Make a List.
So helpful, and so easy: keep a reference or reminder list. When a thought occurs to you about the pen show, write it down. Mostly you’ll write down things to bring, and things you want to do at the pen show.
Don’t worry about format. Use something you like to carry around. Use a notes app on your phone, or go analog with a notebook. You can set aside a few pages in a Field Notes memo book, a Hobonichi Techo, or a Moleskine or Rhodia notebook. I keep adding to my list all year.
The things that usually end up on my pen show list are pens that need work and things I want to buy or sell. Also any interesting pen show seminars, meetups and events.
Get Organized Early.
Once you have your list, you should use it to get organized.
Don’t wait till the very last minute. (Aka, don’t be like me). If you wait till right before leaving, you’ll either run out of time or you won’t be able to find something you meant to bring.
A few days or a week before the pen show is a good time to organize things. Look at your list. What are the most important things? Mark those. Then check whether you need to replenish the supplies you never think about. How is your paper stash holding up? Are you almost out of your favorite ink? Running out of blank journals? If so, add those to the list.
Then get together everything you’re bringing to the show. That will be the pens you want repaired, the ones you want worked on by a nibmeister, the pens you need parts or repair supplies for, and anything you may want to sell or trade to a dealer. Those should be emptied of ink.
You’ll likely bring inked pens, too. If you’re taking a seminar, you’ll want to use them there. If you’re like most pen fans, you probably just have pens you want to show people.
If your pen show has an Ink Testing Station, bring a small notebook or pad with the paper you use most.
Put all that stuff in a pen case, bag or backpack or whatever.
Visit your ATM. Pen shows are not longer cash-only. But cash is required at times. And often preferred, especially for less expensive items. Like my three favorite pen show purchases: ink, coffee and lunch.
Pre-Order and Prepare with Some Research.
Did you know you can pre-order for pickup at the pen show? You save shipping costs, you have more show time to browse, and you make sure to get what you want. I try to preorder paper, and anything I think might sell out quickly, like a new Safari. Some online sellers explicitly offer “pen show delivery” at checkout, but most will do so if you call or email.
Also try doing some research ahead of time. If you are interested in a particular vintage pen, read about it beforehand. Know the available colors and models, the sizes, what they should look like, the proper nib, and the range of prices depending on condition. You can even write this down: another use for the list!
A large American pen show is really … large. If it’s your first pen show, you’re going to get to the show and enter a large atrium, hallway or hotel ballroom, filled with tables, each crammed with hundreds of pens. It can look overwhelming.
Then you find out that there are two additional rooms.
Here’s what to prioritize: things that are scarce, and people with a waiting list. If there’s something you want to buy that’s limited in number — like special pen show pens, prototypes or special inks — go there right away. If you want pen repair or nib work, find your person early, and sign up on his or her list.
Then enjoy the rest of the pen show at your leisure. Let yourself discover new and surprising things. You are bound to end up with something you didn’t expect, and with new discoveries added to your wishlist. At the same time, things you once wanted will slip down the list, once you’ve seen them in person (or seen the price).
Unless you are very experienced, it’s unlikely you’ll uncover a seriously mispriced rarity. Pen show dealers generally know what they’re selling. But you may. It is, however, likely that you’ll find a pen or ink you love and feel like you have to have. If either happens, you should probably just buy it.
Let’s say you come across a bottle of long-gone Montblanc Hitchcock ink unnoticed on someone’s table and marked $20. Just buy it. Don’t think, “Hmm, do I really like burgundy? I wanted a green, and I do have Irish Green ink on my list, and I should stick with my list. I don’t want to overspend. I should think it over. Or maybe I should ask the seller if this is what I think it is.”
I’m dying for you (hypothetically) here.
Because here’s what happens. The guy behind you has seen you pick this up. That flagged it for him, keen-eyed hunter that he is. So the second you put it down, he buys it. He then puts it up for sale at his table for $100. And everyone will talk about his lucky find for the next three years.
If you see something great, buy it. Sometimes opportunity knocks only once. You can always sell or trade the item later.
Don’t Just Shop.
At least half the fun at a pen show has nothing to do with shopping.
In some ways, a pen show is like a pen museum. It’s an opportunity to see top quality examples of fountain pens of every brand and era. I learn so much each show.
That said, it’s not actually a pen museum. It’s a venue for sales. So be mindful of a dealer’s time and energy. A dealer is at the show to sell pens. That doesn’t mean you have to be ready to buy that second — much of pen show shopping involves finding surprises, and asking about them, and mulling them over. But it does mean, be courteous. And always ask first if you want to handle a pen or see it more closely.
Do stop by the Ink Testing Stations you’ll find at many shows. That’s a fantastic opportunity. First, chairs! Also, you can try inks! Scribble down the ink’s name for future reference (in that pad or notebook you brought). Pick some samples or bottles to bring home from the ink sellers. Meet other ink fans.
Try a seminar or two. Most pen show seminars are free, some charge a fee for materials, but all the seminars exist because the presenters are willing to spend their time passing along years of expertise. Calligraphy, art, pen repair — whatever floats your boat, you’ll find it.
Everyone will tell you that the best part of a pen show is the people. It’s true. That doesn’t mean you’ll click with every single person. But you will click with many. It’s great to meet people who share your interest in pens and inks.
Most of us don’t get too many chances to talk to experienced repair people and pen dealers, or to spend time with fellow ink fans, or folks we may know only from Instagram or a pen forum. But you do at a pen show. Take advantage of that.
If it’s your first show, do join one of the official meetups. Those are fun, if you like people. You can find out about those on the pen forums, in a thread about the show. If there isn’t one, start it yourself. Join a group for dinner. If you’re staying overnight in the pen show hotel, go to the bar or lobby at night, and find people hanging out. Go to one of the official nighttime events.
Go Early and Often.
Early and often is the legendary “Chicago way” when it comes to voting, and it’s my final advice for pen shows, too.
Now that I’m behind the scenes at the Chicago Pen Show, I get one question more than any other: What’s the best day and time to come? My answer is: as early as you can.
If you want to buy vintage pens, it’s worth it to buy the weekend pass and arrive before the show opens to the public. The pen show isn’t as busy then. You’ll have a better chance to find what you’re looking for, and dealers have more time to talk. The more time you spend at the show, the more people you’ll meet.
Dealers in new pens and ink may not arrive during trader days — you have to ask them. But they will be there when the public show opens.
But what if you just can’t get there until Saturday or Sunday? No problem. That’s perfectly fine. I did that for years. Just try to get there as early as you can, whatever day you can. It will still be good fun. No matter what day or time I’ve arrived at a pen show, I’ve always left thinking, “That was great; I can’t wait to go again.”