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Mightier than the Sword

by Joseph Thomas

There's something about the feel of a fine fountain pen, the particular way it rests between the index finger and the thumb, that sets it apart from everyday writing instruments. For me, that sensation is one of life's small true pleasues. Alfredo Rodriguez is a trader and connoisseur who agrees. He had about 50 good pieces spread out along with a few collectible watches the Saturday we visited his small table in the main passageway of Plaza del Angel.
Rodriguez is among five or six venders who specialize in fountain and ball point pens at this weekly market. The bazaar, located at Londres 161 in Mexico City's Pink Zone, is in the heart of the D.F. tourist district. The Plaza del Angel draws a number of buyers and dealers, many of whom stay at near-by international-class hotels. Rodriguez comments that he has needed to become more knowledgeable in recent years about his area of specialization in order to compete in the market. In part, he notes, because of the increasing number of saavy foreign buyers who visit his stand.
"I've been able to make a dignified living for my family of three during the past eight years that I've been selling at this market," states this established chacharero. He mentions that because Mexico City and surrounding area has tradiotionally had closer ties with European-- rather than U.S. based-- interests that this could be part of the appeal for visitors. The strong dollar, currently trading at about one dollar for every ten pesos, also makes buying in Mexico a bargin for forgien travelers.
Rodriguez's specialty is in pens, especially those that come in pairs or sets with mechanical pencils. French-made Monte Blanc writing instruments head the list of desired items. The distinctive black pens with white tip jut out of the suit pockets of more than a few distinctive executives in Mexico City, just as they have for the past century.
According to Rodriguez, a Monte Blanc gold plated fountain pen with a silver tip from the 1960's commands about $2,000 pesos in the Plaza del Angel market. A Shaeffer pen from the same era, plated and in the same condition, would get only about $500 pesos. A Shaeffer pen from the 1920's, made then only with a plastic shell, would bring around $1,200 pesos, yet a Monte Blanc from that same decade goes for close to $5,000 pesos, considerably less than in U.S. or European markets.
One of the most rare type of pens that Rodriguez has handled is the Conklen fountain pen-- the first of which were produced in the U.S. during the 1930's. But, in the fickel collectables market, rarity does not always equal top sale. A pen of this make, in good condition, would bring in only about $2,000 pesos.
Rodriguez and his fellow traders do a good business in this weekly Mexico City market. The association which runs the open-air baazar charges him $150 pesos to lay out his goods on a Saturday. When the baazar opens around ten in the morning, Rodriguez says that numerous local residents come to offer him pieces from their families' heirlooms or personal finds. At the same time, more and more visitors from Japan, Hong Kong, the U.S. and Europe continue passing his table-- looking for a writing instrument that fits their grip-- something that every gentleman or lady would clearly understand.