Penman No. 346: Cubao’s Ephemeral Treasures

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Penman for Monday, March 25, 2018

 

MY RECENTLY renewed interest in rescuing old mechanical writing machines from oblivion and providing them shelter in my home (aka collecting typewriters) has led to me to some interesting sidestreets—you’ll read a story about Manila’s Typewriter Row here soon—but it also reminded me that sometimes the best finds lie in plain sight, if you know where to look.

For this Quezon City guy, that means Cubao, a district for which I’ve had a special affinity since the earliest days of the Araneta Coliseum and all throughout high school, when we played hooky to shoot billiards at the Fun Center and slurp noodles at Ma Mon Luk. In 1978, I found a pair of new-old-stock Parker Vacumatic fountain pens in a stall along Aurora Boulevard, triggering a lifelong passion. Fifteen years ago, Beng and I dragged a splendorously comfortable Schweiger sofa out of a Cubao resale shop, and we’re having it reupholstered again for its third incarnation. On Christmas Eve in 2017, I found and bought the oldest volume in my collection—an English book printed in 1551—from a seller in Cubao, who had received it from his mother working as a caregiver in Paris.

In other words, unlikely as it may seem, Cubao has always held wondrous things for me, quite apart from the sikad-sikad, the arosep, and the fresh tangingue in Farmer’s Market. A few weeks ago, I picked up two coveted Swiss-made 1960s typewriters—a Hermes 3000 and a Hermes Baby—from two different shops in Cubao Expo, that refreshingly downscale shopping zone which has managed to retain its old-school appeal and integrity. (Let’s give a shout out to the Grand Thrift House and the UVLA Store, both well worth the walk.)

Being in the neighborhood, I recalled reading a post somewhere that a corner of the now-venerable Ali Mall was now devoted to antiques and collectibles, so I crossed the street and paid it a visit, and was pleasantly surprised to discover a series of shops on the second floor selling everything from Beatles records and memorabilia to vintage pottery and Coke bottles.

No pens or typewriters for me this time, but my eyes wandered, in one shop, to stacks of old papers and documents. This is a class of collecting generally called “ephemera”—comprising, by one definition, documents, letters, booklets, brochures, pamphlets, billheads, ledgers, scrapbooks, photographs, and maps. You can’t collect old books, pens, and typewriters without running into ephemera, and I’ve picked up some choice pieces—including beautifully handwritten letters that date back to the 1500s and 1600s—to illustrate both the practice and the culture of writing, or what people wrote and how they wrote.

Ephemera, by the word itself, is inherently transient and easily lost—to trash bins, fires, and forgetfulness—but thankfully, there are quite a few other pack rats like me who save such things as Love Bus tickets and receipts from long-shuttered restaurants and hotels for no grander reason than to be reminded 40 years later of a fun evening (which I must have had on May 16, 1979, according to a receipt from a place called “For the Boys,” charging me P4.00 for food, P5.50 for cigarettes, and P48.50 for drinks).

I plowed through the piles of neatly wrapped papers and came away with a bundle that shows what’s out there—and perhaps just as interestingly, what’s in here, in that part of ourselves that responds with a clutch in the heart to words on a page. My takeaways—all for about P1,000, or a shirt at Uniqlo—included the following:

– A legal document dated June 10, 1897 and signed by Luis XXXX, Valeriana XXXX (I couldn’t decipher the signatures) and Satorneno Antolin, written in Ilocano. I don’t know Ilocano, but couldn’t resist the vivid purple ink. (My friend Frank Cimatu would later tweet from Baguio that it concerned a couple in Sta. Maria who were selling their plot of land which produced three cavans of rice.)

– A carbon copy of an exchange of letters from January 1929 between Senate President Manuel Quezon and Sen. Elpidio Quirino over the appointment of a Mr. Llanes. Quirino’s letter begins thus: “I owe you my most humble apology for having expressed myself too bluntly in my letter of 11th instant. God knows, and you know too, that I am not capable of insulting you, not for a thousand Llaneses and judgeships.” (I wonder how their modern counterparts write today.)

– A printed invitation to the 13th Annual Oratorical Contest of the UP College of Law on January 31, 1931, to be held (oddly enough) at the auditorium of the Philippine Normal School.

– An undated typescript, probably from the 1960s, of a storyline for a “Drama-Comedy-Musical” titled “Little Darling” by Johnny de Leon and Mario Mijares Lopez, about a provinciano named Ikeng who loved his carabao he called, yes, “Little Darling.” (Ikeng later becomes a famous broadcaster in Manila and forgets his pet, who never forgets him.)

Most poignantly, the trove also included a small book of autographs (a slam book, or in Pinoy usage, a “slum” book) once owned by Rosalina “Rely” L. Estrella, from the Provincial High School of Nueva Ecija, replete with good wishes ca. 1935. We learn from later entries that she was enrolled at the National Teachers College in 1940. And then the war comes, and we hear no more from or about “the Rose of Gapan.”

And so we are reminded of how open-ended the past often and truly is, instead of the closed book we imagine it to be. No wonder I keep coming back to it.

 

Penman No. 188: Risk and Reward in the Collectibles Market

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Penman for Monday, February 22, 2016

 

 

I’M GOING to be talking a lot about pens in the next paragraphs, so you might think of turning away if they hold no interest for you, but this is really about collecting and purchasing decisions as a whole, and could just as well apply to cars, watches, Star Wars figurines, and whatever else people hoard in their inner sanctums. If you’ve been bitten by the collecting bug, do read on.

Dr. Jonathon Deans is an Australian economist who specializes in the study of energy and commodity markets, and who teaches economics at the University of Newcastle. But away from his day job, Jonathon pursues a hobby with equal passion: collecting fountain pens. And unlike most of his fellow stylophiles (the fancy word for the addiction) who simply chase after and gloat over their inky toys, Dr. Deans has managed to merge his two interests by running a highly regarded blog on “Pen Economics” (www.peneconomics.com), tracking and discussing the vicissitudes of the global market for writing instruments.

Jonathon happened to be in town these past two months to accompany his partner Lisa, a Colombo Plan fellow and Development Economics student at De La Salle University, whose Economics department is headed by Dr. Gerardo “Bombit” Largoza—by uncanny coincidence, another fountain-pen collector and fellow member of Fountain Pen Network-Philippines (www.fpn-p.org). This happy confluence led to DLSU sponsoring a well-attended lecture two Saturdays ago by Dr. Deans at La Salle on “Adventures in the Fountain Pen Economy.” (He’s left for now, but will be back in April.)

Jonathon explained that central to the economics of the matter is the idea of price vs. value, and where value (how strongly we desire the product) exceeds price, a purchase will likely be made. I listened with great interest and some amusement to his observation that many buyers of modern pens are risk-averse. He admitted that he was one such person himself, and noted further that he valued a close relationship with his favorite pen dealer—even at the cost of paying a certain premium over regular prices—because of the many benefits afforded by such relationships, chiefly personalized service and unparalleled solicitude.

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I couldn’t agree more with Jonathon (who gave a brilliantly comprehensive and insightful overview of the global fountain pen industry and particularly of our behavior as consumers). My amusement, however, came from my realization that while we thought alike on many important things (like our shared love of the Montblanc Ernest Hemingway, a pen considered a “holy grail” by many collectors), we differed in a few basic respects, particularly my greater willingness to take risks, to navigate the choppy waters of eBay to fish for rare species of vintage pens. But then, of course, I’m a poker player, so am more comfortable with taking calculated risks (and losing as well, because of over-optimistic calculations). My collection contains mostly vintage Parkers and modern Montblancs, so I found myself asking, what makes consumers favor one over the other?

The risks in buying, say, a 1928 Parker Duofold vs. a brand-new Parker Premier seem obvious. The modern pen should be shiny and trouble-free, and if it shows any problems or defects will be replaced under warranty. Being older than your grandfather, a vintage pen could be broken, leaky, warped, or missing parts, or otherwise difficult to operate, maintain, and repair.

So why do vintage buyers and collectors seem more willing to take more risks, and even court them? One trade-off is a generally lower cost. If the items work or if you can make them work, then they will likely be well worth their price. But there are also unquantifiable values to be added to vintage objects, values that help account for their allure: the cachet of age and relative scarcity or even rarity, the history of the object itself and its provenance, and materials and workmanship you won’t find on the modern factory floor.

In buying vintage collectibles, risk can be reduced by knowledge. For the highly knowledgeable buyer or collector, who will be aware of the common pitfalls of the vintage trade, the opportunity of acquiring a rare object at low or reasonable cost far outweighs the risk of receiving an object not as described, with no return option, or needing service. (Those risks will be even more diminished in direct physical sales, not online. But even online, the risks of buying pens long-distance—whether vintage or modern—are drastically reduced by eBay’s built-in money-back guarantee: if you don’t get the product as advertised, your money will be refunded.)

Indeed this ratio of risk to reward forms a great part of the thrill and satisfaction of vintage acquisition. While buying a new car from a dealership can be pleasurable, it’s hard to equal the excitement of finding, say, a 1952 Volkswagen Hebmuller tucked away in an old garage. While these two buyers will likely be two different people buying for different motives, many collectors will weigh both options, anticipating and investing in the collectibles of the future as shrewdly as they assemble the best pieces from the past.

With very few exceptions, vintage pens can only be bought on the second-hand market, where warranties and returns normally don’t apply. They are often sourced by enthusiasts and pickers in the wild, from estate sales, yard sales, resale shops, pawnshops, and small, out-of-the way antique shops. Eventually many get aggregated by dealers who sell online, on eBay and in their Web stores. The transition from a sale at the flea market to one concluded via PayPal is important, because here a certain measure of security can be afforded the buyer, not to mention the possibility of paying less for a prized pen at auction. (I’d typically pick up a $200 pen for $50, and resell it for $100 to finance other purchases.)

In fact, as far as eBay is concerned, I’ve probably had 1,000 transactions on eBay these past 19 years, and in the two or three times I’ve had to avail myself of its money-back guarantee, it worked without a hitch. This leaves just the risk of being disappointed and of being inconvenienced by the refund process.

Knowing this, the knowledgeable eBay buyer can take even more risks with the pen itself—that poorly photographed Vacumatic could be a sought-after Oversize, and therefore worth paying $50 more for. While the eBay guarantee will not refund the buyer in case the pen turns out not to be the desired Oversize (if it wasn’t advertised as such), it can give the buyer an extra boost of confidence to make a purchase, any purchase, in the way that gamblers may tend to play more aggressively in comfortable and well-secured casinos.

So yes, there are indeed more risks involved in buying vintage, and buying online; but the rewards, both physical and psychic, are also potentially great, and as Dr. Deans emphasized in his talk, when the buyer perceives value exceeding price, a purchase will be most likely happen, to the dismay of our bank accounts and hapless partners.

[Photo of Jonathon by Chito Gregorio]

Flashback No. 1: Another Pen Story

Since I’ve opened this new blog with very little in it yet, I thought I might as well fill the wait between my weekly Star columns with selected reposts (or, in some cases, just posts, since they’d never been posted before) from columns past—from Penman, which began in the Star in 2000; Barfly, which ran in Today from 1994 to 1999; Man Overboard, from Men’s Zone in the early 2000s; T3; and Manileño from Filipinas magazine from 2003 to 2010. So here goes.)

Penman for August 21, 2000

FOR PHILIPPINE Star readers who may not know me from my earlier incarnations (no offense meant to the Gautama; the only thing Buddha-like about this Butch is his midsection) and who may be wondering about the column title, “Penman” refers both to a story I wrote a few years ago, “Penmanship,” and to my long and abiding fascination with old fountain pens, about a hundred of which I’ve collected over the past 15 years.

Most of these beauties from the 1920s up to the 1940s came from antique fairs and garage sales in the American Midwest, where I lived for a few years, and from more exotic nooks and crannies such as a backstreet pen shop in Edinburgh and a sidewalk vendor in Saigon. Some I’ve received as generous gifts from friends (a clutch of Parkers and Sheaffers from Franz Arcellana—pens he actually wrote his stories with—and a breathtaking Japanese maki-e lacquered pen from poet Jimmy Abad).

Now and then—say, after a few months without adding a new-old pen to the trove—I satisfy my urges by getting one on the Internet or, less often, by taking a deep breath and paying full price at the local mall (although I once found a very nice pair of new Parker Duofolds selling at practically half-price in a department store in Cebu). Still even more rarely, I’ve come across some astounding bargains in my own backyard—an antique stall in Ermita (a Montblanc 146 and a much-sought-after 1959 Sheaffer PFM V for P650 each), and a stationery shop in Binondo (a rather uncommon Parker VP for P350).

Never mind what these names mean, if you know or care nothing about pens: just think of them as exquisitely lovely, useful, and—to some people who collect them for more than aesthetic reasons—quite valuable objects, some which have sold at auction for over $10,000 (no, that’s not your grandfather’s Wearever or Esterbrook, for which you’d be lucky to get enough for a movie and a hotdog sandwich). I have an awful suspicion that most of the good pens we must have once had in this country—any colony with a highly-literate bureaucracy should have been swimming in a sea of blue-black ink—would have long had their gold nibs pulled and melted down in the smithies of Meycauayan to make someone a pretty trinket or a gleaming incisor.

Imagine my surprise when, last weekend—on one of those trips to the mall where the sleepy-eyed husband gets deputized by the wife in resolute quest of a wedding present—I strayed into a tiangge stall selling the usual santos and hardwood benches and spotted, in a corner of a glass case, the unmistakable flat-top cap and gold pocket clip of a 1920s pen. I asked to see it, and my hands shook as I confirmed that I was holding a near-perfect example of a Swan Eternal No. 48, a huge fountain pen as fat as a cigar (it’s a boy thing, this pen envy) in a gold-trimmed rosewood finish and the biggest nib you ever saw, a No. 8 (most fountain pens, by comparison, sport nothing bigger than a No. 2). The patent date on the clip said “Jan. 19, 1915” although the pen itself was made, according to my trusty references, between 1924 and 1929. Hallelujah! But first I had to ask, in a dry croak, “How much?”

The man behind the counter consulted a woman who was doing the books. “Five hundred,” she said casually. I felt faint: P500 for a fancy Bic may be outrageous to you, but if they had ten of these and I had P5,000 on me I would have bought them up and retired on the profits. The pricing also told me that the sellers had probably found the pen among other effects in a large estate (you had to be very rich to own an accessory like this in the late ’20s) and had, themselves, paid very little if anything for it; many old pens come as bonuses to buyers of many-drawered antique cabinets, or even of cigar boxes, where they tended to be kept and forgotten.

I forked the money over. The man hesitated and my heart skipped a beat. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but we don’t have a small box to put it in.”

“Oh, that’s all right,” I managed to say, taking full and final possession of the Swan and sticking it into my pocket, where I was certain that God Almighty had always intended it to belong. Surely, there was more than a touch of justice here. How many times, during my months in England, had I revisited and salivated over the fabulous pens on Portobello Road, going home to Norwich with little more than a jar of bagoong and a packet of Chippy from the Filipino food store at Earls Court? Just how many of the half-dozen Pinoys who can tell a Swan Eternal from a Rubber Ducky stumble into one, in a mall buzzing with Nokia ringtones, and get to bring it home for the price of a phone card?

I treated Beng out to a lunch of noodles and siopao and proudly showed her my prize find. She herself prefers to pick up old blue and ruby-red bottles, but has developed a grudging respect for and even some expertise in my objects of choice—once spotting, at a cowshed fair in Ohio, a circa-1930 lapis-blue Parker Duofold Junior which I bought for $5 and later traded for my first Montblanc. “It’s gorgeous,” she agreed, “but you should have asked for a discount.” Spoken, I suppose, like a true shopper.

But this wasn’t shopping, Beng. This was serendipity, for which I can only thank my lucky stars and, yes, you, for dragging me out of my Sunday-morning stupor to find kitchenware for newlyweds.