PenInHand - Musings on the Hobby

Pen Hunting in the Wilds of Maine

by Jim Mamoulides, August 30, 2002

Just Follow the Signs!

Maine in the summer is one of the best places to be, period. The weather is cool, more like fall weather where I live, and the countryside is rural, mostly unspoiled, and beautiful. Maine is a large state with a small population that is mostly clustered in the southwestern corner. The coastline is rocky and rugged, the inlands are wooded, and the mountains are small, but numerous. It's mostly two lane country blacktops dotted with small towns and villages. Acadia National Park and Bar Harbor are only one of the many great places to visit. If you can't think of a place to spend a holiday, short or long, you should consider Maine.

But for pen hunting?

I go to Maine every summer to get away from faster paced life, to unwind, and to visit family. This summer I had made my plans and locked them in before I checked the calendar for the Washington, DC pen show and discovered that my trip overlapped the weekend of the show. I guess I'll be haunting one of the other shows this fall. Did this turn out to be a loss? Read on...

So arriving in Maine, my wife and I decided to see what we could find in the wild.

A Typical Small Town Maine Street

Maine has lots of antique stores and flea markets. Just about every small town has at least one. They seem to fall into three general categories:

The Roadside Flea Market or Yard Sale

The roadside flea market or yard sale is pretty much the same everywhere I've been in the USA. A hand made sign at the roadside raises hope for some interesting and cheap finds. For the most part, you will see some tables and boxes set up in front of a house or in a garage fill with jetsam of all types and flavors. I went to several of these over two weeks and found nothing. Zip. No pens of any kind whatsoever. It occurs to me that unless its a really old house with older people in it, the chances of seeing anything remotely interesting are slim and none. Eventually we stopped even slowing down when we saw the signs.

The Sign to Look For

The Single Proprietor Antique Store

We went to many of these stores all over northwestern Maine. It would seem that this would be a prime place to look, and the answer is both yes and no, as we'll soon see. These stores can be found in almost every town and village, places like Bethel, Hanover, Rumford, Rangeley, Farmington, South Paris, and Hallowell. The "stores" ranged from huge barns to storefronts to alcoves carved out of houses or garages. In most cases these stores are easily found on the major roads, but a few were definitely off the trail and harder to find. In most cases, these stores had nothing, some had a few pens and only two had any selection to speak of. Asking if they have pens at the front door will save you a lot of time.

Not a Bad Catch for the Day

The Multi-Vendor Antique Mall

These are medium to large "stores" with numbers of absentee dealers run by stewards who will unlock displays for you and transact the deal, taking a cut of the sale. Almost no dickering to be found here. The floor and cabinetry is divided into sections for each of the dealers and it makes for an interesting walk, with the focus of items changing often dramatically every six to eight feet. All three of the malls I went to had several pens to chose usually from low to very low prices. It was the exception to find something way overpriced. Of the 18 pens I brought home, 15 of them came from these three malls. With the malls, you are going to have to hunt. The stewards generally have little or no detailed knowledge of the vast contents, unless there is a concentration of pens with a certain dealer.

How to Bag the Quarry

Many stores had free guidebooks available such as "Antiques in Western Maine", "Maine Antique Dealer Directory", and "The Maine Journal of Antiques & Collectibles". These are definitely worth picking up, not so much for the data, as pens simply do not show up in the listings much at all, but for the lists and the maps. Invaluable tools for planned excursions because the stores aren't generally clustered and you could make several day trips to take in all of the possibilities as it could be 30 miles between towns.

When you get to the store, ask. Always ask if there are any pens. No sense in wasting a lot of time if that's what you are looking for, unless you have other things on your shopping list.

So what do you actually find when you get there? There seems to be three levels of selection and three price points. As to selection, that's pretty easy: nothing at all, very few and of random value, and plentiful, though the last category is really rare. We probably went to 25 stores in all and only a few really merited much attention. Only three stores had anything more than two or three pens, and those that did topped out at around 40. Price points tended to cluster at cheap regardless of type, to full book value regardless of condition, to ridiculously high multiples of value. Frankly, the best values are at the stores where the dealer either knows little about pens and prices them to move, or prices them somewhat high and is willing to dicker.

If I could give any advice at all at this point, it would be:

1. Know what you want and do some work in advance on values. In my experience, the dealer either doesn't know or may want an unrealistic price for the condition of the pen. If you can make two trips to check values if you're not sure, take advantage of the time. I found that things really weren't moving that fast, so eBay reflexes aren't necessarily in order. There's no need to impulse buy a broken black Sheaffer Statesman for US $75 because it's the only pen you saw and it might get away.

2. Look at the pen thoroughly before you buy. Unless you are specifically interested in parts, many of the pens I looked at were in really bad shape. Dirty, even filthy, is ok - broken is not.

Interestingly, most places, regardless of pricing, seemed to be in some agreement that the pen frenzy was over or the market was getting soft. "I used to carry them, but no one buys them anymore." And "You used to be able to get them for five or ten dollars a piece four or five years ago and then they went way up and then it dried up." I heard those kind of stories more than once. So unless the store has a focus on pens, they appear to be collected up as part of mixed lots from the many auctions in the area. The few places that had a lot of pens were looking out for them.

I Am Sumgai - You Can Be, Too

Probably the best story of finds I had in the trip is at one of the antique malls. There in a long row of tall glass cases my wife spotted a glass cup loaded with pens. She asked me if I could tell what was in the case through the glass, and it was difficult, but it looked like some Parkers and a long Diamond Point. We asked the steward to open the case to take a closer look.

A "Reenactment" of the Best Find of the Trip

There's just no getting around how I felt when I started plucking pens out of the cup. My stomach did a flip as I picked up the long, black Mabie Todd #46, opened it and took a look at the huge #6 nib and then at the price tag dangling on a string from the clip: US $14. That pen alone made the trip! Next were three Parker Duofold Junior Pencils: a Mandarin, a Lapis, and a black, all mint, and all similarly priced to the Mabie Todd. Also in the cup was a Parker 51 Vacumatic, a vintage Pelikan 400, a Waterman Skywriter, and a Waterman Crusader. It felt like prices had been rolled back to 1940! We found more pens in other dealer cases in that store and bought 11 there in all.

Evaluating The Catch Of The Day

With the other pens we found in the other stores in Maine, including a Sheaffer Saratoga Snorkel, a brown striped Sheaffer Balance pencil, a Sheaffer Touchdown Admiral, an Eagle Pencil Company glass cartridge pen, and a Parker Challenger, I spent an average of about US $12 per pen on my trip.

Yes, There Are Still Pens In The Wild!

I did better on this trip in terms of price, quantity and quality than I did at the Washington, DC Pen Show last year, so naturally I am very pleased, and so is my wallet!

So, yes, Virginia, there are still pens in the wild, at least in the wilds of Maine!

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