you get into this, it’s hard to stop.”

Collecting fountain pens, previously considered a diversion for middle-age aristocrats, has been changing since the emergence of the Internet, attracting new demographics of pen fans. The modern collectors feel equally comfortable hooking up a USB cable to a laptop as they are pushing an ink piston into a vintage pen.

Terry Wiederlight, 57, a third-generation collector and co-owner of the Fountain Pen Hospital, said that he has been seeing more young faces among his customers, even though they do not have as much money to spend as the more seasoned pen hunters and celebrities with deep pockets.

“We want to see young blood,” Wiederlight said. “That’s what drives the industry.”

The Hospital has been in business since 1946. Inside the store, located off Broadway, the pungent smell of ink permeates the air, but it is forgotten as the eyes focus on the jewel-encrusted, gold and chrome pens that sit on long glass shelves.

One of the more expensive items in Wiederlight’s inventory is the $12,400 gold “Tyrannosaurus Rex” pen by Krone. This Italian company specializes in pens that encapsulate pieces of history: a bit of Marilyn Monroe’s lipstick; a chunk of Babe Ruth’s bat; a DNA strand from President Lincoln. The “golden nugget” in the T-Rex pen is a fragment of a dinosaur’s tooth.

Business has been booming lately: the store’s annual revenue increased by 10 percent since 2006, bringing the total to more than $6.5 million. But unlike the walk-in traffic that drove the business before, close to 60 percent of all sales now come from the Internet.

The demographics of the hospital’s customers have also been diversifying. In addition to the regular mix of doctors and lawyers, many of whom buy fancy fountain pens to impress their clients or just to “get that fix,” a growing number of tech-savvy teachers, engineers, writers and college students like Mann are joining the ranks of collectors.

“It’s not exclusively the province of wealthy old white men,” said Frederick Propas, 60, president of the Pen Collectors of America.

Nowadays, it takes one look around a pen conference to realize that the once-elite hobby has given up on status quo.

The tradition of pen shows in the United States goes back to the early 1980s, when pen enthusiasts started getting together to talk pens. Since then, the private gatherings grew into more than a dozen professionally organized annual conferences in New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, attracting thousands of people with ink in their blood.

“The hobby changed a lot,” Propas said. “If you get to a pen show, you’d see 40 percent of women. Yes, some of them are spouses, but some are collectors in their own right.”

Beth Irwin, a retired JAG attorney and fiction writer from Jacksonville, Fla., has been using fountain pens ever since her fifth grade teacher gave her students a note for their parents, asking them to buy each child a fountain pen.

Her collection contains about 30 pens, including a silver overlay Conklin, Mark Twain’s favorite brand. But unlike her male counterparts, who have been known to enshrine their Mont Blancs in glass casees, Irwin’s pens are the tools of her trade.

“You don’t see a lot of women putting them aside in a box,” she said. “It’s like buying a Ferrari and putting it in a garage on blocks. I would put some gas in it and take it for a ride.”

Most pen collectors and users are no strangers to technology, but even Generation Y fans get into the habit of writing down their thoughts on paper before approaching a keyboard.

“High school kids are interested in journaling, and that includes boys,” said Irwin, who is a moderator of an online pen forum. “It’s their meditation time, their prayer time.”

Although traditional writing instruments have been in a slump because of the ubiquitous computer, most fountain pen fans are not worried about the future of the hobby.

“I don’t see the pens ever going away,” Propas said. “I’m sitting here looking at my MacBook Pro, and I cannot live without it, but I also cannot live without pens.”

Neither can Mann. While checking a pen forum, Mann promised that once his latest purchase arrives, he will not buy any more pens for a while.

“I’m going to try not to,” he said. The next day, Mann was on his way to visit a pen store in Brooklyn.

E-mail: sf2345@columbia.edu