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Shop Talk: the pleasure of a fine nib

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When you enter E.B. Collinton, Ltd., in the Monadnock Building, be advised not to carry a Bic. The proprietors don't take kindly to Bics.

"What's that in your pocket?" co-owner Ed Hamilton is likely to ask, eyeing your cheap plastic scribbler. "Gee, I'm surprised our alarm didn't go off."

E.B. Collinton, you see, is the province of the fountain pen, an old-fashioned writing instrument currently enjoying a resurgence. But Ed Hamilton and his partner, Brian Collins, don't much care about the newfound cachet of fountain pens--they just plain love the things.

"We feel that people are cheating themselves unless they can enjoy the pleasure of a good nib," says Hamilton. "A good nib will mold itself to the pressure of your hand, personalizing your handwriting. The people at most pen stores, unfortunately, don't know a nib from a nipple. But we do."

Hamilton and Collins, who combined their names to create the English-sounding name of the store, have taken great care to give their establishment an 1890s feel. It features a nonworking fireplace with a white wood mantel, framed vintage magazine ads from the Parker pen company set against the blue-green walls, and gold-leaf lettering on the Dearborn Street windows.

Oak-trimmed glass cabinets contain the pens, which begin with inexpensive Sheaffers and move up to the Waterman, Mont Blanc, and Pelikan brands. A proper pen can be had for under $100, but the cognoscenti often go for the $300 models. One favorite is the Parker Duofold, modeled after a pen popular in the 1920s and '30s. The Duofold, with a patterned acrylic body, has a nib of 18-karat gold that's burnished by being tumbled in a barrel of walnut chips for 15 hours (or so the manufacturer claims). The priciest pen in stock is the Pelikan Toledo, which runs $579. Each Toledo comes sheathed in silver, with a hand-tooled gold overlay, and is signed by the artisan who created it. Should you want the solid-gold Mont Blanc, for $8,000, Collins and Hamilton can order it.

Another speciality is antique pens, which are offered on consignment from a collector. Most in demand are old Wahl-Eversharps, manufactured on the north side until the company that made them was sold to Parker in 1957.

Besides fountain pens, E.B. Collinton sells ballpoints and mechanical pencils from the fountain-pen companies, plus bottles of ink, ink cartridges, stationery, and business diaries. They also carry a velvet-lined wooden box, with a cover of beveled glass, in which to stow your best pens ($160). Or consider the old-fashioned curved wooden blotter imported from a Maine craftsman ($60).

It turns out that many customers patronize E.B. Collinton less for the merchandise than for the service. There is considerable devotion to the glib Hamilton, who has hawked fine pens in Chicago for nine years.

"I've followed Ed around," says Evelyn Lewis, a management consultant who has pens she uses for business and others for writing poetry. "You can tell Ed your nib doesn't feel right, and he'll give you another one. It's not like at Field's, where the salesperson will be in lingerie one week and pens the next."

Hamilton, a onetime elementary-school art teacher in Indianapolis, began selling pens at the Flax Company art-supply house on Wabash, building their pen department into preeminence just as McClennan's, a venerable Loop seller of fountain pens, was moving to the suburbs. Later Hamilton switched to a Chicago-area chain of pen stores owned by Collins's family, who are in the metal-finishing business. Then, a little more than a year ago, Hamilton, now 42, and Collins, 30, hatched a plan to open a pen store of their own. Though Collins's family was not pleased, the pair plunged ahead.

But there were problems, especially when they approached banks for backing. Collins and Hamilton had next to no collateral, which troubled the bank loan officers--who also exhibited little appreciation of fountain pens. "We're talking about assistant vice presidents earning $23,000 a year and using Bics," says Hamilton. By midsummer of last year, loan applications for E.B. Collinton had been rejected by 27 banks.

Finally, on August 2, 1988, Hamilton and Collins met with Margaret Bryski, the lending vice president at Metropolitan Bank on Cermak Road. Bryski had used fountain pens as a kid in Catholic grammar school. Now she was noticing that fountain pens were popping up at a lot of business meetings; for men, Bryski says, "pens are like jewelry."

Bryski thought a pen store sounded like a great idea, and she engineered a Small Business Administration loan for Hamilton and Collins. With additional help from two investors, E.B. Collinton opened in November.

Bryski proved prescient. The fountain pen, invented in Kankakee in 1833 by insurance salesman Louis Waterman, saw its heyday in the depression, but with the advent of the ballpoint after World War II, it fell into near-oblivion. Fountain-pen sales now are climbing, however, according to the Writing Instrument Manufacturers Association--up 50 percent between 1987 and 1988, after flat revenues the year before. The nation's leading pen stores, Fahrney's in Washington, D.C., and Arthur Brown & Brothers in Manhattan, are reportedly flourishing.

The upsurge arises in part from low-priced imports hitting the market, says WIMA executive vice president Frank King. "But expensive fountain pens are also selling," says King, "tracking sales for the Rolex and the Mercedes. A fancy fountain pen makes a statement about taste and prestige."

E.B. Collinton also provides its customers with a social life of sorts. The emporium's March 31 grand opening drew 350 people, who supped on hors d'oeuvres and champagne as Hamilton and Collins, in black tie, dispensed "Golden Nib" awards to those who had assisted them most--Margaret Bryski, for instance. This past week, Hamilton and Collins organized a "pen party" aboard an 87-foot schooner on Lake Michigan. Someday they hope to take a group to visit pen stores and pen factories in England, Germany, and France.

E.B. Collinton is located at 318 S. Dearborn; for information, call 431-1888. It's open from 9:30 to 5:30 Monday through Friday, but if you stop by after hours and find Collins or Hamilton on the premises, just rap on the window--it kills them to turn anyone away.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Loren Santow.

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