Here is an odd thing: The more people use electronic means of communication — PCs, Internet-linked cell phones and organizers, and the like — the more stationery stores there seem to be and the more customers they attract. These are not all mauve-haired old ladies in kimono either, although if you insist on doing your stationery shopping in the Ginza branch of Itoya, say, you might be forgiven for thinking so.
Visit the stationery department of Seibu Loft, in Shibuya, on a Saturday, and you will learn that a cute, cool or colorful pen is as much of a necessity for a young lady as her cell phone. The place is jammed and the range of wares enormous: There are pens and pencils in every color of the rainbow, glitter pens, invisible-ink pens, pens that light up when you write and — height of irony — pens and accessories of all kinds in the ubiquitous iMac shades of strawberry, blueberry, tangerine, lime and grape (soon to be retired, alas).
Seeing these signature cybercolors bleed into the rest of the known universe, a casual observer might assume that the cyberworld has triumphed. In fact, a quite different scenario is unfolding: The old and the new are persisting as parallel worlds. Your blueberry iMac doesn’t replace old-fashioned tools of communication — pens, writing paper, envelopes, Post-it notes, erasers, miniature shredders and all the rest of that fascinating paraphernalia. You just get blueberry-colored ones to match. At least you do if you are young and female — or young and the boyfriend of a female.
It is significant that traditional stationery remains so popular among the younger generation; they are the ones, after all, who power up, log on or dial as heedlessly as they breathe. But there are other demographic niches, too, in which the old habits survive.
Pens, in truth, have traditionally been considered a “guy” thing. It was reported earlier this month as something of a cultural watershed that U.S. President Bill Clinton had signed a bill making electronic signatures as legitimate in the United States as hand-written ones (he did it both ways, electronically and in ink, just to be on the safe side). The spin was that this event marked yet another step in the digital age’s transformation of commerce and everyday life: The pen, in short, was obviously destined to go the way of ocher, chalk, the chisel, the quill and the brush.
But some skeptical reporters did a little digging and came up with the interesting fact that, rather than declining in the Internet age, the U.S. writing-instrument business has been booming. Overall U.S. annual sales rose from $1.8 billion in 1995 to $2.3 billion in 1998, according to an industry source, years in which more and more Americans went online. Moreover, retailers and industry analysts point to another fact that suggests it may be far too soon to write off the pen, new law or no new law: The biggest customers for high-quality writing instruments are men.
The evidence of one’s own eyes confirms that the same is true in brand-conscious Japan. The very people — mostly men — whose offices are completely networked, who communicate by e-mail and instant messaging, who may even be CEOs of Internet startups, would not dream of going to a meeting without their Cross or Waterman or Montblanc status symbol. A pen, said one U.S. industry observer, “is one of the few accessories that’s sanctioned for men.”
Well, that’s maybe the reason some men like pens. It seems clear that pretty much everybody — young, old, male, female — likes pens. They just like different kinds. What is interesting is the way the pen is sticking around, like the newspaper, the magazine, the book, the shop and all the other physical objects whose disappearance has been predicted with such dependable regularity over the past decade. It is not as it was with the often-cited quill and brush. There is enough continuity between a quill and a pen that the former could give way to the latter without causing any perceptible ripple in the way people lived their daily lives. Going online, by contrast, represents a qualitative change. The convenience of it is offset by sharp physical losses: of the feel of good paper, the pleasant heft of a book, the smooth flow of ink, the bustle and color of a real store. Yet we seem, quite simply, to want and need these things.
That may be why waiting for the tactile world to give way to the virtual universe is like waiting for some fading superstar to retire: Sooner or later the idea dawns that it may never happen. Even as more and more of us click, point and scroll, we will probably still be scribbling notes and lists, reading books and getting The Japan Times delivered. Some things are just too ingrained to give up.
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