I squirmed in my little second-grade desk to jam my hand into my pocket for the umpteenth time to make sure the nickel was still there. The clock above the green cursive handwriting guide over Mrs. Solomon’s chalkboard ticked off the seconds toward recess. I was waiting for the bell like a stallion in the gate, ready to gallop up the terracotta corridor to the foyer outside the principal’s office. There, on a small wooden table, was a metal machine that dispensed pencils and Blue Horse paper, where I’d spend my milk money on a yellow No. 2 pencil.
I never had enough pencils to suit me. In my blue cloth binder was a pencil pouch my mother whipped up on the Singer sewing machine that sat in the corner of the den. Mother had taken dark blue corduroy from a pair of pants I’d outgrown and made a pouch with a zipper on one side and three button holes on the other so that it would fit the three-ring binder. It would hold a lot of pencils, and I tried my best to fill it up.
It’s an obsession that held. A cursory inventory of the top of my desk and two of 10 drawers in my office turned up 83 pencils. Not to put too fine a point on it, I’m less a collector than a gatherer.
There are actual collectors out there. I’ve heard of people searching for a particular pencil from a particular batch, and they’re willing to pay a lot for them. Caroline Weaver, who owns the last pencil store in New York City, has a framed collection of pencils attached to a corkboard like an array of endangered insects. (She also has a pencil tattooed on her forearm, so she’s really committed.)
I didn’t get particular about them until I got duped by what appeared to be a package of ordinary pencils. I knew something was up when the first one seemed to flex when I tried to write with it.
Pencils aren’t supposed to flex. When I investigated, I found that the manufacturer had decided to mix sawdust with some sort of adhesive and use the resulting substance to make pencils. They looked like pencils and sharpened like pencils, but they weren’t pencils. A pencil was wood, preferably cedar, with a clay/graphite lead and a metal ferrule to hold an eraser on the end. This faux pencil was such an insult that I tried to snap it in two and toss it away. But it wouldn’t break — it just bent.
So I did a little research and got particular about my pencils. I chose one that fit the bill – the Berol Eagle Black Warrior. That was a fine, reliable pencil. The quality didn’t waver from one to the next – never an off-center lead, never a loose ferrule or dried out eraser. I thought I’d be a Black Warrior man for good. But nothing lasts forever. The Black Warrior imprint began to bounce from one manufacturer to the next. It’s no longer special. Still good, but not great.
As I sharpened my interest in pencils, my fascination grew. I started following pencil blogs, and listening to pencil podcasts. I read a book about pencils. And one evening, we had dinner with our friends Johnny and June. Johnny had made hearts of palm salad from the original recipe from the Island Hotel in Cedar Key. As we ate and visited, Johnny mentioned there had been factories in Cedar Key that turned out slats for pencil manufacturing. Among those was the Eagle Pencil Company. The Black Warrior!
Later I read in the New York Times about Caroline Weaver’s aforementioned New York City store, CW Pencil Enterprise. I was thrilled that there was a store for pencils, sharpening machines, and a few related items. I dove into the website and filled my cart with a variety of pencils — a Papier Tigre from the third arrondissement in Paris, a couple of Mitsu-Bishi 9000s and a Tombow from Japan, a box of the house brand Baseball Scoring pencils and a dozen Blackwing 602s.
It’s been quite a rabbit hole, and I’ve ordered far more from CW than I should admit. With all these pencils, I have a variety of sharpening devices, one of which is a shiny miniature wood plane that rests on a mahogany base.
I also found my new go-to pencil — the Blackwing Pearl. Nice graphite, perfectly centered. Incense cedar wood in a hexagonal shape. Goldtone metal ferrule,and replaceable eraser. I have a couple of dozen of them. Nothing crazy.
But I’m not a collector. If I were, I would have at least a passing interest in the rarest specimen in the wild — the limited edition Graf von Faber-Castell Perfect Pencil. It’s made of 240-year-old olive wood and 18-carat white gold with built-in eraser and sharpener. Only five of the 10-pencil edition remain in existence. A steal at only $12,800.
Bill Perkins is editorial page editor of the Dothan Eagle and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 334-712-7901. Support the work of Eagle journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today at dothaneagle.com.