Postcards From the Edge

This is still a pencil blog, but I’m aware that a certain travelogue-like vibe has crept in these past few months, on account of my having moved to a pretty exotic place which I’m still discovering for myself. But I do try to stick to the subject, and while I would love to comment on the awesome chivito that I had yesterday or the fresh eggs wrapped in newspaper at the Saturday open-air market, I do my best to rein in the impulse. But the mystery surrounding the postal system in this country merits some discussion, especially since the post, if you think of it, is an important public service that helps sustain our various analogue activities. If one were to talk about an infrastructure necessary for the culture of writing by hand to flourish, which in turn sustains the well-being of the stationery industry (at least in part), surely the post would occupy a significant place. In addition, it brings those small delights from around the world to our doorstep. But after five months in Uruguay, I’m asking myself: how is it possible for such an essential service to be so invisible?

When we first arrived, one of the things that struck me was the absence of post offices in the city. You could ride a bus for thirty minutes, an hour, and not see a single post office. I’ve lived in big cities for most of my life, where post offices are as a rule very visible, and never far away. The lack was such that I began to wonder whether “Tiempost” was the national postal carrier – it wasn’t, it was just a private courier service. I wanted to send some postcards upon my arrival in a new country, and thought that if there weren’t any post offices nearby, I could maybe buy some stamps or get some from my husband’s office, and put them in a postbox. But that wasn’t so easy either: there were no shops selling stamps or processing the post on behalf of the postal service (as is the practice in many other countries – drugstores, convenience stores, etc.) apart from the post offices proper.* Moreover, there was not a single postbox to be seen on the streets. Even after five months I have yet to see one. On top of that it took me quite a while just to get hold of some postcards! This is the first country where I have had to hunt these things down with such single-minded determination. I found them at last in a bookstore, not a souvenir shop, where the accordion-folded packs were stored well away from the customer’s eye and looked like they hadn’t sold for quite some time. 

 Even the Bradt guide on Uruguay, which claims to be “the only dedicated English-language guide to this small but characterful country”, comments, “Uruguayans don’t seem to use the postal service much”. This is really a mystery, since internet banking doesn’t seem widely developed or used, and bills still arrive in the post. (On the other hand, online shopping doesn’t seem widespread either, which would obviate the need to develop delivery services further… or is it the very lack of such services that hobble the development of e-commerce?) In an era where post carriers around the world have had to adapt to new realities in order to survive, Correo Uruguayo seems to hang on by offering only the minimum of services. A Google map search brings up less than ten branches in Montevideo, a city of 1.3 million, and most are small and tucked away in the middle of nowhere except for a large building up north where the customs office is housed within, and where they hold packages from abroad hostage and ransom them for exorbitant amounts (sorry, I’ve been there, I had to say this :(). I’ve spotted real postmen in the street once or twice but have never seen a postal van. It is a mystery how things get delivered at all. I wonder if this situation is unique to Uruguay, or is South America as a whole more or less similar?

All this makes me appreciate the post back home so much more. The Korean postal system is cheap, fast, reliable, and delivers on Saturdays too. The Japanese system costs a bit more but is just as efficient. I liked the Canada Post offices (or Postes Canada, in Quebec), with its pleasant interiors, maple-leaf-patterned packaging tape and seasonal stamps featuring Canadian celebrities and hockey players, but they were very expensive. (Despite charging such high fees, they were chronically short of funds, and at a point announced the cessation of home deliveries altogether – all mail to be delivered to a communal locker outside. Well, of course the lockers froze over in the winter and there were stories of people trying to get their mail by pouring antifreeze on the locks. I could go on and on with the Canadian snow and ice stories but I will stop here :))

So, the point of this post is to say the postal system here is weird, but I’ve finally figured it out and won’t let it get in my way. Correo Uruguayo here I come!

*The Bradt guide says some pharmacies with the Correo sign outside sells stamps, but so far I’ve never seen one with any such sign, and even if I found a pharmacy that sold stamps I would have to go to the post office anyway to post the letters. [sigh]

A Visit to the Arenas Pencil Museum

As I mentioned before in this blog, there is a famous pencil collector in the country where we currently live. Actually, Señor Emilio Arenas doesn’t only collect pencils; he also collects keychains, ashtrays, perfume bottles, etc., and he holds Guinness World Records in multiple areas. On his estate near the city of Colonia del Sacramento there is a separate building housing his collections, to which he welcomes visitors year-round.

Granja Arenas is actually a working farm, and there is a restaurant, produce shop, and gift shop on the premises next to his private museum. No doubt bustling on the weekends and during school trips, but it was quiet on the weekday we visited, and employees came out to unlock doors for us at our request.

There were three rooms dedicated to pencils, with other rooms housing other kinds of artifacts. I couldn’t linger as long as I wanted to, since the girl who guided us through the rooms clearly had another job to get back to. I apologize for the hurriedly taken photos, glares and all :(

The pencils are generally organized by type and by origin, but sometimes the taxonomy is unclear; this may be a result of specimens being added later on. I got the impression that, while major brands and flagship pencils are well represented, Sr. Arenas likes novelty and variety. He truly loves all kinds of pencils. There are jumbo pencils, neon pencils, anime character pencils, feathered pencils, you name it.

One of the highlights of his pencil-collecting career must have been his visit to the headquarters of Faber-Castell in Germany. There was a special display case in commemoration of the event.

If anybody is interested in how official Guinness World Record certificates look like, here they are!

At the end of the tour I got to meet the man behind the collection himself, in the farm shop ringing up sales of his homemade jams. He told me he had “five or six” Korean pencils in his possession, all pretty old, but by that time my family was glaring at me from the courtyard so I had to leave. Next time I think I will go more prepared, and ask him if he has certain pencils in his possession…

But I don’t know. Looking is fun, but for me this kind of display has its limits. I guess I’m more interested in the story of each individual pencil, how it came to be born, how it was received in its time and how it came to its end (as so many pencils seem to have done). At least I want to know how it writes, and the frustration of not being able to take it out of its vitrine and test it might get to me in the end ;)

But that is the irony of the pencil. If you use it, you will shorten its life. In order to live, it must keep some of its mysteries to itself. If Sr. Arenas had used up his pencils he would never have had a collection this large.

A delightful memento of the visit, courtesy of Faber-Castell:

My First Field Note (And Thoughts on Notebook Sizes)

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Last week I finally got to join the legions of Field Notes users, thanks to a kind friend. After all this time! I first encountered the bewildering FN phenomenon upon joining the blogosphere, and while I did see a few specimens in my local stationery store in Montreal, I never got around to buying them for myself. Now that I have one in my hands, I find myself struck above all not by its design or paper quality, but by its dimensions. I’ve never seen a notebook in this particular size before. And I’ve been thinking about why this should throw me as much as it does, when notebooks are free to come in all shapes and sizes.

For starters, a Field Note is really small. And thin. And tallish, considering its other dimensions. It says 48 pages, but that means 24 sheets, or, rather, twelve sheets folded and stapled in the middle. I’ve never seen a notebook that cries out this loudly to be put in a checkered flannel shirt pocket; I find the shape very masculine. Women’s clothing don’t usually have the kind of pockets to store these in, and if carried around in purses or bags, they would crease right away. This notebook confounds my Asian sensibilities – too thin and undetachable to be a memopad, too small and vertically long to be a notebook. Uncategorizable.

I’ve set the Field Note next to some other small notebooks/memopads I have: the Kokuyo Campus Notebook No. 5 (48 pages), a Life Noble Memo Pad (B7, 100 sheets), and another Life notebook (N15b, 40 sheets). In this size, products I’m familiar with usually come with more sheets that tend to be more square and glued together. It’s a distinct advantage of FN’s that the stapled pages lie flat, allowing the user to make the most of the small page. But it has too few pages compared to other premium-quality notebooks of its size; also, while Japanese brands tend to concentrate more on the quality of paper inside, Field Notes is all about design. And the design is undeniably well done; it’s another example of the best kind of Western design, that pulls together a seemingly simple combination of color, texture, and typeface, and achieves something very clean and classic.

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If I were resident in the U.S., I think I would have tried a subscription if only for the pleasure of being dazzled every season by its covers, but once abroad the cost becomes prohibitive. (BTW I wonder how thick the pages are, in terms of grams per square meter?) And I already have some notebooks too pretty to use, similarly American-made: Rifle Paper notebooks. I am sure my Field Notes would suffer the same fate if I ever signed up for them…

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Thinking about sizes helped me clarify a problem I had for a long time with my Hobonichi Weeks but couldn’t put my finger on up till now. The Weeks is thin, light, portable, and employs this wonderful Tomoe River paper, and I haven’t had any problems using it. However, for some reason, I like it less than my original Hobonichi Techo (planner), and am thinking all the time about what weekly I can replace it with next year. Why? I realized that its dimensions reminded me (however subliminally) of the basic “business diary” so ubiquitous back home and in Japan. There are two popular formats for “business” diaries: one is in a weekly format, thin, vertically long and has gilded pages, and the other is a larger and much thicker page-per-day diary. Both kinds are produced with vinyl or synthetic leather covers in drab brown or black, and are often issued to employees by corporations at the end of the year. When I was writing up this post I asked my husband whether he had a company-issue diary, and of course he did (seen below next to my Weeks). The actual sizes vary but the general dimensions remain strikingly similar (both kinds of diaries can be seen in this size chart at Takahashi Shoten, a Japanese publisher).

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Oh, that dreadfully kitschy gilding! I will never be able to enjoy Smythson’s or any other gilded notebook on its own merits :(

I guess the Hobonichi people tried to take the business edge off the Weeks by making it slightly larger and roomier (mindful of the large number of female Techo users maybe?). It’s officially called “wallet size” (and it does match the size of my wallet), but it smacks of crumpled suits and Samsonite document bags all the same. The Nikkei starts its review of the Weeks with the sentence, “The business diary that Hobonichi, with its philosophy of mixing work and leisure, came up with is in a left-sided weekly format…” So for me, long and thin equals “official” and “business”, whereas more square formats signal “laid-back”, “relaxed”, and “private”.

I think the size factor also underlies the almost universal affection for the original Hobonichi Planner. It’s a standard A6, 105mm-by-148mm format, but more importantly, this is exactly the size of Japanese pocket books (bunkobon). Non-Japanese users of the Techo don’t seem to grasp the full significance of this size even when told of it, because in the States, “pocket-sized” paperbacks actually come in several different sizes (all larger than the standard Japanese one) and use coarser paper which make for a thicker volume. All in all, American paperbacks don’t look or feel much like notebooks. However, Japanese paperbacks are tailored to a much more uniform size across publishers, use smoother, thinner paper (and are therefore more compact), and more popular in their home country. The bunkobon is an immediately recognizable and beloved format. In Japanese bookstores, the bunkobon shelves are allotted by publisher, and the row upon row of precisely matched, color-coded small books can be a sight to behold.

Here is a sample row of bunkobon (in the middle), with regular hardcovers on the left.

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The bunkobon is 1/4 of an A4-sized sheet; top left is a collection of essays by Haruki Murakami, top right is the Hobonichi Planner, bottom left is a Life Premium notebook, and bottom right is a Midori Cotton MD notebook.

Given this background, I am naturally interested in other A6-sized notebooks, such as these Kokuyo “Buncobon” notebooks that JetPens is offering (but I’m not ordering them, as shipping alone costs $47!). Muji seems to make some out of recycled paper too. It was interesting to read the comments, though, for the former. People seem to dislike the soft covers, but in my opinion the soft cover is precisely what gives the notebooks their bunkobon flavor; more durable covers should be found in other, mostly Western brands, such as the Quo Vadis Habana notebooks. The memories of a soft, pliable, and light book are what give these Japanese notebooks their particular appeal.

Random Notes on Studying Foreign Languages

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I used to have very old-fashioned ideas about studying languages, how they should be learned in a very structured environment with a healthy emphasis on reading, writing and grammar. I learned all my European languages in school (high school, university, graduate school), and school was also where I formally studied up on Japanese, building up from my limited childhood vocabulary of playground phrases. Later on I enrolled in a proper ulpan to learn Hebrew. But now, faced with the prospect of having to learn yet another foreign language in my forties, and surveying the desolate landscape of forgotten words and conjugations piled up over the years like so much mental debris, I just don’t feel like I have it in me anymore. So lately I’ve been lounging at home with my first Rosetta Stone program, trying to learn just enough Spanish to get by. Rosetta is formatted like a serial quiz with lots of pictures and, in my opinion, marvellously embodies this very American idea of painless learning, in which you’re having so much fun you don’t even realize you’re absorbing something of value (whereas in other cultures learning is a very conscious activity and necessarily accompanied by a certain amount of angst).

Spanish is a close cousin of French, and the two languages share a lot of vocabulary and grammar between them so I wasn’t expecting a lot of surprises, but still, life filtered through a new language offers interesting food for thought. I learned, for example, that the Spanish word for “pregnancy” is el embarazo. Really? Even when it happens in wedlock? And “to wait”, in Spanish, turns out to be esperar, as in the French word for “hope”, espoir. The word somehow imbues the most mundane moments of waiting with poignancy; you hope, despite everything, that the bus will come.

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Studying is a good excuse to use up the notebooks one has stockpiled up till now. I’ve even come up with a system that allows me to use pencils and pens equally often: I write down words and sentences as I go along with the lesson the first time, and then overwrite the parts I need to memorize in ink when I go over them again. Up till now I seldom reviewed my notes, which must be the reason my vocabulary retention is so poor (well, my brain cells are also aging); this way I review more often. This also allows me to use thicker-nibbed fountain pens more, that tend to get underused with daily Hobonichi journalling.

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I first finished up my small Life Vermilion notebook, then started on a notepad I bought many years ago in Korea but never got around to using. The brand (Oxford) is fairly popular back home (you see a LOT of their yellow legal pads) but I hadn’t given much thought to its origins up till now; I vaguely assumed the brand was Korean, even, given the academically aspirational name, but it turns out to be French! A family firm based in Normandy, to be specific, which also owns several other brands, including Canson. This particular format that I have (two-holed, perforated at top) isn’t really for me as I never use binders, but the paper is pleasantly smooth and crease-resistant in a different way than Rhodia or Clairefontaine. The paper has a khaki tint to it, which is accentuated by the grey lines. I might pick up some more of these in a different format next time I’m back home.

Pencil Therapy

An effective round of pencil therapy consists of:

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1. Gathering a bunch of pencils to sharpen,

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2. Adding them to a pot of fresh points (instant coffee is optional), and

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3. Hoarding some good pencils to sharpen on a rainy day (aka delayed gratification).

The thing is, there’s been so many rainy days lately – it’s been raining solidly, relentlessly, for a week now and shows no signs of abating. I fear my stock will not last long :(

J. R. Moon “Big Dipper” Pencils

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This is not meant to be a proper review, but rather two (hopefully amusing) anecdotes related to this fun-looking pencil. (I know nothing about the J. R. Moon Pencil Company except that it is in Tennesee and still alive and well.) The “Big Dipper” was an impulse buy – I was in the middle of an intensive eBaying period and felt like trying something different from the usual Eagles and Eberhard Fabers. This bright red pencil had a pleasing vintage Coca-Cola kind of look, and was fat and round, characteristics I was in love with at that time. It wasn’t expensive either.

Only after I had placed the order did I discover that, the vintage looks notwithstanding, this pencil was still being manufactured in exactly the same design and could be bought online for slightly less than what I had paid. Ouch! When it comes to vintage stuff, a little learning is a dangerous thing indeed. I sharpened one anyway and found my suspicions confirmed – that these oversized round “primer” or “beginner”-type pencils rarely write the way I like. They write, for the most part, black and chalky. Regular writing pencils, not cute jumbo pencils, are best for writing.

I don’t buy oversized pencils anymore, but happily this pencil has had its uses. Uruguay has one surprising connection to the pencil world, in the person of one Señor Emilio Arenas of Colonia: he used to be, for many years, the man with the largest pencil collection in the world (articles in Spanish and English), with around 18,000 specimens, until an Indian teenager wrested the Guiness World Record title away from him recently. My son’s fourth-grade class went on a school trip to Colonia last week, and visited the pencil museum Mr. Arenas runs on his farm. The class was told that they could bring pencils to give Mr. Arenas if they wished, and so I naturally wanted to make a statement, but couldn’t figure out what kind of collection he had and what its focal points were. In the end I guessed his was an all-inclusive, magpie-like thing, and therefore unusual pencils might appeal more than others. Which is how one J. R. Moon “Big Dipper” was sent his way…

… and my son reported back that Mr. Arenas didn’t have this pencil in his collection! How gratifying ;)

I look forward to visiting Colonia myself, very soon, and reporting back on this world-famous pencil collection.

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(Sharpened with a Lyra two-hole sharpener.)

Bus-Riding in Montevideo

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Among the many new aspects of life I’m experiencing in Uruguay, I’ve gotten to enjoy one in particular: travelling on buses. Montevideo doesn’t have an underground metro and is otherwise a very car-centered town, but it is well served by a multitude of bus lines crisscrossing the city, many of which intriguingly don’t proceed along an obvious line linking Point A to Point B but detours and meanders along rich and poor neighborhoods alike.

I ride buses out of necessity (I can’t drive), but also out of choice. Taxis here are small and cramped, and the reckless driving can give you headaches on bumpy concrete roads. After observing a number of collisions, I came to the conclusion that travelling in a bigger vehicle would not only be more pleasant, but would probably keep me alive longer. Sure, bus drivers have their distractions too; they take money, issue tickets and change, drive, talk and sing along to the radio (often all at the same time), but all in all I trust them more than those crazy cab drivers.

Riding buses is a civilized and very social business here. Men routinely step aside for women, especially those accompanied by children. Should you stand, soon there is a tap on your shoulder informing that there’s a vacant seat. And then there are the live performances. I wonder if I should say bus musician instead of street musician, but anyway there’s almost always some performer (or the occasional pedlar) hopping on the bus for a couple of stops. So far I’ve been entertained by Spanish rap, ballads, witty monologues, and, on one memorable occasion, a soulful male duet accompanied by guitar and trombone(!). (Incidentally, there is a notice on the back exit exhorting riders to refrain from making use of “sonorous instruments”. They do it anyway.) Not everyone on the bus gives money, but they all applaud at the end of the performance. Sometimes I will be standing at a bus stop with the afternoon sun in my eyes, and a bus will trundle by, polite clapping spilling out of the open windows. It is a strange but wonderful sight.

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There is one more thing about buses that I haven’t been able to figure out yet: the advertisements. As I mentioned in my last post, stationery ads are surprisingly common here, many of them plastered to the sides of buses (where you would more commonly expect, in Korea at least, ads for more lucrative businesses such as clinics and cram schools). Are spots cheap? Do they ever recoup the cost? And what is the point of advertising products that are not at all new, and often the only kind offered at most stores (like Papiros student notebooks), or the cheapest available that people will buy anyway (like BIC Crystal ballpoint pens)?

But maybe all this is normal – it is, after all, an industry like any other. It’s just that it’s been such a long time since I’ve seen such public ads for stationery. We might ask ourselves why we don’t do it back home more often.

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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.

Home

We are home for only two weeks and there is so little time and so much to do, but here I am on my way to downtown Seoul to meet a new pencil friend.

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I really love Gwanghwamun.  Apart from the actual neighborhood(s) I grew up in, this is the one place that I’ve consistently haunted throughout my school years and adulthood.  I know which shops used to be where and what the current establishments used to be like before remodeling. The crowds and traffic are more bearable here; there is order and a sort of old-fashioned gentility, perhaps due to the presence of government offices, embassies and palaces.  To me, it feels positively civilized compared to the intense heat and noise of Gangnam.

Of course, one big reason I’ve kept up my visits is because of the mega-bookstore and stationer in the basement of the brown-tile-and-glass building above.

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The array of goods on offer are perhaps not that comprehensive, but they change frequently and it’s always worth a look.  The geographical proximity to Japan means that Japanese products are well represented (at least better than in North America).

And this time there was a proper pencil meet!

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I should have had refills of the coffee and the talk.  In any case I feel as if I’ve recharged my pencil batteries to keep me going for a couple more years.  The next post will probably be from Uruguay!

Stationery Haul – Seoul

I am spending a very busy two-week vacation back home – but of course some stationery tours are in order.  The best part about being back is that I’ve had the chance to meet up with old pen friends and meet new friends I made online.

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A typical pen meet shot of four people :)

Pens were tested, gifts exchanged and gossip shared.  Thank you for a great time!

Afterwards we moved on to a big department-store style stationer and bookshop.

In Montreal, I had the impression that special editions of MT masking tapes were produced in limited runs and therefore no longer available past that particular season, but this doesn’t seem to be true.  I found an exhilarating display stand comprising most of the special editions I had drooled over this past year, including the MT × Nordic Countries collaboration series.  (The ordinary, permanent-collection tapes were at the back.)

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Bengt & Lotta Fish (left), Flowers (3rd from left), Olle Eksell Work & Fika (black), and Almedahls Italian Flower Shelf.

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I also stocked up on some Redman pencil cases and some TiTi T-Prime pencils (as I mentioned, these pencils are made by Camel Pencil Manufacturing, which makes the new Craft Design Technology Item No. 32 pencils).  Plus an unfamiliar Staedtler, and some interesting Kirin bicolor pencils.

And last but not least, I stocked up on my favorite sharpener, the Deli 0635.  It’s sold under the Morning Glory brand here and called the “Dual Sharpener”, but it’s Deli all right – the packaging says so.  It comes with a desk mount.

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They even note the date of manufacture for pencil sharpeners here ;)

The recommended retail price is 8500 Korean won (about 7 USD), but I believe I got it for cheaper.

Busy, but more to come!