In an era where typing trumps writing by hand, it might come as surprise to learn of a one-month-old store on the Lower East Side devoted to all things pencil. Then again, perhaps the digital age has primed all of us for a return to the simplest writing implement of them all, which is exactly what owner Caroline Weaver hopes will happen with her store, CW Pencil Enterprise.
Caroline opened the store mere weeks ago in March, following the launch of an online boutique back in October 2014. While the move from screen to storefront may seem fast, Caroline’s decision was in response to stellar online sales. Her store provides a tactile shopping experience, but more than that, she wants to share her passion for pencils with New Yorkers. Customers will be delighted by Caroline’s knowledge of pencil history as well as her understanding and appreciation that pencils are at the beginning of many great achievements.
We recently stopped by the store to ask Caroline some sharp questions, and just like the pencils she carries, her answers were on point.
What makes pencils special? Have you always been intrigued by them?
Pencils just have a lot of wonderful qualities. It’s just the physicality of a pencil that makes it special and unique. They are so tactile, they smell like something, they feel a certain way, they make a sound, and there is just nothing better than writing with a freshly sharpened pencil. You can’t beat that. You can’t get that from a pen or any other writing utensil.
I’ve always loved pencils. I’ve been collecting them for many, many years and I’ve always only written with a woodcase pencil. The thing I think about a lot regarding pencils is that it’s a really simple object, but I love to think about the number of words and ideas that a single pencil contains. It’s just a stick of graphite in a piece of wood, but it’s fun to get to the end of a pencil and think about all the things you’ve done with it.
In a digital age, what inspired you to open a brick and mortar store in the city?
The site was something I started back in October 2014 because ultimately, my dream was to open a pencil store. I thought well, maybe it could actually work, and maybe I’ll test it online and see how that goes. I didn’t do any sort of advertising. It just kind of happened and the response was enormous. I realized that if I maintained a really awesome collection of pencils, it would work.
I think it has a lot to do with the fact that I sell something really specific, and unless you know what you’re looking for, buying pencils online can be hard. You can see what they look like, but pencils are meant to be used. Instead of customers choosing them online from knowledge I provide or things they might already know about them, I really wanted people to have the experience of coming in here and realizing what the differences are between all of them. I was really surprised by how many people out there are looking for specific pencils that I sold, especially for antique pencils that are hard to find.
What qualifies as an antique pencil?
I consider antique pencils those produced before the 1980s. Pencils that aren’t in production anymore. There aren’t that many pencil factories left in the world, and there are all these amazing pencils that came from factories that used to be in the U.S. There was a factory in Brooklyn that made really awesome pencils from the beginning of the 20th century until they were sold and closed. They’re just better quality. Now, trees grow so quickly that the wood isn’t as dense, and so with the older pencils the wood is a lot harder and it smells better. It’s just a completely different writing experience.
When looking for a storefront, did you have a specific neighborhood in mind?
I knew I wanted to be somewhere downtown and I knew I wanted the shop to be on a street where people would find it—but on a street that wasn’t a shopping street. I like the idea that you just kind of have to discover it. You walk past it and you’re surprised to find a pencil shop. Also, there are a lot of design studios and architecture firms around here, which helps.
What makes the Lower East Side a great fit for the store?
It’s been wonderful. I have the best neighbors. This neighborhood feels really genuine because it’s primarily a residential neighborhood, but it’s on the fringe of a lot of really busy neighborhoods. We have every ethnicity around here, and we have a lot of really unique businesses.
Did you have a vision for the store’s layout and design?
I designed the store myself. I was thinking about this for many years. Even before it became realistic, I always knew it was going to have a checkerboard floor and a red velvet curtain. I wanted it to feel like a really fun, unusual, modernist schoolhouse. What I sell are small things, but there are lots of them. It has to be very organized, but accessible. I want people to feel comfortable and that they can touch everything.
I collected advertisements from the ’30s. I just love that they make this claim that everything was started with a pencil. Pencils aren’t really advertised anymore in the U.S. Once upon a time, there was way more competition and advertising was essential. Now, for the most part you go to a big retailer and they’re two pencil options.
I have this really old machine called a Kingsley Machine. It’s from the 1960s and it’s a hot foil stamper so I can personalize pencils. People get excited about it because normally you order personalized pencils online and they require that you buy a larger quantity. Here I can just do one while you’re shopping.
What’s one thing most New Yorkers do not know about pencils?
I don’t think most New Yorkers know the history behind the pencil industry in this part of the country. Until recently, most American pencil factories were on the east coast. They used to be made from eastern cedar because they were tons of it. Now, most pencils are made from California wood.
They’re used to be a lot of pencil factories in Jersey City and around New York. The General Pencil Company is still in Jersey City. When people come in and see pencils from there, they get excited about the idea of “local” pencils.
The world of pencils extends into sharpeners and cases. Why do you think people get so excited over these accessories?
Sharpeners especially, people go wild for sharpeners because they are necessary tools for pencils. It’s the same sort of thing with pencils —there is a certain amount of craftsmanship that goes into them. People appreciate well made objects. They get really excited when they come in here and see a beautiful sharpener or an eraser from Europe. I try to stock objects that I love, but that are also really functional. I prefer to sell things that have a history, and a lot of these accessories contribute to that.
Do you have any advice for the best way to sharpen a pencil?
There is a book called “How to Sharpen Pencils,” which is excellent and very funny. It’s a superb book. You just have to have a good sharpener. You have to make sure the blades are sharp, and if you sharpen pencils a lot, you do need to replace them. There is a really great sharpener that was developed by a teacher named Troy. It’s amazing. People in the pencil world have it and my customers love it. There are some good electric sharpeners, but I think the act of sharpening by hand is important to the use of a pencil.
If you could select one pencil that epitomizes New York, which one would it be?
I have one pencil that I stock only because it’s a lovely pencil. It’s not even made in the U.S. It’s made in Switzerland. It has a black checkered pattern on it and people always come in and say, “That’s a taxi pencil.” I sell it to lots of people because they love it. It is like a New York souvenir.
What does returning the joy of pencils to adults mean to you?
It makes me really excited that the things that I collect and carry invoke a strong feeling of nostalgia in my customers. Most of my customers are adults, and maybe they haven’t written with a pencil for years. They come in and they see a pencil that they recognize from their childhood, a classic American pencil, and they get really excited when they write with it again. They share it with their kids, and then their kids come in after school and buy all these fancy pencils for school.
CW Pencil Enterprise
100a Forsyth Street
New York, NY 10002
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[This interview has been edited. All images courtesy of Ryan Segedi unless otherwise noted]