One morning last month a man sat down at his computer and ordered $4 000 worth of pencils designed to look like John Steinbeck’s favorite, the Blackwing 24.
“It’s probably the most iconic pencil ever made in America,” says Caroline Weaver, whose shop on New York’s Lower East Side, C.W. Pencil Enterprise, took the order of 1 920 pencils.
C.W. carries more than 200 types of pencils, including the Blackwing (also favored by Walt Disney), as well as a dozen erasers and sharpeners, and zero mechanicals.
“Mechanical pencils, they don’t smell like anything. The lead is so small you can get no line variation out of it,” says Weaver, 25. “Though it is a little bit of work to use a wood-cased pencil, most people appreciate that. There’s a physical connection you can draw between how often you have to sharpen your pencil and how much work you’ve done.”
The shop was bustling on a recent Thursday afternoon as Weaver made rapid-fire sales to a hodgepodge of tourists, designers, and high school students. Three Spaniards approached the cash register, unsure which of their coins amounted to the 87 cents they needed to buy a miniature pencil. Weaver solved the problem and carefully packaged their purchase in a custom envelope, tying her signature bow around it.
Her devotion is reflected in a tattoo on her forearm of a black Ticonderoga from the early 2000s that her mother, an interior designer trained in technical drawing, created. “I had her sharpen it three times,” Weaver says, “because a pencil sharpened and used three times is the perfect length.”
The hipster movement and Steampunk aesthetic have brought back a number of other traditional products. Restoration Hardware fashions 20th-century trunks into $2 495 bookshelves. Tin ceilings popular in the late 1800s are being reproduced in plastic. And vinyl, done in long ago by the cassette tape, has been resurrected. Pencils, unlike trunks, still serve a day-to-day function for students, designers, and contractors, as well as note takers predisposed to changing their minds.
Hipsters don’t pay the bills at C.W., though. While most of Weaver’s customers are millennials, she says, the big spenders are the roughly 15 percent who are over 50. The shop’s top five customers, who spend between $3 000 and $4 000 a year, are all over 40.
The average sale at C.W. is about $50 online, $25 in the store. Weaver typically charges twice her wholesale cost. She declines to disclose total costs or revenue but says the business turns a profit.
The pencil industry boasts a lively collector’s market, and Weaver says that, as far as she knows, C.W. is the only brick-and-mortar store catering to this demographic. Despite some nice buzz (here, here, and here, for example), she faces competition from Amazon.com, Pencils.com, and resellers on EBay, and tries to distinguish C.W. with the in-store experience. She’s familiar with every pencil she sells, as well as with those she can’t get her hands on; many are no longer in production. Bantering, that Thursday, with a collector from out of town, she sold him and his wife about $100 of merchandise and recommended a pencil podcast.
Weaver grew up in a small town in Ohio, went on to study art at London’s Goldsmiths, and traveled the world picking up new pencils along the way (such as a mint green set of three she acquired in Japan, her favorite at the moment). She risked personal funds of $80 000 to build up inventory, create the online store, and pay advance rent. Weaver launched the website in November 2014, found a retail space of roughly 200 square feet renting for $1 900 a month, and opened the doors in March of last year.
“I didn’t want it to be in a shopping neighborhood,” she says of the store, on Forsyth Street, above a restaurant, Birds & Bubbles, that specialises in champagne and fried chicken. “I didn’t want anything too polished. I like the idea that this shop kind of has to be discovered, that people seeking it out would be brought to a neighborhood that they might not usually come to.”
Since C.W. opened, the block has filled up with other quirky businesses. A 14-year-old neighbor stops by regularly to purchase pencils for her exams at the exacting Bronx High School of Science. She gets a neighborhood discount, reflecting her frequency as a client and Weaver’s management style.
Demand is sometimes more than Weaver and her staff of four (all millennials) can manage, she says.
“I have had a couple people offer to invest in the business, and I’ve declined. I’m not good at finance things. It really terrifies me, so even if it’s unwise, as long as I can keep it as simple as possible, I feel safer,” she says.
She and Caitlin Elgin, deputy pencil lady1, closed the shop for a week in February to travel to Germany, where they found a manufacturer for their cases and, as a bonus, a pencil with plain graphite on one end and neon yellow for highlighting on the other.
Those unable to travel to the store get a taste of Weaver’s personality from her online shop, her Instagram page, which has more than 94,000 followers, and her pencil-of-the-month club. Weaver, who had long dreamed of being such a club member herself, launched the program without any marketing beyond an offer on her website. It promises one pencil a month for a year for $80. Within about five months, she had 700 subscribers.
“We always try to pick pencils people don’t really know about, which is quite a task. It’s one of my favourite things, but all that packing and all that prep work takes us the entire month to do,” says Weaver, who says she had to stop accepting subscribers. She could probably afford to hire an employee dedicated to expanding the club but has a hard time justifying it and, in general, doesn’t see herself building an empire.
“I never want it to be where I can’t be here, or have too many locations to worry about,” she says. “I didn’t start this because I want to be a business lady. I started it because I really wanted to sell people pencils.”
By Polly Mosendz for www.bloomberg.com