Most of us in the specialty bicycle industry want to see more people on bikes more often. It’s good for sales, good for health, good for the environment, good for recreation, good for transportation.
However, our industry's growth could be disrupted by increasing competition from Internet discounters, the prevalence of gray market and counterfeit goods, and the subsequent fallout that threatens the existence of many brick-and-mortar bike shops.
A world without bike shops would not be good for cycling. Physical stores are important in many other industries as well, and as evidence I cite the fountain pen. I have developed an interest in fountain pens and my recent experience with pens has some parallels to the world of bicycles.
Why fountain pens? For me some of it is nostalgia. I wrote with a fountain pen in college. I also spent time as a journalist, using a fountain pen to take notes in all sorts of news situations. I was proudly an “ink-stained wretch” in those days, which was literally true when a pen would leak and the heel of my hand would carry a blue-black temporary tattoo for days.
Some of the appeal is practical. I discovered recently that due to many years of reliance on a keyboard, my ability to write with a pen had deteriorated badly. I could barely read my own shopping list. I had become in effect a “byte-stained wretch." I needed help and the solution was one I regularly apply to cycling: when in doubt, buy a new piece of equipment. I was motivated to re-discover the fountain pen.
What I discovered to my surprise was that pens have some complexity. There are enthusiasts and collectors. Fountain pens start at about $3 for a disposable (the Pilot Varsity rocks), and go up to $900 or more for pens that are basically jewelry with ink. I discovered options I had never dreamed of. And as a consumer, the lack of physical stores offering pens, advice and support, made it harder.
Sure there are mass merchants offering fountain pens, places such as Office Depot and Office Max. There the pens sit in stacks, all boxed up in gift boxes, covered in plastic, packaged goods with bar codes. No one in these stores knows anything about them. Office Depot doesn't even have ink. Pens are a commodity there.
A search for specialty stationery stores in my area revealed nothing. In fact, I later discovered that the dealer locator on the Noodler’s (ink) website listed only 74 physical stores in the United States, and only nine inCalifornia. Commoditization has apparently taken hold in a big way in the world of pens and stationary stores.
On the Internet I discovered a world of pen enthusiasts, pen collectors, and pen artists with their own politics, their own jargon, and lots of opinions. This is similar to what we have in cycling. I learned that while you can buy 20 ballpoints for $2 (and $59 bicycles at Wal Mart), there are pen enthusiasts who will pay big money and argue with great passion about ink colors, pen types, brightness of paper and pen filling mechanisms. There are debates about artistry, design and history. On-line vendor Goulet carries 600 different inks. The Fountain Pen Network is a forum for enthusiasts. There is an annual pen show (The D.C. Pen Show,Washington D.C.) and even a pen magazine (Pen World). The Internet even featured an epic rant from Nathan Tardif of Noodler’s Ink defending his company’s Baystate Blue, stating, “the individual consumer should be free to choose whatever ink brings them pleasure or serves their purpose as an individual without any coercion by a greater group of so-called holier-than-thou experts who believe they’re nearer to God than the rest of us mere mortals … this ink will continue to be made until I’m a dead man regardless of what anyone says about it online.”
So, what has it been like to enter the world of fountain pens? Have I been well-served as a potential customer? Does the lack of physical stores suggest something to the bicycle industry? Some of the parallels are not exact, but to me the answer is yes.
- Fit. A bicycle, like a pen, is a tool that interacts with the human body. I would have loved the opportunity to try various pens in order to make a selection. This was not available to me locally. How else to choose the correct weight? How does the pen fit in the hand? How long or short is it? These things matter in a pen. They are critical in selecting a bicycle.
- Test writes. What is the actual writing (or riding) experience? Without a store in my area, I could not experience the pen directly. How does the ink flow? What does the ink actually look like on paper? How wide should the line be? I had no idea what using the pen would be like.
- Consumables/accessories. Cyclists go through tires, tubes and chain lube, and have access to numerous accessories to make riding better. Pen people go through ink cartridges, and there are options for all sorts of additional things, eye droppers, blotting paper, cartridge ink fillers, pen holders, specialty paper and more. But without a store nearby, I was guessing about how to refill the pen (cartridge, balloon or piston), how it would all work, and what I might need.
- Expert advice. I knew virtually nothing about fountain pens going in, and now know 1% more. It’s not easy to find sound information amidst all the shouting on the Internet. Knowing the difference between wisdom and bluster applies to both pens and bikes.
- Human contact. I missed the opportunity for a retail experience with an actual person, in real time. At present I know no other human being personally who likes fountain pens, or at least anyone who will admit it.
As I sit here typing, there is a Lamy Safari (made in Germany) in charcoal gray with a medium nib on the way to me ($23), a bottle of blue/black Noodler’s Ink ($12.50), and a cartridge refill reservoir ($5.58). I hope I made good choices. I should be writing with this new equipment within four days.
If I was new to cycling and bought from my local bike shop, I’d be riding it already. Long may it be so.