Writing Is on the Wall for India’s Fountain Pen Sellers

By SHANOOR SEERVAI

Mohammed Ashraf’s tiny stall in Mumbai is stocked with familiar street-market wares — fluorescent gel-ink pens, analog clocks and sleek carry-on luggage.

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Fountain pen-repairer Anand Ganesh Naidu shows off a second-hand Sheaffer pen near a display case of antique pens in Mumbai.Shanoor Seervai for The Wall Street Journal

But look closely and you’ll see something else: A dusty row of antique, ornate fountain pens. Mr. Ashraf’s stock is a rare remnant of the city’s once-flourishing trade in fancy writing implements.

Before 1991, fountain pens were in great demand in India because they were used to sign important documents and teach schoolchildren how to write neatly. Expensive foreign brands like the French Cartier and American Parker would be smuggled into the country because India’s socialist-style economy didn’t allow the import of foreign brands. And the cobbled lanes around Mumbai’s landmark Flora Fountain were lined with fountain-pen dealers. After 1991, when foreign brands could legally be imported and sold at malls and boutiques, the demand for smuggled second-hand pens started to drop.

Today, Mr. Ashraf, 66 years old, is one of the few remaining dealers. “Antiques are not easily available, but we have our ways of getting them,” he said.

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Mohammed Ashraf held a 55-year-old restored Montblanc pen at his stand in Mumbai.Shanoor Seervai for The Wall Street Journal

Mr. Ashraf buys pens from old customers who are whittling down their collections, or if an elderly collector dies, younger members of the family are often quick to sell the entire collection all at once, he said.

Zishan Mitha runs a pen stall down the street from Mr. Ashraf and also relies on families of deceased pen collectors for his dwindling supply of antique fountain pens. The families sell because they “don’t have knowledge about pens,” said Mr. Mitha, whose grandfather founded their stall in 1945.

One reason antique-pen sales are declining is that a plastic fountain pen with a metal nib costs as little as 500 rupees ($8), he said. A decades-old second-hand pen — he pointed to one handmade from ebonite — costs around 1,400 rupees ($23) at Mr. Mitha’s stall.

Abbas Ambawala, who inherited his family’s shop, has gradually shrunk his antique supply from 200 to 20 pens. The decades-old restored fountain pens are collecting dust on his shelves, but new ones sell faster, he says.

“Twenty years ago, people were using fountain pens on a daily basis,” said 44-year-old Mr. Ambawala. Today, “people don’t want to waste their money on an old pen,” he said.

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Abbas Ambawala, who has whittled down his collection of second-hand fountain pens to meet the demand for new ones, at his pen store in Mumbai.Shanoor Seervai for The Wall Street Journal

Although his loyal customers keep coming back, many new buyers prefer to go to “fancy” stores, Mr. Ambawala said. “Fountain pens have become a status symbol — people want to carry or gift a Montblanc just to show how rich they are,” he said, referring to the popular German pen and jewelry maker.

Montblanc’s showroom, with its dazzling lights and pristine glass cases at the five-star Taj Mahal Palace hotel in Mumbai is poles apart from the dusty, roadside stalls tucked between others selling fake DVDs, cheap soccer jerseys and hair clips.

Montblanc pens bought at the store come with a two-year warranty and can be fixed at one of the company’s repair centers. If you’re looking to fix a lesser-known brand, or have lost a warranty, the alleys around Flora Fountain are the place to go.

Not all pens can be repaired, however, because the spare parts have become almost impossible to find, said pen repairer Anand Ganesh Naidu.

Mr. Naidu spends most of his day unclogging old fountain pens in a dank, cramped room behind one of the neighborhood storefronts. Business is plodding along, he says, but it’s not what it used to be.

“Antique pens are very expensive, they’ve always been, but now, people don’t understand the value of an old pen,” said Mr. Naidu, who has been in the repair business for almost 40 years.

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Antique fountain pens on display at Mitha Pen Mart, Flora Fountain, Mumbai.Shanoor Seervai for The Wall Street Journal

Mr. Naidu started his career as an apprentice when he dropped out of school before he completed grade 10. He plans to retire in 10 years and has three children, aged 23, 20 and 18, who haven’t learned the art of repairing pens. “I think I should teach them how to do this so they can sell pens on the computer,” he said.

“I have no interest in computers — my interest lies in repairing old things,” added Mr. Naidu.

Some erstwhile second-hand pen sellers, however, are turning to technology to rejuvenate their dying businesses.

Mansoor Umer Darwish, who started selling antique pens in 1978, says he replaced pens with cellphone accessories at his stall 10 years ago and never looked back. He says his new business is as lucrative as selling fountain pens was in the eighties.

“With computers and mobile phones, my pen sales started falling,” said 55-year-old Mr. Darwish. “Who’s interested in antique pens? Look around — out of 10 people, 8 will be staring at their mobile screens,” he said.

 Article Courtesy: The Wall Street Journal
http://blogs.wsj.com/indiarealtime/2014/10/05/writing-is-on-the-wall-for-indias-fountain-pen-stallholders/

 

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