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Enthusiasts keep fountain pens flowing

We are a rump but enduring community, we who still value the lovely form and pleasing function of a fountain pen.

Decades after the advent of ballpoint and rollerball pens, and now as we go deeper into the digital age, you might expect the throwback world of fountain pens to go flat-line dead.

But no. It still shows surprising bliplets of life.

I can offer no better example than the career of New England’s Richard Binder, pen merchant, nibsmith and occasional blogger, his topics ranging from the use of a handmade punch in pen repair to an ink-mixing experiment that yielded “Binder Burgundy.”

Yes, one can earn a living as a pen polymath. Binder’s database of customers exceeds 11,000 names. Hardly a Luddite – in fact, once a computer engineer – Binder started as a collector who discovered in himself what afflicts other pen enthusiasts.

Let us call it frankly what it is: obsession. Early on for Binder came infatuation with the art deco design of a Waterman Phileas, then with a limited-edition Bexley and its black barrel of hard rubber.

“I was definitely in danger of coming down with the collecting bug,” Binder has written, “the way a desiccated martini is in danger of becoming too wet when carried through a room in which there is a bottle of vermouth.”

That was in 1999. Today his pen collection runs to 400 or so.

What was more, this inveterate engineer found he could tweak apart once-forsaken pens and restore their components to working order. Word got out. Repair orders came in, the forlorn sending to Binder their injured: jammed piston fillers, gummed-up ink feeds, “sprung” nibs with tines like snaggleteeth. The Binder residence, in Nashua, N.H., where a nib-grinding wheel had found its way into a sitting room, became the “Nashua Pen Spa.”

By 2002, Binder had experienced the third corporate merger of his years in the computer industry. He took a severance package and persuaded the woman he needed as his business manager that they could make it if he dived into pens full-time. That would be his wife, Barbara.

There followed arrangements with pen-makers to make Binder one of their online dealers, and today he is easing off repairs to concentrate still more on retail sales, the revenue leader for his business. At the high end of his offerings is an item from Onoto, of England, with a barrel of silver and blue enamel and a nib of gold. It will set you back $1,916. On the low end, you can have yourself a perfectly nice writer in an entry-level Pelikan from Germany (steel nib and plastic barrel) for $108. Recently, Binder also launched a pen line of his own design.

“When I write with a fountain pen,” Binder says, “it’s as if I have a little breathing space, a little time to marshal my thoughts, a momentary escape from feeling always under the gun.”

I practice a little Zen with a pen myself. Since the handwriting drills of my school days, I have taken quiet joy from the scratch of nib on a ruled page and the release of ink to form the liquid lines that are inexplicably my own – no marks on paper quite like those could issue from another’s hand. Over the years, this invitation to composure has grown stronger, execrable though my handwriting remains.

There are worse temptations that a man may cede to. I have soul mates far and wide. Binder counts customers in the 50 states plus China, Chile, Hong Kong, Hungary, India and Indonesia – 64 foreign countries in all.

Many must know him as I do, distantly but thankfully.

Alas, the one time I sent him a pen for repair, he returned it with a note that conveyed technical detail yet carried the sympathetic tone (“I’m very sorry … ”) of a report that no hope exists for an old friend at death’s door.

A bond forms between a man and a pen that accompanies him through life. Binder understands this.

His words again: “As I grow older” – he is 65 – “I find it increasingly important to me to make others happy, and working on pens makes it possible to do that, person to person, on a daily basis.”

Yes, Mr. Binder, it does. And thank you very much, indeed.