One might not immediately notice the wardrobe-sized room at one corner near the entrance to Kochi’s Broadway, near the CSI Immanuel Cathedral Church. But the lone man sitting amidst hundreds of pens has been seeing a regular flow of customers to this small shop for the past 55 years.
Named simply Pen House, it is one of the oldest pen shops in Kochi and one of the earliest shops to be established in Broadway, which itself is one of the oldest commercial areas of the city.
Even though once typewriters, then computers, tablets and smartphones have changed the way people write, Pen House has always had a non-stop flock of customers. From the latest pens to vintage ones, this tiny shop exclusively sells pens and meets the need of every customer.
Speaking to TNM, Sabu Joseph, the owner of Pen House, recounts the history of the shop, the evergreen pens that are always in great demand and his rare pens collection.
“Pen House was started by my father Joseph in 1964. At that time this was the first of its kind shop in Ernakulam. Even the neighbouring districts did not have such a shop, there were similar ones only in Kozhikode. My father had earlier worked in a pen factory in Kozhikode,” says Sabu.
From when he was about 14 years old, Sabu assisted his father in the shop. After his father’s death, he took charge of Pen House.
“Even in those days there was demand for foreign pens and we used to ship them to our customers,” he recalls.
‘Unlike now, people used to repair pens and use’
Unlike today, when one doesn’t even care to use refills but buys a new pen instead, there was a time when people used to repair their damaged pens instead of discarding them. “That was before ball pens became very common. People mostly used ink pens and when it got damaged they would come here to repair it. We even had separate staff who would repair parts of the pen like nib, tube, etc.,” Sabu recalls those times fondly.
Tools used to repair pen
The Hero pen that comes with the distinct golden cap was the most sought after pen then. “It was very difficult for people to get those. We used to ship them from Bombay or Madras. The pen used to cost about Rs 12 and it was quite expensive for that time, now it is available for around Rs 68,” says Sabu.
Later, another pen shop and a pen company opened in Ernakulam, but it didn’t affect the Pen House’s business. “A company named Bismi started to produce pens here and it got famous very fast. Another indigenous, sought-after brand was Wilson fountain pens. It was made by a company in Bombay, many would come asking for it,” Sabu recalls.
Collection of vintage pens
Speaking about the vintage pen collection he had, Sabu opens up about the unhappy story of how most of his collection was lost in a fire that broke out in the shop.
“It was 1999 and the eve of my wedding. On the previous day when I closed the shop I forgot to turn off the candle which was burning. The next day I came to know that the shop had burned down and with it went the collection of pens that was passed on to me from my father. Now only a few pens remain from that collection,” he says.
This includes Parker’s iconic Duofold pen. Bought for Rs 5 by Sabu’s father back then, it now costs about Rs 50,000. He also has a Montblanc vintage Monte Rosa, which was manufactured from the mid-1950s till about 1959. The model has a unique gold-plated brass clip on the cap.
Montblanc's Monte Rosa
His third prized possession is a Parker 51, widely regarded as the world’s most sold fountain pen. Introduced in 1941, it was in production till 1972.
‘Owning a pen was a thing of pride’
Sabu also recollects that in those days owning a pen was something to be proud of. “It was like a mobiles phone, it was mandatory for everyone to have a fountain pen. After that, the dot pen was launched and it largely started to replace fountain pens. People were very amazed when dot pens came,” he remembers.
He also recalls many famous personalities who were once customers of Pen House. It includes the present finance minister of Kerala, Dr Thomas Isaac, and former defence minister AK Antony, both students of Maharaja’s College in the city.
Though compared to past years the business has come down, Sabu says that he never runs on loss. “It is true that the old rush of customers is not there, but people still come to buy pens. Some still come to repair their fountain pens and fill ink,” Sabu says in between changing the tube of a fountain pen for a customer.
Sabu takes efforts to keep himself updated about the new pens being launched in the market and make them available for his customers. From new Chinese pens and the eco-friendly seed-bearing ones to the classic ink pens, Sabu has everything a customer needs.
The only challenge he faces is that manufacturers have now stopped shipping directly to the shop as they used to earlier. “Now there are dealers in the middle. We can get pens only from them, there is no direct transaction between the company and the shop. This makes it more expensive for us than earlier because dealers take their commission from us,” Sabu says.
Even though this is the case, Sabu charges only a nominal amount for his services. Even now one can refill ink for a fountain pen for Re 1!