Why specialists still rule

Sunday, December 13, 2009
I love Aspinal of London. They do a great range of leather goods at prices generally somewhat cheaper than Smythesons, and also carry a good selection of reasonably priced clothing accessories such as pocket squares, ties, and cufflinks. I was also attracted to their small selection of pens, as I have been looking for a new fountain pen, and so I arranged to see a few in their Selfridges concession on Saturday.

After a bit of a struggle to find the pens (although that's largely my fault - I'd neglected to keep a note of the order number) the lady dumped them on the table in front of me and went to deal with another customer. Left to my own devices, I examined the pens and, as I had suspected, they are attractive and beautifully made. In particular I was very keen on a fairly large sterling silver fountain pen, and had pretty much resolved to buy this. However, if I had already been slightly put off by the lack of any help or interest from the shop assistant, things got worse once I started enquiring about nibs.

Choosing a pen without consideration for the size of the nib is unwise if you intend to write with it regularly. Unfortunately, the assistant knew nothing about nibs, although she 'guessed' the pens had medium nibs. I asked if I could try writing with it but, to my surprise, was told I couldn't. Apparantly I was the first person to ever ask to try one of their pens before buying it. I expect she's right, but it does make me wonder what kind of people spend £150 on something as personal as a fountain pen without trying it out.

At this point, I gave up on Aspinal, and perhaps I was unfair to expect them to really be of much use anyway. If they specialise in anything, it is leather goods, and there is no reason why they should have any particular expertise in pens. Except that they have chosen to sell them, of course. Still, I should have known better than to try and buy a pen from a non-specialist, and so I made my way to the spiritual home of the specialist boutique - the Burlington Arcade, one of a small number of similar arcades in the Piccadilly and Regent Street area. Although generally crowded with tourists, it nevertheless remains a unique and exclusive shopping experience. More importantly, each of the shops in it are true experts in their areas.

I visited Penfriend, a store too cramped to allow any chance at browsing, but an absolutely ideal place to get some real assistance in choosing a pen. After discretely establishing my price range, the assistant began to enthusiastically pass pens to me to try; different brands, different models and different nibs, they all began to pile up on the glass counter, and I was free to write with any of them. Eventually, after a bit of back-and-forth between different nibs, I selected a Parker Duofold International in black with gold trim and a gold and platinum nib. The whole experience of being helped to find the perfect pen was far more satisfying than simply picking it up in Selfridges, and reminded me of how important it is to shop at real specialists when possible, rather than being lured by the convenience and glamour of department stores like Selfridges, or retailers foolishly expanding into unfamiliar territory, like Aspinal of London.