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Ballad of a Pencil Junkie

Ballad of a Pencil Junkie

The following is an excerpt from Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, by Mary Norris, copyright © 2015. With permission of the publisher W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

By Mary Norris

In the old days at The New Yorker, when your pencil point got dull, you just tossed it aside and picked up a new one. There was an office boy who came around in the morning with a tray of freshly sharpened wooden pencils. And they were nice long ones — no stubs. The boy held out his tray of pencils, and you scooped up a quiver of them. It sounds like something out of a dream! Even then I think I knew that the office boy and his tray of pencils would go the way of the ivory-billed woodpecker.

Later, there were boxes and boxes of both No. 1 and No. 2 pencils stacked in the supply closet: all I had to do was grab a box of a dozen, sharpen them up (I used an electric pencil sharpener at the time), and fill my pencil cup. It was downright luxurious.

I spent so many hours dutifully copying changes with a No. 1 pencil that I grew accustomed to the feel of the softer lead. Sometimes an editor, walking around with pencil in hand, would use my desk for a moment to make a change, and leave the pencil behind. It would get mixed in with mine, and if I accidentally took up a pencil that had migrated in this manner, I could feel the difference. I’d take a closer look and, sure enough, there it was embossed on the shaft: No. 2. Writing with a No. 2 pencil made me feel as if I had a hangover. It created a distance between my hand and my brain, put me at a remove from the surface of the paper I was writing on. I would throw it into the desk drawer.

Between You & Me sizedYears later, when I had apparently used up every No. 1 pencil in Times Square, I asked the person in charge of office supplies to order some for me, and she said they weren’t available. “What do you mean, they’re not available?” I asked. “They’re not in the catalogue,” she answered. She showed me a thick catalogue of office supplies and told me to choose. I was horrified. The office-supply catalogue reminded me of the catalogue for a vacation club that a friend received when she bought a time-share in Cozumel. She could swap it for any place in the catalogue. But what if the place she wanted to go wasn’t in the catalogue? I have always known where I wanted to travel, and always had an overambitious itinerary: London, Canterbury, Dover, Rye, Wye, Swansea, Tintagel, Dublin, Kilkenny, Galway, Mayo, and back to London, with a daytrip to Oxford. Athens, Crete, Rhodes, Cyprus, Samos, Chios, Çanakkale (Troy), Istanbul, Thessaloniki, Skiathos, Delphi, Mycenae, and back to Athens, with a side trip to Sounion to see Byron’s graffiti. How could she restrict herself to the places that were in the catalogue?

“Have you ever tried a mechanical pencil?” my colleague asked. She gave me a mechanical pencil, fixed under rigid plastic to a piece of plasticated cardboard, and a tiny cylinder of replacement lead. I tried — God knows I tried — but I just couldn’t do it. I could not master the single click that advances the lead just the right amount (for whom?). I would overclick and the lead would be overlong and it would break. I shook the mechanical pencil, unable to believe that the lead would fall into the right slot without my assistance. I hated having to take it apart to put fresh lead in. I felt as if I were writing with a prosthetic hand. For those of us who like to make marks on paper with graphite mined from the earth, there is no satisfaction in an office-supply catalogue.

Finally, it came to this: I had to buy my own pencils. But it got harder and harder to track down the softest lead. I found a small cache of No. 1 pencils at Rogoff’s, a stationery store in Rocka­way. Rogoff’s is an institution in Rockaway — there is a dentist of the same name. It’s the kind of place that a kid looks forward to stopping in on the way to the beach and being allowed to pick out one thing from the aisles and aisles of cheap toys, beach junk, and party goods. The store has a very satisfying stationery aisle, and I feel like a kid in there myself, drooling over the blank books and the party invitations and the different-colored index cards and the pastel legal pads. The shelf with the boxes of pen­cils was especially alluring, but once I had cleaned out its supply of No. 1s, Rogoff’s did not restock.

So one Christmas I went public with my pencil needs: I posted a Wish List online. Items included an iPhone, a Smart Car, hair insurance, a ciborium, and No. 1 pencils. (Small wonder that people were willing to spring for the pencils.) Someone actually asked, “Are you sure you don’t mean No. 2 pencils?” Why would I make a special plea for something as readily available as a No. 2 pencil? Just the other day I found one lying in the gutter on Park Avenue South. I picked it up, of course — I may be a prima donna where pencils are concerned, but you never know when you are going to be grateful for even a pencil stub. It still astonishes me that some people claim to prefer No. 2s. They say that, because the lead is hard, you don’t have to sharpen them as often. I say it’s worth the trouble. That December, I received in the mail a full gross of Dixon Ticonderoga No. 1 pencils as a gift from a secret admirer. I thought I was set for life.

Thus began years of frustration and abuse. I’d gotten bad pencils before, but never a whole gross. When I tried to write, the lead would break; I would sharpen the pencil, and the lead would break again. As I was sharpening, I could see that the next segment of lead was not cinched in the wood securely and was about to break off. I would try to sharpen past it — the way I used to fast-forward a cassette tape past the part that was mangled — and discover that the lead was shattered for the entire length of the pencil. And if it happened with one pencil, it happened with the whole box.

It was getting embarrassing at the office. I would arrive at a closing meeting with a handful of pencils and a Magic Rub eraser. As the points wore down, I would toss them aside; when the points broke, I felt like an idiot. A writer brandished his mechanical pencil at me, then opened his suit jacket to reveal a half-dozen more that he had secreted in his inside breast pocket. He had a source in the checking department, he explained devilishly.

electricsharpenerI determined to send these pencils back to the dealer. All I knew about them, from the packaging, was that they came from a warehouse in New Jersey. I pictured the pencils being thrown off the truck at a loading dock in the Meadowlands. On the company’s Web site I learned that the corporate headquarters of Dixon Ticonderoga was in Florida, and its pencils were made in Mexico. The founder, Joseph Dixon (1799–1869), first opened for business in Salem, Massachusetts. “One of Joseph Dixon’s inventions was a heat-resistant graphite crucible widely used in the production of iron and steel during the Mexican-American War. This invention was so successful that Joseph Dixon built a crucible factory in New Jersey, in 1847.”

The Web site also provided a little pencil history: “During the 1860’s, people still wrote with quill pens and ink, even though Joseph Dixon introduced the first graphite pencil in 1829. It wasn’t until the Civil War that the demand for a dry, clean, portable writing instrument became popular and led to the mass production of pencils. Joseph Dixon was the first to develop pencil automation. In 1872, the company was making 86,000 pencils a day.”

One of Mr. Dixon’s attributes was “an enquiring mind . . . ever alert to seize ‘the opportunity offered by the suggestion of the moment.’” This would account for the modern company’s various opportunistic lines of pencils, including Ticonderoga Breast Cancer Awareness Pencils, Ticonderoga Pencils with Microban Protection (for writing during flu season?), Ticond­eroga EnviroStiks (The Environmentally Friendly Pencil), made from “reforested natural wood.” I didn’t see any No. 1 pencils. Maybe they had stopped producing them because there was no demand for them anymore.

I summoned the spirit of my mother and of dissatisfied customers everywhere, and wrote a letter to the CEO of Dixon Ticonderoga:

Enclosed find six dozen Dixon Ticonderoga No. 1 pen­cils sealed in plastic; seven never-sharpened No. 1s in a box; and a dozen used pencils in various stages of breakdown. They are what remain of the shipment I received from a warehouse in New Jersey in December, 2009. It has been very frustrating to deal with these pencils. I couldn’t help using them, hoping that the next one would not be broken inside. I have felt the point bend before breaking and can even sense the lead wobbling inside the shaft. Chunks of lead have gotten stuck in my electric pencil sharpener at work, and I have had to throw the pencil sharpener away. Manual sharpeners have had to be disassembled. As part of my job, I attend editorial meetings where I act as a kind of recording secretary, marking changes in pencil on page proofs, and it is not just frustrating but also embarrassing when my pencil lead breaks in front of other people.

Mostly, writers of complaining letters are looking for refunds or free merchandise. I was not sure what I wanted, but it was not more defective pencils. I had thrown in pencils that had broken in midsentence. I said I was returning “the unused portion” rather than putting them in the garbage, because if someone rescued them, as I had the No. 2 on Park Avenue South, I would be unleashing on the world the same frustration that the pencils had caused me. The gist of the letter was, simply, Take these pencils. Still, I wanted some response, so I probed the reasons for the poor quality of the pencils:

I would be really curious to know what you think happened. Was the graphite defective? The workmanship? Or was it the shipping that was at fault? Did someone drop them? Where were they made? Do you have quality control? Can you account for the discrepancy between these useless Dixon Ticonderogas and your company’s proud history and motto, “The Best of Its Kind”?

I didn’t have much hope for a response, so I scraped along with four eraserless pencils that I had bought at an art-supply store in the Village. But before long a friend, browsing on pencils.com, discovered that a pencil company called Cal Cedar had brought back the Blackwing — black, with a distinctive flat eraser. Devo­tees of the Blackwing had been paying up to forty dollars apiece for these pencils after they were discontinued, in 1998. My friend placed an order and gave me a box of twelve Blackwings. The lead is ungraded, but it is definitely softer than a No. 2, and very expressive. The Blackwing motto is “Half the Pressure, Twice the Speed.”

I was addicted. They were like Oreos. Soon I was consuming them by the dozen.

I was addicted. They were like Oreos. Soon I was consuming them by the dozen. The descriptions on the boxes are like the tasting notes for wine. The “graphite formulation” of the Palomino Blackwing 602, which is charcoal gray with a black eraser, is “Firm & Smooth.” The Palomino Blackwing, black with a white eraser, is “Soft & Smooth.” The company has since come out with a white version, called the Blackwing Pearl (I think of it as a First Communion pencil), described as “Balanced & Smooth.”

Not long after my first acquisition, Cal Cedar threw a pencil party to celebrate the revival of the Blackwing. The host was Charles Berolzheimer, of Cal Cedar, a sixth-generation pencil-maker. He was dressed in shades of pencil lead. Hundreds of pencil enthusiasts were there, at the Art Directors Club, drawing, graf­fiti style, on big sheets of white paper, adding to small communal notebooks, creating do-it-yourself thaumatropes, experimenting with the camera obscura and the camera lucida. One woman wore two Blackwings in her hair. A gigantic display pencil hung from the ceiling, and on the way in everyone was given a free pencil, either a Palomino Blackwing or a Palomino Blackwing 602.

All these years, I had been wondering how the lead got inside the pencil.

A time line of the pencil covered one long wall, document­ing the contributions associated with many famous names: Faber, Eberhard, Dixon, da Vinci, Thoreau, Borrowdale (the original graphite lode in England). Among the champions of the Black-wing were Stephen Sondheim, Chuck Jones (the father of Bugs Bunny), John Steinbeck, Vladimir Nabokov, and Faye Dunaway. The time line also included pioneers of such ancillary products as the pencil sharpener and the eraser crimp, but on that night, which was my first foray into the cosmopolitan world of pencils, my favorite fact was this: Every pencil is a sandwich. All these years, I had been wondering how the lead got inside the pencil. It turns out that pencils are made from slats of corrugated wood about the size of a Hershey bar. The graphite is laid in the grooves, another slat is glued on top, and then the sandwich is sawed into individual strips, which are sanded, painted, fitted with ferrules and erasers, and there you have it: delicious Blackwings.

Pencils.com also began to try to tempt me with multicolored erasers, but I was not taken in. The eraser that comes with the Palomino Blackwing is flat, like an elongated Chiclet, fitted into a distinctive flat ferrule by means of a tiny clamp. It can be extended and slotted back into the ferrule for longer life — or, better yet, reversed, providing fresh edges for your precision erasure needs. The flat ferrule keeps the pencil from rolling off Stephen Sondheim’s piano, say.

But I do not rely on the erasers that come crimped into the tops of pencils. The erasers on my oversupply of defective Dixon Ticonderogas were virgins. I can always tell that a foreign pencil has entered my collection when the eraser is worn flat. I make a lot of mistakes, thus requiring an eraser at least as large as an ice cube. The eraser available from the catalogue is the Magic Rub, which is of grayish-white vinyl in the shape of a domino. I use it to erase the screeds I sometimes feel compelled to write in the margins of proofs and then regret. Part of my routine is sweep­ing the eraser crumbs off my desk like foundry dust after every job. I used to take just one eraser at a time and wear it down to a nub — a nub that I’d then search for frantically, worried that the cleaning lady had thrown it out. Now I grab a whole box of twelve Magic Rubs. When a twelve-pack gets down to the last layer of three, I get anxious and have to visit the supply cabinet.

circleofpencilsAs I learned at the pencil party, eraser-tipped pencils have a contentious history. It was in 1650, in Nuremberg, that lead was first glued to wood, creating the modern pencil, but it was not until 1858, according to Henry Petroski’s authoritative book The Pencil, that an enterprising Yank named Hyman Lipman, of Philadelphia, patented a method of attaching an eraser to the pencil. Joseph Reckendorfer bought him out and patented a new, improved eraser-tipped pencil in 1862. In Europe, despite the fact that in 1864 an eight-foot-long rubber-tipped pencil was carried in a parade honoring Lothar Faber, the German pencil king, the eraser is more likely to be sold as a separate item.

In England, erasers are called rubbers, after the material they were originally made from. Actually, that’s backwards: rub­ber got its name because the substance was good for rubbing out mistakes. (What we call rubbers the English call French letters. The French word for eraser is gomme.) Before rubber, the material most suited for erasing pencil marks was bread crumbs. A snob might say that the eraser-tipped pencil is like a sofa bed: it sounds like a good idea, but it often features neither the best possible sofa nor the best possible bed. Focusing on the eraser, unscrupulous pencil-makers sometimes stiffed consumers with inferior lead. Or maybe the lead was OK, but the eraser smeared your mistakes around, making them more conspicuous. The effort to combine two distinct things in a single product can result in a decline in the quality of both.

Friends of mine who are artists are particular about erasers; the traces left by an Art Gum or a Pink Pearl — smudges and blurs — can give texture to a drawing. Stick erasers permit artists to erase without laying the meat of their hand on the work. I have seen an eraser made by Koh-i-Noor (a pencil company whose name was meant to evoke precious stones) that was supposed to erase ink and said on its label “imbibed with eraser fluid.” There are electric erasers that look like the tool the dental hygienist uses to polish your teeth. A former colleague on the copydesk, the late Bill Walden (stiff-bristle hair, gritted-teeth grin, breast pocket full of writing instruments), had a prototype of a battery-operated eraser; it drilled holes in paper.

According to Petroski, Nabokov remarked that “his pencils outlasted their erasers.” (Why didn’t Véra give him a Magic Rub?) John Steinbeck “could not use pencils once he felt their ferrules touch his hand.” I am in Steinbeck’s camp. Once the pencil has reached half its length, that fancy ferrule on the Blackwing digs into my hand. Recently I passed along a whole fistful of used Blackwings to a colleague. I sharpened them first, and she was deeply appreciative. She uses them down to the nub.

At that pencil party, I encountered for the first time a handheld long-point pencil sharpener. Until then, I had not known that a handheld pencil sharpener could be anything but a toy; I have one in the shape of the Empire State Building that I treasure for sentimental reasons, but it is useless except as a cake decoration. The party featured a Sharpening Lounge, where there were state-of-the-art wall-mounted X-Acto sharpeners along one wall (they not only deliver a beautiful point but do so in reverent silence) and copies of a pencil-yellow manual called How to Sharpen Pencils, by David Rees. It is one of very few books worthy of the dual category “Humor/Reference.”

Until I went to the pencil party, I felt very alone…

Until I went to the pencil party, I felt very alone, a crank among co-workers who were content to stick their No. 2 pencils in any of the various electric pencil sharpeners on the premises. And until I read David Rees I hadn’t realized why it was that, although I, too, relied on an electric pencil sharpener at work, it left me chronically unsatisfied: you can’t see what’s going on in there.

David Rees specializes in the artisanal sharpening of No. 2 pencils: for a fee (at first, it was fifteen dollars, but, like everything else, the price of sharpening pencils has gone up), he will hand-sharpen your pencil and return it to you (along with the shavings), its point sheathed in vinyl tubing. “If you can carve a totem pole with a chainsaw then you can sharpen a pencil with a pocketknife,” Rees writes. Otherwise, you are better off with an old-fashioned manual pencil sharpener, such as the one that my father mounted on the wall in our basement in Cleveland circa 1960 (Chicago, APSCO Products, with Type 2A Cutter Assembly), or the industrial-strength Boston Ranger 55 that my predecessor Lu Burke gave me, with the warning “It chews pencils.” After reading Rees, I took a closer look at Lu’s Boston Ranger and found that it has a lever on the crank that you can set for your desired degree of pointedness (B, M, F).

Somewhere along the line, the office boy devolved into an electric pencil sharpener. Mine was a Panasonic, and it gave a pretty good point, if you snatched the pencil out of its jaws in time. But it began to jam more and more frequently, no doubt because I was feeding it from my store of defective No. 1 pencils. I suppose the shattered lead was getting stuck in the blades, but of course I couldn’t see in there, much less clean the blades with a soft-bristle toothbrush, as Rees recommends. So I did the next best thing: I unplugged it and beat it against the desk.

One day I received a package in the mail with the return address of a Manny Rodriguez, in Lake Mary, Florida. I had the name mixed up with Manny Ramirez, and wondered what the baseball great was sending me from camp. Inside was a gross of No. 1 pencils and a letter:

Dear Ms. Norris,

Thank you for your letter. I was saddened to see that you had struggled so long with these pencils and I appreci­ate you taking the time to share the issues you experienced with us. To help bring you some closure to the matter, let me provide some answers for your questions.

Closure! That’s what I wanted. Not more pencils but closure. The serious tone of the letter made me wonder: Did I stand in relation to Dixon Ticonderoga as the writers of letters complaining about commas and hyphens stand to me? My first reaction is always along the lines of “Get a life.” I am going to try to be more sympathetic to them from now on. I will write back, if only to offer closure.

The letter went on:

Here at Dixon Ticonderoga, we truly do strive to be the best. Each batch of pencils undergoes very stringent quality control measures. We mark all our pencils with a batch code so we can track that batch. When first produced, the batch will undergo various methods of quality control testing which look at everything from the overall appear­ance of the pencil down to the break strength of the lead. These test results and a sample of each batch is then kept on file for years to come should we have any future issues. Any consumer complaints we receive regarding our pen­cils are then logged and tracked back to the original batch. We went ahead and pulled the results for batch 219 and can assure you that this batch did pass our quality control methods and that we did not see a complaint history for it.

“Batch 219” — I liked that.

So what happened to your pencils? Your letter very much perked my interest. I personally oversaw the testing [of ] your pencils. Although our quality control department and I have not made it all the way through the seven dozen+ of them, I can say that with many of the sharpened pencils you sent we experienced the same breakage issues. With the pencils from the unopened box, we have not experienced issues with these. As such, we feel there are two possibili­ties to what went wrong here:

Shipping Damage- As you probably know, the number one lead can be a bit fragile. It is extra soft and more susceptible to shipping bumps and bruises. Somewhere along the way before it came to you, these pencils may have been dropped or mishandled in some way. This could cause breakage within the pencil and lead to the issues you have experienced.

Sharpener Damage- As pencil sharpeners wear out they can sometimes shatter a pencil’s core. Once again, the extra soft lead is more susceptible to this kind of damage. The first time a pencil is sharpened is usually when this occurs. This can be very frustrating as the lead will be shattered after that first instance; however, you will continue to use the pencil and even sharpen it in other sharpeners with the same results, but the damage to the core has already been done. I highly suggest that you replace your sharpener if it is more than a few years old.

It was signed Kristen-Lee Derstein, Marketing Manager, Dixon Ticonderoga Company.

In a very helpful appendix to How to Sharpen Pencils, “Pilgrimage Sites for Pencil Enthusiasts: A Checklist,” I learned of the existence of the Paul A. Johnson Pencil Sharpener Museum in Logan, Ohio, in a pocket southeast of Columbus. Ever since wandering into the Sharpening Lounge at the pencil party, I have been keenly aware of the need in this country for a pencil-sharpener boutique. It would be like an Apple store, but more artisanal. Williamsburg would be a good place for it.

Once, passing a storefront in Times Square with the words StubHub in the window, I thought for a moment that my dream had come true . . . but then I remembered that StubHub is a clearinghouse for theater tickets. Given that we still lack a pencil-sharpener boutique, a museum would have to do — maybe it would have a souvenir shop. I knew that Logan also had a canoe livery and a washboard factory, and I pictured myself, in Thoreau mode, paddling from the washboard factory to the pencil-sharpener museum, ideally in the company of David Rees. Rees himself had never visited the Chartres of pencil-sharpener pilgrimages, and unfortunately was not free to join me. He had done his research, however, and warned me that the collection consisted mainly of novelty pencil sharpeners.

So on a perfect late-summer day, I went by myself, making a substantial detour on the way back to New York from the annual weekend on Kelleys Island, in Lake Erie. Leaving the island, I took the ferry to Marblehead, at the tip of the peninsula that forms Sandusky Bay, and instead of swinging east through Cleveland, as usual, I headed south: Route 4 to Bucyrus, 98 to Waldo, 23 to Columbus, which I skirted on I-270, and 33 past Lancaster to Logan. The air was pungent with fertilizer. There were acres of corn and pumpkins, the landscape bisected arbitrarily by train tracks. I was dazzled by a sign for SIAM: maybe it was the effect of all that corn, but it looked like MAIS spelled backwards. On entering Chatfield, I was gratified by a typo on a reader board: “Chatfield Canvas & Upholstrey.” Outside Delaware, Ohio, there was a cemetery advertising “½ Price Graves.” I passed a turnoff for Gender Road. Maybe it was named for a guy name Gender, or maybe it was the road to a theme park where everything was masculine, feminine, or neuter.

The Paul A. Johnson Pencil Sharpener Museum is at the Hocking Hills Welcome Center. The museum is a freestanding prefab cabin decorated with a clutch of oversized colored pencils. Admission is free. I entered reverently. A plaque at the entrance commemorates the Reverend Johnson (1925–2010), and framed newspaper clippings document the collection, of more than 3,400 pencil sharpeners, and its move from Carbon Hill, in nearby Nelsonville, to the welcome center, where it officially reopened in 2011. Johnson started the collection after he retired from the ministry, in 1988. His wife, Charlotte, knowing he would need something to occupy him in retirement, gave him two pencil sharpeners in the shape of metal cars for Christmas. He spent the next eleven years searching “for unique designs and models.” One of his principal sources of pencil sharpeners was hospital gift shops.

When asked why he collected them, he said, “Nobody else does it.”

Rees would approve of one of the rules governing Johnson’s acquisitions: the museum accepts no electric pencil sharpeners. (Johnson made an exception for a gorilla that one of his grandchildren gave him; its eyes glow red when the pencil is sharpened.) Johnson never used his pencil sharpeners. When asked why he collected them, he said, “Nobody else does it.”

The sharpeners are arrayed behind glass, on glass shelves, according to category: Transportation, Music (harp, gramophone, banjo, accordion, organ), Military, Space, History (the Colosseum, the Empire State Building — that’s the one I have! — the Golden Gate Bridge, Christ the Redeemer with arms outspread on that mountaintop in Rio), the Zodiac, Dogs, Cats, Christmas, Easter (what, no Passover sharpeners?), Hearts, Sports, Furniture/ Household (bathtub, electric fan, sewing machine, cash register), and so on. There were a few technical categories, including dual-hole sharpeners (some in the shape of noses — ouch) and sharpeners for flat pencils, the kind carpenters use. I took as many pictures as I could. Only a sign warning that the museum is under surveillance twenty-four hours a day kept me from dancing.

Inside the welcome center, I examined a copy of the patent for the oldest sharpener in the collection and a small selection of sharpeners arrayed around it on the wall: a toilet, a submarine, a trumpet, a caboose. A beautiful cardinal’s head (a bird’s, not the prelate’s) made me wonder whether there was a series of ornithological pencil sharpeners and whether the Vatican carried an ecclesiastical line.

I spoke with Karen Raymore, a blond woman wearing black dotted swiss, who had come to Ohio from Wisconsin, where she was in destination marketing. It was she who had put the pencil-sharpener museum on the map. Driving out toward Nelsonville one day, she had spotted the sign that the Reverend Johnson had posted, inviting passersby to visit the pencil-sharpener museum — at the time, it was set up on his property, in Carbon Hill — and providing a phone number. She had arranged a tour for a group of travel writers. When Raymore heard that the Reverend Johnson had died, she worried: “What are they going to do with that collection?” She had known a couple who had a lunch-box museum. It was attached to their diner. If you told the man what kind of lunch box you had had as a child, he could tell you the year you were born. (I had a classic red plaid in first grade. Later, when we moved to the land of Blanks and Dashes, I had an Augie Doggie, which I regretted.) When the lunch-box connoisseur died, his widow could not cope, so she closed the diner, and the lunch-box museum was lost. Raymore was determined that the pencil-sharpener museum would not go the same way.

“It just so happened that the family didn’t know what to do with the museum,” she said, and they were happy to entrust it to the Hocking Hills Tourism Association. Susie McKinnon, the curator of the pencil-sharpener museum, photographed the exact setup, with the pencil sharpeners arranged in categories on open shelves, and wrapped each sharpener individually. Meanwhile, the welcome center prepared a foundation and moved the prefab building onto it. When the museum reopened, in the summer of 2011, “it just so happened that it was a slow news day,” Raymore went on, “and one hundred and thirty-two news outlets from around the world” — everywhere from Australia to Saudi Arabia — “picked up the story. So we had our fifteen seconds of fame.”

Fifty thousand people a year stop at the Hocking Hills Welcome Center. Perhaps not all of them take the opportunity to examine the pencil-sharpener collection, but certainly far more people see it now than when it was off a road in Carbon Hill. The Reverend Johnson’s daughter told Raymore, “Dad always said he hoped it would end up here.”

Susie McKinnon told me that there were 3,441 pencil sharpeners in the museum. The Reverend Johnson had a rule: each pencil sharpener had to be unique — no duplicates. McKinnon elaborated on Johnson’s definition of “unique”: it could mean that a sharpener was the same shape but a different color, or highly polished instead of dull. He would buy a package of a dozen to acquire one in a color he didn’t have, and give the rest away as gifts. I had noticed a series of bears straddling tree trunks marked variously “Drive-Thru Tree Park” and “California Redwoods.” The museum does accept contributions to the collection — if someone has what she thinks is a unique piece, she can e-mail McKinnon a photograph. Having taken pictures of the exhibit in situ and handled each pencil sharpener before moving the collection, McKinnon can tell right away whether a sharpener fits the unique qualification. She herself donated a wooden sharpener in the shape of a cat playing with a ball of yarn. A woman who was moving sent photos of fifty pencil sharpeners, which led to forty-eight new acquisitions. A year earlier, McKinnon had heard from a man in the Virgin Islands who was wondering whether the museum would be interested in a ten-pound cast-iron sharpener that had belonged to his father, who had died recently, at the age of eighty-four. She had not heard back from him, but had reason to hope for the bequest. “It would date to about 1904,” she said. “That would not make it the oldest in the collection but the largest of the oldest.” The oldest include some tiny clip-ons from the early 1900s, presumably for the nerd ancestors of men who keep pens in their shirt pockets, as well as one ancient sharpener still in its own leather pouch, and another in the shape of a diminutive, elegantly dressed lady. I had noticed these, on a shelf in a corner labeled Special. I asked, hopefully, “Is a catalogue in the works?”

“No, it is not,” McKinnon said decisively.

McKinnon asked me not to advertise the fact, but that sign saying that the museum is under twenty-four-hour surveillance came with the house. There is not a lot of pencil-sharpenerrelated crime in the Hocking Hills.

Long-Point-SharpenerWhile we were talking, I had an idea. I was traveling with a black KUM long-point sharpener, and I didn’t see anything like it in the collection. It was the handheld model I had seen at the pencil party; I had ordered so many pencils that Cal Cedar threw in a free sharpener. I loved having it with me, to sharpen pencils on the go or to whip out in a café if a friend’s point had gotten dull. The collection included some double-hole sharpeners, and McKinnon had assumed, as many people do, that one hole was for regular pencils and the other for colored pencils. I explained how it worked: the cylinders beneath the blades are angled differently, and each pencil goes first in one hole, for whittling away the wood, and then in the other, for grinding the graphite. McKinnon seemed genuinely interested, though I did not test her interest by going into detail about the way I like to keep the lid up while I’m in the wood hole, so that the shaving can unfurl all in one piece. It’s a little like trying to peel an apple in one continuous strip: the shaving comes out in a paper-thin spiral, and the hexagonal shape of the pencil produces a pinking-shear effect edged with the color of the pencil shaft, a satisfying deep gray in the case of the Blackwing 602. It looks like a tiny tiered skirt for a toothpick doll. I have had people, even fellow pencil fanciers, back away from me when I describe this, although they might be tempted to do it themselves, in private. I perch the intact spirals on the shelf and there they remain, until some puzzled cleaning lady throws them away.

I went back to my car, found the pencil sharpener just where I had packed it, in a pocket of the zippered compartment on my backpack, and photographed it on the back of my car before shaking out the shavings in the parking lot. I did not want the fact that my sharpener was not a virgin to make it ineligible for display in the museum.

“I can tell you right now that we don’t have this,” McKinnon said. I was thrilled. I felt as if I were a part of southern Ohio pencil history. She grabbed her keys, and we went back out to the museum. “Where will it fit?” I said. The sharpeners were crowded into their arrangements on the shelves. McKinnon decided that it belonged with the other two-hole sharpeners (but not the noses). She unlocked the door and swung it open, shoved the museum pieces together a little, and gave my black Palomino Blackwing long-point a prominent position at the front of the case. I was hoping she’d open some more of the glass doors so that I could take pictures without the glare, but my mission was accomplished at the Paul A. Johnson Pencil Sharpener Museum, so I let Susie go back to her office and I hit the road.


Come to the Launch Party for Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris, hosted by Belt Magazine.  7:30 p.m. on April 30, 2015 at The Happy Dog West (5801 Detroit Ave, Cleveland, OH).

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8 Comment responses

  1. Avatar
    April 07, 2015

    Loved this story!

    Reply

  2. Avatar
    April 10, 2015

    Actually No. 1 pencils should be harder than No. 2. At least that’s how they are in art pencils. If you want a really soft pencil, try a No. 7 or 8!

    Reply

  3. Avatar
    April 10, 2015

    Wonderful, thanks. I live in China where pencils are sold without erasers and graded by the 1,2,3B; HB; H1,2,3 standards. I use a cheap hand held ‘Toyq’ double hole, hand sharpener and always sharpen both ends of a pencil. It’s hit and miss whether the lead is broken inside, sigh. I also steal those mini plastic hotel pencils to use for bookmarks and note making wherever I stay.

    The gum erasers here are handily sheathed in shaped cardboard covers and have cartoon characters with ‘Chinglish’ sayings like my current one, “I’m very happy because you make me fun. You will be relieved when you can see your favorites’. Only children, traditionalists and eccentrics use pencils here, but the stationery shops sell all grades of pencils, ball and gel pens, lovely fountain pens, quality paper by the sheet and, of course, the many grades of badger haired brushes and hand made rice paper, ink stones and solid ink necessary for Chinese calligraphy. Shanghai has a whole streets devoted to writing, art supplies etc. right nearby the best bookstore streets on Fuzhou Lu.

    Heaven is there for pencil, pen, paper, brush, ink, book and stamp/seal lovers. I’m sure you can have your own custom made pencils and leads made to personal specifications. Any wacky thoughts for sharpener themes are probably also available.

    Lead leads,

    Joe

    Reply

  4. Avatar
    April 10, 2015

    Thank you for this highly entertaining excerpt from your book.

    Reply

  5. Avatar
    April 10, 2015

    Up my alley — the pencil story. (Mechanical pencils work for me.)

    I plan to hear the author read at the Happy Dog.

    Can we switch to Magic Markers for a second? I ordered several red Sharpie retractables online because I couldn’t find a lone red Sharpie at Staples or Office Max. Those places think you’re representing the Cuyahoga County juvenile court system when you walk in.

    Pay close attention to the words “fine point” on the retractable Sharpie. If you get the “ultra fine point” model, you have nothing more than a pen. You want some breadth.

    The retractable model is worth it. Less work than the old Magic Marker. No labor-intensive screwing and unscrewing.

    Reply

  6. Avatar
    April 10, 2015

    I was partial to #1 Black Warriors, but sadly they are extinct now. I use pencils everyday but the experience is just not what it was. The Black Warriors felt so good in the hand, with their elegant matte finish and perfect cylindrical shape. Second run but not second rate. Brilliant but cancelled.

    Reply

  7. Avatar
    April 10, 2015

    I hope, while you were there, you managed to go down into the Hocking Hills.
    The forest canyons are amazing and beautiful.

    Reply

  8. Avatar
    April 15, 2015

    Being 50ish, I grew up with a pencil constantly in hand and liked hard #3 leads that could really take a sharp point. Nowadays I find the Dixon Ticonderoga 2-4/8 a good compromise, especially because of the eraser quality. (Pink eraser = good; orange eraser = run away).

    My wife teaches and after one too many complaints about the lousy pencil sharpener in her classroom, I bought her the industrial-duty Bostitch SuperPro 6 electric sharpener. People come from the other side of the building to use it, and she brings it home every summer for safekeeping.

    Reply

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