Ito-ya, the One and Only (Feat. Bosco Wood Pencils)

There are tons of stationery shops in Japan, but people seem to agree on one thing: Ito-ya is still the place to go to. It is a place of pilgrimage for stationery nerds. How does it manage to stay on top? Real estate seems to be part of the answer: the sight of the red clip wedged in between jewelers and fashion labels on one of the most expensive streets in the world seems to signal that stationery is to be taken seriously and that Ito-ya is its ambassador. I don’t know if Ito-ya actually outsells everybody else in the business, but it is definitely influential, and an industry leader. In this sense it was interesting to see how it changed. The store underwent a thorough renovation several years ago, and emerged after it a quite different kind of store.

Ito-ya used to be one of those stationers that tried to carry everything. Its Ginza store was no exception, and every square foot was overtaken by display shelves and carts, heaving with merchandise. But with the advent of online competitors, its goal now is to be “a shop where you can experience new things,” as opposed to a store that just sells stuff. (Here is a brief message from the CEO of Ito-ya outlining its future direction.) Especially with its main shop space, the G.Itoya building, efforts were made to incorporate restaurants (they grow their own vegetables), juice bars, postboxes and other quirky services.

Reading about all this, I was worried that I would find a great blank museum-like space upon arrival. For what is a stationer if not a purveyor of goods? Fortunately, it turned out that they had enough to make me happy. The crucial difference is that Ito-ya now curates its selection more rigorously, with an emphasis on things you can’t get easily elsewhere (they had Crane’s cards!). Also, they now put more effort into marketing their own proprietary brands: one floor is dedicated to these labels, most of which are not even stationery but travel items.

Here is a partial shot of the fountain pen floor: they came up with an elegant solution to showcase the multitude of pens while preserving the gallery-like feel. The Caran d’Ache 849 fountain pen went on sale at Ito-ya (ahead of all the other shops) the day after I visited, so I missed the chance to try it out.

I wasn’t sure about their emphasis on their proprietary brands (I have yet to own an Ito-ya pencil, Romeo, Helvetica or otherwise), but after trying the book cover in their Color Chart line, I am completely won over. It is made out of an intriguing micro-fibrous material that mimics the feel of leather, and fits any pocket book snugly. I’d like to get more in this line in as many colors as possible next time!

I’m not sure whether you can tell from the pictures, but this material has a crease-resistant spring to it that is just mesmerizing. Stationery is a very high-tech affair in Japan.

The first floor of the main building has always attracted its share of tourists, and Japan-themed postcards have always been available. Ito-ya still stocks them.

Now over to the annex, K.Itoya. This is where Ito-ya’s newfound art-gallery aesthetic bows to the demands of the office- and art-supplies department, and allows merchandise to be stocked like at a good old-fashioned stationer’s. Interestingly, premium pencils from Faber-Castell, Caran d’Ache and others were displayed here along with paints and colored pencils, and not with fountain pens in the main building. I almost missed them!

In the above photo you can see the recently released Lothar von Faber Polygrades. Next to it is something called the X-Sharpener that Kitaboshi and CARL collaborated on for a TV program, which called for “an unbreakable colored pencil.” Following a series of tests involving dropping a half dozen red colored pencils from a certain height, CARL came up with this sharpener that produces a shape like a steeply inclined china pencil with a step, with only the wood peeled away and leaving the core untouched. They produced 100 of these sharpeners, at ¥20,000 each. I asked whether Ito-ya had sold any, and the salesperson replied that they got five for the store and sold three so far.

But the most amazing item was this:

The Bosco Wood Pencils, made by the same people who brought out the Colleen Woods pencils twenty years ago, is a limited edition set of 200 (or 300, depending on the source) featuring beautiful woods sourced from around the globe. It retails for ¥10,000. And Ito-ya had a sharpened sample. (Note that the Polygrades above were also sharpened.) I asked how they ever thought to do such a thing, and the salesperson said, “Oh, we had to make sure everything was OK.” I had never been interested in this particular set (as a rule I dislike expensive, ornamental pencils), but when I saw how smoothly and softly they wrote, I had to get them. The wood is fragrant, and the hexagonal edges razor sharp; altogether the tactile experience is sublime.

Back in Korea, I got together with some stationery friends for a small experiment. I wanted to try hand-sharpening these pencils, and I also wanted to know what others thought of these woods, as I knew next to nothing about them. Also, the sharpened pencils by themselves would make a marvellous souvenir. So we settled down with a pencil each, and reached some surprising conclusions.

First, the woods are all without exception extremely stiff and hard to sharpen. Sharpening by hand was positively dangerous, and I was afraid I would damage the handheld and crank sharpeners I used. Pencil #3 is a case in point: a friend started hand-sharpening it but quickly gave up, I tried with a borrowed Gekkoso 2-hole sharpener but the lead broke three times, so in the end I had to finish it off by whittling down the wood very carefully, exposing a minimal amount of lead. The imbalance between the hard wood and medium-to-soft core seems especially amplified in pencil #3, and no doubt something like this happened to the Ito-ya sample set too, as that particular pencil is shortest. I still love the artisanal details of this Bosco set, but all this led me to appreciate all over again other pencils such as the Caran d’Ache “Crayons de la Maison” series. They are expensive “premium” pencils too, but are easy to sharpen, with a good, balanced lead: in other words, they are pencils made by pencilmakers, true to the basics. The Bosco pencils are emphatically the work of a furniture-maker.

(I hand-sharpened two in this set, in addition to the aforementioned pencil #3. Can you guess which? By the way, pencil #5 was sharpened with a brass KUM 2-hole sharpener, and pencil #8 with a Deli 0668. I hope to try a CARL Angel-5 Royal on one of the remaining two.)

Speaking of sharpening, there was also a very informative display showing the sharpened shapes for each sharpener they carried.

Some other tidbits I picked up there: all the masking tapes I bought this time are from the MT for kids line 😅

And last but not least, a talisman for a well-rounded stationery life.

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Brazilian-Made Castell 9000s

Have you ever seen a Castell 9000 not made in Germany? Until now I’d only encountered the German variant of the venerable green pencil made by Faber-Castell (an Indonesian version exists), but it seems there is also a South American version.

The Castell 9000 made in Brazil sports the name “Regent” next to the barcode and serial number. Interestingly, “Regent” is a name associated with another green but non-Castell-9000 pencil from Brazil. I wonder if the name was folded into the more prestigious model at some point, or if the Regent 1250 still exists as a separate model. 

(An astute reader has remarked on the significance of the name: perhaps “Regent” refers to rule by proxy, that is, it is king where no purebred Castell 9000 exists? 😉)

Top to bottom: the Regent 1250, the Brazilian Castell 9000, and the regular German Castell 9000. The Regent 1250 is printed on one side only, the Brazilian 9000 on two, and the German one on three sides, like this.

(The German pencil with the third side on view, with the barcode.)

The Brazilian Castell 9000 is made of a different kind of wood, pale and streaked with grey, and lacks the soft sheen of the lacquered finish found in the German Castell 9000. (Below are some closeups where you can see the woodgrain better, with the Brazilian Castell 9000 factory-sharpened, then re-sharpened with a Deli 0668.)

The lead is quite smooth, the HB characteristically light, but I haven’t used these long enough to be able to comment on their performance. I’d love to hear from people who are familiar with this version!

Stenographic Pencils, Continued

One of the most commonly employed search terms that lead readers to this blog concern stenographic pencils and their use. I’ve noticed that people who take the plunge into pencils almost always go through this stage: steno pencils are cool, unusual, rare but still available, just about (the Staedtler Stenofix is gone but Faber-Castell still makes the 9008). My own interest in them has waxed and waned, but all throughout, I had the niggling sense that I hadn’t really understood them: why certain specimens were hard and some soft (how were they supposed to be, hard or soft?), why they were offered in the limited but confusing range from HB to 2B, and whether round pencils really were better for the job. The answers were outlined to me early on, back when I first talked about stenos, but it wasn’t until recently that the penny really, finally dropped.

In an Eberhard Faber catalog from 1923, I came across the classification: firm leads for Gregg users, softer leads for Pitman. So the answer to all my questions was in fact really simple: it depended on what system you used. It’s just that it took me a long time to visualize the differences between the two systems and how they would translate into different needs without actually learning shorthand myself.

The picture became much clearer after I understood that the Pitman system, popular in Europe, consists of geometric shapes and lines of thin or bold strokes. This means that symbols are made up of (to grossly generalize) circles and parts of circles and straight, angular lines. (The same shape can denote different sounds depending on the thickness of the stroke.) In contrast, its American rival, the Gregg, is based on the ellipse, which is the same shape that forms the basis of cursive penmanship, and employs the same curvilinear motion to propel it forward. As John Robert Gregg himself explains in Basic Principles of Gregg Shorthand:

The fundamental difference between geometric [i.e. Pitman] shorthand and Gregg shorthand is this: Geometric shorthand is based on the circle and its segments; Gregg is based on the ellipse, or oval.

As geometric shorthand is based on the circle, its characters are supposed to be drawn with geometric precision, and are struck in all directions. The characters, being struck in all directions, necessitate continual change in the position of the hand while writing.

As Gregg Shorthand is based on the ellipse or oval, it is written with a uniform slope, as in longhand. Its characters are, therefore, familiar and natural to the hand, and like longhand do not require a change in the position of the hand while writing.

This being the almighty Oval.

For us, perhaps the most relevant fact that can be gleaned from this is that Pitman users have to re-learn how to hold a pen or pencil. Gregg says Isaac Pitman said in his Manual:

The student should be careful not to hold the pen as for common writing, for this position of the hand is adapted for the formation of letters constructed upon a totally different principle from those of Phonography. The pen should be held loosely in the hand, like a pencil for drawing, with the nib turned in such a manner that the letter “b” can be struck with ease.

In other words, Pitman users “draw”(I would even say “sketch”) the characters. I once sat next to a former professional stenographer at a calligraphy workshop (she took notes in what I now realize was Pitman), and she told me that her teacher always made sure that the students held their pencils lightly enough so that the teacher could pull the pencils out from their grip at any time without resistance.

While the grip is feather-light, pressure is applied from time to time to produce thicker strokes, so softer pencils are necessary. I wondered whether the soft tips might not dull quickly, but on second thought the stenographer would be “shading” only intermittently, so the tip probably won’t wear down as fast as a normal soft pencil would. (In any case the stenographer can’t press down too hard, since it will only slow her down.)

In contrast to Pitman, Gregg users “write.” The symbols are joined together more, there is no line variation, and I imagine a page of Gregg would look a lot more like normal longhand writing than a page of Pitman. It’s interesting, though, how much the system’s founder emphasizes its “easy” and “natural” qualities, on top of the practical advantages its practitioners enjoy using the same hand and finger positions and the same movements as those of longhand:

It has been said that it is impossible for the human hand to make a perfect circle in rapid writing. On the other hand, elliptic figures are natural and easy to the hand; indeed, the making of an ellipse or oval is one of the first exercises given a child in learning ordinary writing.

This opens up another interesting line of thought. Would longhand still be considered “natural” today? Because although cursive writing has indeed evolved over the centuries in slanted and interconnected form, penmanship is a learned skill, and there has been enough disruption in the past few decades that not even Mr. Gregg would be comfortable declaring the fundamentals of cursive writing to be universally applicable now. I wonder, will the loss of penmanship influence the way pencils are made in any meaningful or noticeable way?

*Many of the steno pencils pictured above come from Gunther’s collection. Thank you, Gunther :)

Pencil-Shopping in Montevideo (And Thoughts On Cedar)

During a recent marathon bookstore-hopping session I came across some unusual pencils. In general, the pencil pickings in this country are pretty poor; in ordinary mom-and-pop stores it’s usually some vile Evolution-like green thing on offer, and at the better stationers they stock Faber-Castell Goldfabers and Staedtler Traditions. That’s about it. Not even the standard Castell 9000 or the Mars Lumograph can be easily found. Given this situation, you’d think the Brazilian subsidiary of Faber-Castell would be a big presence here, and it certainly is for colored pencils, but for some reason graphite pencils, especially ones just a couple of rungs higher than the neon Grip 2001 variants, are difficult to locate. It was therefore a pleasant surprise to come across some Brazilian-made Faber-Castells in a proper box.

The model name, Regent 1250, is unfamiliar to me and so I don’t know where they are supposed to fall within the spectrum of local FC offerings, but they don’t seem like total cheapies. The ends are scrupulously dipped, and the lead writes smooth and soft, slightly darker than the original Castell 9000’s. It’s interesting that the body color is not the usual dark pine-green you associate with modern-day Faber-Castell but something closer to the olive green of yesteryear. Also, Faber-Castell seems to have a local quality designation apart from the usual “SV” (maybe it’s just a translation?).

The most notable aspect of this pencil is the choice of wood. Inexpensive pencils often make use of pale, coarse-grained wood, and I can accept that as part of the need to control costs, but this specimen is a bit extreme. The wood is so coarse that the body, even coated with paint, appears pitted. This may be galling to the pencil purist, who rightfully considers woods such as red cedar the best: cedar is just soft and brittle enough, even-textured, fine-grained, nonresinous, light enough for bulk transport, and with a pleasing color and odor. (Thank you for the article, Sean!)

However, on a recent return visit to San Pedro de Timote, I came across an article in the American Hereford Journal on appropriate woods for fenceposts, and it gave me some perspective. As you may know (or not – I didn’t), maintaining good fences around his pastures is one of the top priorities for a rancher, since, apart from the obvious problems of theft and escape, raising a purebred herd is all about planned parenthood, which means ensuring that none of your Hereford girls have a sliver of a chance of meeting an unknown bull. Which is where fences come in. The article listed around a dozen different kinds of wood, and cedar was one of the top three candidates, capable of giving nearly thirty years of service in its untreated state. The woods at the bottom of the list (ash or some such) could only manage a paltry seven on average.

Considering that the same trunk could be chopped up to stand sentinel in the fields, come rain or shine, for thirty years, or grace a room for half a century or more as a heirloom cabinet, or be converted into several hundred boxes of pencils to be whittled away: which is better? Nowadays even old barn doors and fences are said to be repurposed to make vintage-looking furniture. Good wood has a surprisingly long life. On the one hand we are fortunate that red cedar was once considered so plentiful, and that manufacturers of that time left some extraordinary specimens to be admired and emulated. But on the other hand it certainly was an unsustainable luxury.

But should this warrant such a steep descent as with this Regent 1250? One of the main reasons FC maintains production facilities in Brazil is surely because of the plentiful supply of wood, and even here in neighboring Uruguay you notice how easy it is to grow and maintain forests here, given the temperate climate and abundant rainfall. I’m all for making pencils where it’s easy to make them, but please, let’s try to grow the right kind of tree. The Regent has a perfectly decent core, but the wood lets it down too much.

*                           *                          *

That day I also scored a couple of red-and-blue Nataraj “checking” pencils. I now have positive proof that Nataraj pencils exist on this continent.

  

There was also a fascinating eraserless version of the blue Staedtler Norica that I had previously assumed was only available in Canada. The imprint is slightly different (evocative of the minute differences between, for example, American and Canadian Mirados), and the local mystery Norica writes slightly darker and softer, but what does it matter, I was just so glad to see it again. Oh, and it is interesting to note that, regardless of the place of manufacture, both the Regent and Norica pencils are strenuously marketed as “German” pencils ;)

 

Stationery Shopping in Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires, city of 3 million people, the Paris of South America. We visited the city for three days last week. I don’t know if BA had its own Baron Haussmann at one point, but the wide, wide boulevards, stately mansions, and leafy parks did indeed remind one of the French capital. It was fun being in a big city again!

There were even pencils in front of the Casa Rosada (the pink-toned Presidential Palace).

This time I had the opportunity to visit some bookstores, stationers and pen shops. Bookshops in BA are alive and well, and both the big, established chains (El Ateneo, Cúspide) and the smaller independent stores seem to be thriving, at least compared to those in other countries. It was great to see the “neighborhood bookstore” still alive.

For my pen searches, I relied on this list I dug up online before the trip (¡Gracias!). The first one on the list, Casa Pintos, seems to have closed (there was a new building at that address on Avenida de Mayo), but I hit the jackpot at Librería Catalinas. It was a delightful store chock-full of deluxe art supplies (Caran d’Ache sets!) and both current and vintage pens. They carried Parker (including a shelfful of vintage 51’s), Pelikan, Faber-Castell, Lamy, Cross, Sheaffer, Caran d’Ache, some Visconti, and I forget what else. Granted, the stock isn’t huge compared to a pen shop in Europe or Asia, but I tend to have a high opinion of stationers who carry Pilot Parallel pens. If we were to live in BA for any length of time I would undoubtedly be making regular pilgrimages to this shop.

Judging from the display, it looked like Catalinas had been in business for a long time. The most intriguing item in this store was a box of vintage Staedtler jumbo pencils – the owner’s personal collection, and not for sale. They allowed me to take a picture though :)

I also spotted some vintage pencils in a couple of stalls at the awesome San Telmo antiques market. Several Johann Fabers and some Argentinian Van Dykes, mostly colored. I would have picked some up but due to a miscalculation we had no cash on us and couldn’t buy anything. If I ever get another chance to come here I will work through this neighborhood again – porteños don’t seem to throw anything away, and the most amazing stuff comes out of those stately old homes!

My stationery souvenirs from BA are mainly notebooks. Speaking of notebooks, there is one mystery about this city I cannot figure out – there are no Moleskines or Paperblanks or any other internationally known paper brand to be found anywhere. I’m not saying that Moleskine is so great that every nation on earth should import it, but rather that this brand and several others like it have so taken over the world that it is nearly impossible to escape it – and I wonder why this country in particular should be out of the loop. Every time I saw a Moleskine-like rotating display in a bookshop I made a beeline for it, but it always turned out to be a lookalike called BRÜGGE. (I think the line is manufactured in China, but I’m not 100% certain.) The notebooks I did get are both made in Argentina.

This is a notebook in my favorite format: spiral-bound, square grid, lots of pages. The paper feels above average, but I won’t be too disappointed if it bleeds or feathers. One advantage of being a pencil user is that you become much more tolerant of various kinds of paper.

The pencils are both unfamiliar variants of familiar brands. I actually got the Brazilian-made Eco in place of a one-peso change at a bookstore; Argentinians hate small change and will go to some lengths to avoid dealing in coins.

The second is a regular lined and banded notebook, but with cute illustrations inside, from a brand called Monoblock. I don’t know if I’ll actually be using this notebook for anything; this is just a souvenir to remember the city’s great cafés and pastries by :)

The last item of note is marketed as an iPad case, but I have something different in mind. The factors that make Argentina one of the best places in the world to have a steak in also enable it to produce a lot of leather, and BA is known for its multitude of leather-goods shops selling jackets, shoes, bags, wallets, etc. Now, I’ve always wanted a leather desk pad that cushions sheets of paper against a fountain pen nib, ever since I saw one back in Seoul (the brand was Italian). BA shops carry that too – aptly named carpetas para escritorio – but they were too large, and often too complicated (with lids, sleeves, gilt-edged corners etc.). I wanted a smaller pad that was more portable, like a leather clipboard without the clip. And this is just the right size, and at around US$43, quite a bargain I think. (I might still work myself up towards a proper carpeta in the future.) 

And, with all that leather in search of a purpose, I certainly hope the artisans across the river will be interested enough to make other stationery-related articles in the future – notebook covers, pencil sleeves, pencases, and heck, why not sharpener cases? :)

First Impressions, Stationery and Otherwise

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A new country, a new continent, a new hemisphere. It is now our second week in Montevideo, the capital city of Uruguay, 34 degrees south. When we departed Montreal there was light snowfall, but upon arrival we had to pack away our winter coats and change into short sleeves. It is late summer here, with brilliantly clear skies, and upside-down constellations at night. The weather does seem to influence one’s first impressions: we find the city pleasant and the people friendly. The food is wonderful. I did have one disappointment, though. From looking at the map, I was expecting a sort of Mediterranean-style seaside town with sparkling blue waters, but it turns out that the body of water surrounding Montevideo is actually a river called Río de la Plata, which is an alarming shade of brown. Watching the muddy brown water swell and crash upon the beach can give you an eerie feeling, like you’re on Mars…

More importantly for this blog, I had to shop for my son’s school supplies the first week of our arrival here, so to my delight found myself in several stationery stores :) The biggest chain here seems to be Mosca, but because it is back-to-school season right now (the Uruguayan school year seems to start in March), there are stacks of notebooks and pencils available in ordinary supermarkets too. The selection here is very interesting. For starters, Faber-Castell is everywhere! Stores are literally swamped with FC products, manufactured in Brazil (colored pencils) and Peru (markers). They look familiar but not quite. FC’s great rival Staedtler is sadly missing except for the Tradition; however, Stabilo is a surprisingly strong presence here, with blister packs of Othello and Opera pencils and of course their highlighters. I don’t think I’ve seen this many Stabilo erasers up till now.

You’d think that, being so far away from Asia, there would be less Japanese products, but not exactly. Pentel is surprisingly visible. In fact, one of my first stationery shocks was seeing a Pentel ad on a city bus. I believe Korea outspends Uruguay on stationery items many times over, but we still don’t have ads for markers and mechanical pencils on public transportation! This may be a more enlightened continent than ours. Also, it looks like Stabilo has a back-to-school campaign going on with a car as a first-place prize, but I’m not 100% sure as my Spanish is currently nil. (I wish I could show pictures of this poster and other display stands, but here most big stores have security guards posted at the entrance and I didn’t want to attract any undue suspicion.) And I found Olfa cutters here! Bravo Olfa! Now I can get my own egg-yolk-yellow Olfa classic cutter that they didn’t have at the Kyobo Book Center in Seoul!

My son is using smaller notebooks with more pages here. I found the paper quality interesting too; it seems to be in general much thinner (60g/m2) and fluorescent white, compared to the slightly thicker and warmer-toned paper used for student notebooks at home. But I will have to try one myself before posting anything more. I hope I will have some time during the following weeks to sit down and scribble.

Some More Red-and-Blue Pencils (3)

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My first red-and-blue pencil was the Mitsubishi 2637/2667. Now, after trying many other brands, I realize that the Mitsubishis were actually on the softer side of the spectrum; on the other end are the vintage American colored pencils (such as the Eberhard Faber Colorbrite and Eagle Verithin), which are specifically formulated for writing and therefore have harder and stronger cores.

Tombow bicolor pencils (second and third from top in the picture above) seem to offer a good compromise between these two extremes. I assume that the regular Tombow 8900 V/P and the Ki-Monogatari natural-finish bicolor pencils share the same cores, since I could not detect any meaningful differences; both are very good. The Ki-Monogatari has painted bands at the ends, which make you hesitate with the sharpener – another instance of the ephemeral luxury so often associated with pencils.

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The Kitaboshi vermilion-and-Prussian-blue pencil (the top pencil in the first picture) was one of those lesser-known and seldom seen (at least outside of Japan) pencils that I would have loved to have “discovered” for myself, but it was disappointing. It is harder and fainter than the Tombows.

The 9608 bicolor pencil from A. W. Faber, and its modern successor from Faber-Castell, are both wonderful. I especially love the older, chubbier 9608; its “red” core has a bright fuchia tone to it that doesn’t show up well in pictures but sets it apart from the other red-and-blues (the blue is less inspiring).

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I was able to try the handsome modern 9608 thanks to Gunther :) May its production be assured for decades to come!