This year turns out the be THE year that culminates my obsession with stationery and the flourishing relationship with friends I’ve made along the way in the Stationery Cafe community. Earlier this year, I went back to Taiwan and indulged in days of stationery shopping which I thought could chalk up to be the highlight of my year. However, this August, I embarked on a few domestic trips that made me cherish the journaling and stationery community even more. I went to the DC Fountain pen Supershow and SF Pen Show 2022…and I had a blast!
My first pen show was at the Commonwealth Pen Show in Boston. I remember visiting the event with a few Urban Sketching friends in the city and being completely overwhelmed and intimidated by all the fine writing instruments. Am I allowed to touch these? How much do these cost? Mind you, I was only using the Pilot Kakuno and Sailor artist fude fountain pens for beginners. I chalked that pen show as a one-off, interesting to have experience. Fast forward five years later, I spontaneously proposed to my company that we should try to exhibit at the San Francisco Pen Show in 2021. At that point, I still had no idea what a pen show would be like. We ambitiously exhibited with PLOTTER USA and TRAVELER’S COMPANY USA, and were completely overwhelmed by the excitement and energy that the show offers. By then, I was already neck deep in the pen and paper world, so I was no longer daunted by brand names and paper products. Yet, I still felt like I skimmed the surface of the ice burg on what an experience a pen show would be.
This is also why this post will probably be part 1 of many, starting with the DC Pen Show experience! Just as a disclaimer, this isn’t your typical “what to expect at DC Pen show” post. Since I’m such a beginner in the fountain pen world, this is just a diary-type account of my experience from a stationery, journaling addict!
DC Fountain Pen Super Show 2022
DC Pen Show would’ve been my third pen show to date! This year, I was nervous and excited about going to DC because it would’ve been my first domestic flight since Delta and Omicron. I recruited my friends Kelly and Toasty to come to help us out at this new location. Stepping out of the airport, I was immediately blasted with a wall of muggy, humid weather. I knew I’m in for a ride at the DC Pen Show.
I’ve only heard about the DC Pen Show as being one of the biggest in the country. Unfortunately, the hotel venue was under construction so a lot of the common spaces were blocked up. Having suffered through neck-cranking red-eye from the West Coast, my instinct calls for some familiar Dunkin’ Donuts to knock me awake. My friends were all already in DC and having a good time hanging out in the hotel. After freshening up in the hotel room (a Filet-o-Fish takeout courtesy of Kelly), I ventured down to see what the ballroom was about.
It’s a huge venue. Rows and rows of tables were situated inside the main ballroom. The show goes from Thursday to Sunday, but on the first day, no one had assigned tables. A few vintage pen traders set out their goods on whatever table they’d like and did brisk business. I booked two nib grinding appointments with CY, my dear friend from Tokyo Inkling whom I’ve never met in person! I also got to stop by Kirk from @penrealm who helped me put an architect grind on my TWSBI Diamond AL mini. I’m glad that this time, I no longer am paralyzed by social anxiety and could even recognize some familiar faces to feel at ease.
I brought a bunch of PLOTTER samples to set up a “touch and test” table by CY’s grinding service. He seemed to be working non-stop since setting foot on US soil! Thankfully, the first day allowed me to take a breather and rest before the busy weekend. Kelly, Toasty, and I met up with Renz from @pen.traveller who hailed from Canada! Despite the humid weather, we warmed up our bellies with delicious ramen from Jinya. While we were slurping down noodles, it poured cats and dogs, typhoon style outside, which was super random. We left the restaurant unscathed, but can’t say the same for those who were enjoying the outdoor cinema in the Mosaic District.
Navigating a pen show during the pandemic
The show went into full swing starting on Friday throughout Sunday. Dressing up the tables for the show is the most tedious part of the exhibit (packing up being the second most tedious), and I was sweaty and slimy from the efforts despite having come out of my hotel room feeling fresh. Fresh off my recovery from plantar fascitis, I decided to forgo my shoes and just step into recovery slides for the rest of the day. Keeping a mask on is super hard, especially since the muggy weather kept triggering my allergies. My nose was having the worst time throughout the three-day event. Yet, the crowd and the scale of the event prompted me to keep my mask on. Having been safe from all the new variants that developed throughout the year, this show and its high attendance would’ve been the place to catch COVID again.
I love exhibiting yet hate the strain it takes on my throat. Trying to talk and explain products over an excited crowd with my non-native accent is already hard, imagine trying to do that through a mask! The show kept me on my toe throughout the day–eating and resting was the last thing on my mind. Thinking back, I should have taken it easy so I wouldn’t have such a physical hangover after the first show.
Day 2 – Fabulous crowd, contagious energy
DC Pen show is not bad! The entire venue houses over 200 tables and 150+ vendors. Every way you look, there is something fun and new to seek out. If only I had enough time away from my own table! The crowd loves TRAVELER’S notebook, but not many people know about PLOTTER. It doesn’t help that our tables are situated in one of the narrow hallways outside of the main ballroom. We definitely created some bottlenecks with waves of people coming and going.
I did zero shopping on the first day. However, I did take advantage of bathroom breaks to take a peek at other tables. My friend Rachel overlooks the Sailor North America booth. I got to chat with Galen Leather, who came all the way from Istanbul! CY is slammed at his table, with people eager to meet him because of the podcast and his unique inventory of Japanese pens and inks. Oh, I did pluck a bottle of Shizuoka Green Tea ink off his table, with the promise to pay him back later. He waved me away, busy at his craft. I didn’t pay him until 2 weeks later, lol!
The crowd thins towards the afternoon and I was able to properly meet a lot of friends and acquaintances that I’ve only known through Instagram or community forums. Kelly and Toasty were way more knowledgeable veterans in the fountain pen world, and they worked the rooms while catching up with many friends. I feel content hanging out behind my table. It wasn’t until later in the weekend that I mustered up the courage to ask people to sign pages in my PLOTTER!
Funnily enough, the thing I was most looking forward to on Friday was our team dinner. I always plan my trips around food, and this one is no exception. I had researched ahead of time and checked out Kogiya as my top option for a great night out with Korean BBQ. We were lucky to score a reservation and indulge in bulgogi, pork belly, and marinated intestines to my heart’s content. Although we were close to bursting, Kelly and I had the great idea to get a backup bubble tea from Bambu next door. Thai milk tea with coffee jelly will be our life-saver come Saturday.
It would seem like we should be wiped out by the end of the first show day, but we ended up poking our heads into Nib Wars. It’s an event where our friend CY and kirk are competing in, a friendly competition between nib grinders to show off their skills on various themed challenges. The contestants and hosts were decked out in Star Wars-themed outfits and accessories. Apparently, the audience was also reluctant to go back to rest in their rooms– the event lasted throughout the night starting at 9 pm.
I clocked out early and enjoyed the rest of the competition from the comforts of my warm bath soak.
Day 3 – Is it just me, or is the ballroom getting warmer?
No one warned us about Saturday. Even the word “overwhelmed” would be an understatement. Once the public entrance started, the hallways felt narrower and the air thinner. TRAVELER’S COMPANY and PLOTTER booths were flooded with customers. At one point, I could barely see the opposing wall as more people came by looking to buy a notebook. With more people in the room, the temperature also rose. We were all sweating and hot, but having the best time. In the blink of an eye, three hours had passed and we can’t help but asked “what happened?”
It wasn’t until Saturday that we started meeting a lot of friends from The Stationery Cafe discord community! I brought just enough of my penguin stickers to pass out and exchange with old friends and new ones. Many TRAVELER’S notebook enthusiasts stopped by the table, and I couldn’t help but jump out from behind my booth to take a peek through their pages.
I did manage to sneak in a few more purchases, one being a beautiful Schuylkill fountain pen that I picked out from Narwhal’s (or Nahvalur) table first thing in the morning. I remember them from my first time exhibiting at SF Pen show, they were our table neighbors! I scrounged together a few dollars of cash (because Galen Leather doesn’t take credit cards) to purchase a cute tiny pen case. There were talks of crabs going around the show, I need to get myself one!
The after-show hangouts are one of the most anticipated things at shows. However, being a modest drinker and socially shy, I’m typically too intimidated to strike up conversations at the bar. This is why I’m relieved that we already had a small intimate dinner planned with CY, Drew, and a few new friends. This turned out to be a fun, rowdy meal at Silver Diner, a local 24 hours breakfast place. Instead of spirits, we ordered a round of milkshakes with hearty breakfast fare.
Heated conversations about Star Wars and inappropriate stories were shared. We barely talked about pens. I guess this is the moment when enthusiasts blends into the community. The fact that we can go from strangers to friends sharing personal stories about each other is another testament to having a shared hobby that brings people closer together.
Day 4 – The chaos is over, and my shopping time begins!
From past experience, Sundays are typically more chill days at pen shows. This one is no exception. We strolled into our booth, relaxed and content after a good night’s sleep. I had more time to browse the show floor and look at what was available.
More friends stopped by the table to say hello. More friends had to leave early in the morning. Our tables wrapped up around noon and I finally had the chance to browse the event. Esterbrook boasted an awesome display of their Northern Lights pens with colored nibs. I couldn’t stop thinking about Myke from Pen Addict’s comment about it looking like red cabbage though. CY never seemed to have left his station (maybe he should change his name to Tokyo Stationary Pens, hah). My friend Marly finally came to the show and we walked through the throng to browse every booth thoroughly. Bad idea, because I stumbled across Helens Creation NJ and bought a bottle of Vinta Inks and a Sailor pen! In the maker’s area on the lower level, I discovered Epitome Pens and purchased one of their beautiful crushed acrylic fountain pens. That was a tick off my Pen Show Experience checklist — to buy something from small makers!
With two more hours to kill before I had to head to the airport, I enjoyed a solitary meal at Jinya Ramen again. After an adrenaline-filled four days of the event, I didn’t realize how much I needed this downtime. I slurped down yuzu-pork broth and sipped ice-cold cola. My poor nose still wouldn’t stop sniffling, and I had an awkward and miserable passage through airport security because of all the fumbling and dripping. With an hour to spare before my flight boards, I found a secluded bench to relax and breathe outside my mask. What a trip!
DC Pen Show had been quite the experience. Oddly, I’m excited to return next year, knowing what I learned this year and how to be more prepared for the next. For many friends I’ve met at the show, I am not sad to say goodbye because I’ll actually be seeing them again in a few weeks at SF Pen Show. That is an entirely different experience altogether, and I can’t wait to recount that in my next post!
You can also listen to Kelly and my recounting of DC Pen Show in this episode of The Stationery Cafe Podcast!
Thanks for reading!