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Consider the pencil. In a time when everyone is keenly aware of the permanence of our words on the internet — nothing disappears, everything is forever — the pencil, as a concept, is oddly romantic. It's ephemeral. The graphite can smudge; the words can be erased just as quickly as they're written. As Caroline Weaver puts it, "I think people feel more free when they write with a pencil."
Enter Weaver's pencil shop: CW Pencil Enterprise, now open for about six months in a small, airy space on the Lower East Side's Forsyth Street. Next to a coffee shop and above a trendy fried chicken restaurant, it proffers rows and rows of pencils laid out in little labeled jars, hinting at the promise of aced exams, award-winning novels, or achingly funny comics just waiting to be drawn. Well-designed erasers, sharpeners, and notebooks round out the selection.
Between customers — schoolchildren in their uniforms, a couple visiting from Poland, a teacher and her mom, two professors — in the back-to-school hustle, Weaver took the time to talk all things pencils.
People must always ask you why you chose to open a pencil shop.
I always tell people that this was supposed to be my retirement job, to run a pencil shop as an old lady. But I'm not an old lady — I'm 24, so that came a little soon. I've always loved pencils, I've always collected them and had a really deep appreciation for how tactile and simple they are. When I was at college I traveled a lot, and I realized there are all these awesome pencils in other parts of the world that we just don't have access to here. They all come from old pencil factories with really cool stories, and I thought it would be amazing if there was a place where all these pencils could live together.
It never seemed like a possibility, but once I started seriously thinking about it, I realized that maybe it could be possible with the right support from the right people. It worked out much faster than I thought it would.
You started with a store online?
Yes, last November the online store launched, and the physical store opened in March. In November, I was really just testing it to see if it would work. My plan was to open a shop when I found the right space and when business was good. I just happened upon this space one day, and it worked out.
How do most new customers find you?
A lot of times on Instagram, actually. The store is very photogenic, and the things that we sell are really cool and fun to look at. I guess it's an unusual thing — as far as I know, we're the only shop that sells just woodcase pencils in the world. About half of our customers come down here just to go to the store, which is really great. We have a lot of tourists, especially from Argentina.
I guess it's an unusual thing — as far as I know, we're the only shop that sells just woodcase pencils in the world.
Is there a big pencil industry in Argentina?
No, there's not. They just have an appreciation for fine writing tools, I guess.
And you recently started a pencil of the month club.
We hand-pick the pencils based on what month it is or what's new and interesting to us. This month, we did a vintage Ticonderoga. Ticonderogas aren't made in the US anymore, and they're not nearly as good as what they used to be. So we did a vintage one, sharpened with a sharpener that was invented by a teacher, and we put a silly, very classic pink eraser cap on the top. We basically nerded out these pencils for school. We wrap them up in a little box and there's always lots of information about what the pencil is, why we chose it, what's interesting about it — whatever stories we might have. It's really fun.
People are really drawn to the stories behind objects.
I think the power of storytelling, especially with something like this, is very strong and very important. Like, there's no such thing as a new pencil factory. All the factories that make all these pencils are really old. They've produced pencils through world wars and have changed their design or changed their process of manufacture based on what's happening in the world. There are only three pencil factories left in the United States, and one is in Jersey City. The other two are in Tennessee.
Speaking of stories, why is the "classic pencil" yellow?
There are a few stories floating around about this! This is the one I like to believe: A pencil company in the late 19th century or early 20th century, L&C Hardtmuth Pencils, made a pencil called the Kohinoor 1500, named for the Kohinoor diamond, and they painted it yellow. It was a really nice pencil — a really good quality, made by a famous pencil company — so it just kind of stuck, and the icon of a pencil became one that was yellow.
How did you get into pencils as a kid?
I think I can blame my mom for that — she's kind of a pencil snob. When I was about six years old or so, she went to Italy and bought me a set of Caran d'Ashe colored pencils. There are 18 of them, and I remember being a kid and thinking that the colors in this pencil set were not anything like my Crayola colored pencils that I had. They were so nice, and the tin itself had wildflowers on the front of it. It was just the most beautiful thing and I always really cherished those pencils — I still even have them. When I first opened the store, one of the first things I looked for was that pencil set. We sell them today, but the ones that she brought me originally were a little different.
Do you have good luck pencils?
I have a collection of vintage pencils. Probably my favorite that I own is this pencil that my best friend gave me. It's about four inches long. She said it's the pencil she used in kindergarten, and she hung onto it because she thought it was good luck — and she gave it to me. I've written with it a few times because I think maybe the good luck will rub off on me.
Are there certain pencils that you use at certain times?
Totally. I have pencils that I use when I'm writing for a really long time because their point retention is good or they feel nice in my hand — on some pencils, the hex is too sharp and I find that gets uncomfortable after a while. I like different pencils for note-taking, for journaling. We do blog posts for the best pencils for different things and we all have strong opinions on which pencils are best for crossword puzzles or for baseball scoring. I use certain pencils to label all the things in the store.
They're darker? They smudge less?
Yeah, but you can always use the hairspray trick — just spray hairspray on your writing — so it doesn't smear. I used to keep the bottle of Aquanet on my desk, but not anymore. Pencils are going to smudge; that's just the nature of them.
We're still trying to survive back-to-school season, which is maybe bigger than Christmas for us.
What are you thinking about doing next?
The first thing we're going to do is solve a huge problem in the pencil world: pencil cases. They're never long enough for a pencil, and they never really protect a pencil. They're always made for artists, who want to always have 20 pencils, but the average pencil user doesn't need to carry around 20 pencils. They want, like, three, and maybe a tiny sharpener. We're going to revolutionize the pencil case industry. Well...we're going to try. After the holidays, we're going to get really serious about pencil cases
Do you have big plans for the holiday season?
We definitely do, but we're still trying to survive back-to-school season, which is maybe bigger than Christmas for us. There are some different things we're talking about stocking, some fun items for grown-ups.
How does personalizing pencils work?
So the machine that we use is called a Kingsley Machine. It's a hot foil stamping machine that was mostly popular in the 60s. The way it works is that it has to get really really hot, about 250 degrees, to work. There are these typekits that go with it, and you set the type.
We do a lot of pencils that are gifts. We have a lot of teachers come in — we love teachers. They're the best. I had a woman once order a set and each pencil had a different line from a Dr. Seuss book. Oh, and we did a marriage proposal pencil! That was a thing we joked about for a while, and then we tweeted about it and somebody responded within 24 hours, so we did a proposal pencil — and she said yes. It was a red pencil in a little yellow box.
What are your thoughts on erasers?
I personally don't love erasers. I like to see what my mistakes were most of the time. This is a mystery I'll never be able to solve, but for some reason the erasers on the backs of pencils are usually pretty terrible. And a lot of times, the companies who make these pencils also make really good erasers, and I don't know why they don't put those good ones on the ends. Maybe it's too expensive, maybe they want people to buy the erasers.
What's interesting is that having an eraser in ferrule [that metal part at the end of a pencil] is purely an American thing. I'd say probably 90% of pencils from any other country will not have a ferrule end in an eraser. I really don't know why.
Maybe. Joseph Dixon of Dixon Ticonderoga was the first person to commercially manufacture pencils with a ferrule.
What other accessories do well?
We stock a lot of pencil extenders. They're very simple, but you can stick your pencil in when it gets too short and then you can continue to write with it. It means you can get more life out of your pencils. And we sell a ton of sharpeners. We don't stock a lot of different ones, but we stock a lot that are really good and interesting and historically important.
Is there a fear of pencils disappearing? Do people come in and say, "Oh, wow, it's been so long since I've written with a pencil?"
A lot of people say that. I always tell them: I am positive that you will enjoy writing with a pencil. You just forgot what it feels like. Pencils are considered the thing that you're allowed to write with before you can use a pen in school, right? A lot of people deem it childish to write with a pencil, and we're here to remind people that pencils can be really pleasurable and really nice. And I think a lot of people also just haven't written with a good pencil.
I don't think pencils are going anywhere for a long time. There will always be a place for a woodcase pencil. In what capacity? I'm not sure, but for now we're celebrating it.
Wanna do a lightning round?
Sure, let's do it.
Chewing gum or mints?
Baseball or basketball?
Manicure or pedicure?
Coffee or tea?
Hot dogs or pizza?
Those are like my two favorite foods — I'll say pizza.
Purses or shoes?
TV or books?
Brooklyn or Queens?
Queens, I love Queens. All the good food is in Queens.
Jackson Heights or Astoria?
Sunrise or sunset?
Lipstick or mascara?
Lipstick — I'm allergic to mascara.