The Write Stuff: Bromfield Pen Shop and the Lost Art of Longhand

Posted July 19, 2013 by Scott Kearnan in Business
Bromfield Pen Shop

“The lost art of handwriting.” That phrase may sound like the get-off-my-lawn whining of an old curmudgeon, but it’s true. There’s something to be said for the tactile experience of putting pen to paper and taking the time to think about what you’re going to say—really think, without having at your disposal the escape hatch of the “delete” key.

“I think you give more thought to what you’re doing when you write longhand,” says Fred Rosenthal, owner of Bromfield Pen Shop. “The act of writing requires you to give more thought to what you have to say than typing does.”

And a perfectly placed word is, of course, a powerful thing. After all, they say that the pen is mightier than the sword. In that case, Bromfield Pen Shop boasts Boston’s greatest arsenal. Step inside this small gem of a store and you’ll find glass cases filled with gleaming pens of all types: ballpoint, fountain, calligraphy (plus some other office accessories, too). They are made of many materials and range in price, from inexpensive office pens to one ornate, bejeweled white gold piece, the limited edition Mont Blanc Albert Einstein pen, which costs thousands of dollars.

Sterling Silver Ballpoint Pen

A sterling silver ballpoint pen from English brand Yard-O-Led. The Victorian design and pencil-like shape includes a flat top that gentlemen pipe smokers would traditionally use to tamp down tobacco. Photo Credit: Scott Kearnan

Some of them have been used to write works valued at even more. “He told us his pen made him a million dollars,” chuckles Rosenthal of author Robin Cook, a former customer. Cook told Rosenthal that he used a pen purchased at Bromfield to write Coma, the bestselling novel that launched his career and later became a movie starring Michael Douglas. For the most part, though, Rosenthal largely now sells to customers with niche professions that demand special pens, such as calligraphers, or folks like lawyers or professors for whom wielding a high-end pen in a meeting is a symbol of status and refinement—like flashing a nice watch or stepping out in designer shoes.

There’s another group to which Rosenthal sells often: collectors. As the digital age has ushered out the act of longhand writing, literature lovers (and sometimes simply hobbyists) have started snatching up stylish pens the way music-loving hipsters scoop up vinyl records. Sure, those pens might not get much use, but if you love a certain art form, owning its most vital instrument seems like a valid investment.

Brushed Chrome Pen

This modern, brushed chrome pen is the work of Italian designer Giuliano Mazzuoli, who found inspiration in the tools of his grandfather’s bicycle shop. Hence the industrial vibe. Photo Credit: Scott Kearnan

Rosenthal has seen the decline of longhand writing reflected in his business. Not only is his clientele more specific—no longer the average John and Jane Q. Public, from when everyone needed a quality writing pen—but he no longer needs the staff that past generations did. Bromfield Pen Shop was founded in 1948 by Rosenthal’s grandfather and employed two full-time fountain pen repair workers. Rosenthal started working at the shop in 1965 and has owned it since 1981. Today he has one part-time repair specialist.

Cross's Stylish Masquerade Line

You only write in blue or black ink, but your pen itself can be much more colorful. This selection is from Cross’s stylish Masquerade line. Photo Credit: Scott Kearnan

But business is still good, says Rosenthal. Though the demand for fine pens might be more limited, “there’s also a lot less competition,” he laughs. And though the world of text messages (and e-mail, Twitter, Vine, and Instagram) has definitely made longhand communication a lost art, maybe there’s reason to believe that—like any forgotten craft—future generations will rediscover it.

“My daughter keeps a handwritten journal,” says Rosenthal. “And whenever she studies for a test, I always tell her, ‘Write it down.’ That’s what I used to do.”

“You write something down enough, you’re sure to remember it,” concludes Rosenthal. And if you simply write anything enough, the “lost” art will never be completely gone.



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