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Gem & Co: Penmanship in times of peril

Past the pitfalls of modernisation and fast commerce, the city’s oldest ink pen shop has managed to strive through a pandemic. Yet, the prospects are poor, it seems

Published: 29th March 2021 05:42 AM  |   Last Updated: 29th March 2021 12:55 PM   |  A+A-

Four streets away from the store, Pratap runs a workshop that offers repair and restoration services. ( Photo |  Tony Joseph K A, EPS)

Four streets away from the store, Pratap runs a workshop that offers repair and restoration services. ( Photo | Tony Joseph K A, EPS)

Express News Service

CHENNAI:  My two fingers on a typewriter have never connected with my brain. My hand on a pen does. A fountain pen, of course. Ball-point pens are only good for filling out forms on a plane,’ said Graham Greene, an English writer. Precisely the words that offer Pratap Kumar, the third-generation owner of Gem & Co, the assurance and solace in times of adversity.

The changing status of a fountain pen amid the ballpoint boom, invasion of technology and, now, the pandemic has done little to deter the penman’s passion and reverence for the object. “While the sales of fountain pens have been on a persistent decrease, the past three years have been considerably good. Again, after remaining shut for many months during lockdown, the business picked up on a full swing in December 2020,” asserts Pratap. 

Founded by MC Cunnan and Venkatrangam, the century-old store in George Town has garnered a reputation for its flagship eyedropper fountain pens under the in-house brand Gama. The shop also houses the likes of ballpoint, artisanal and handcrafted pens, priced from `80 to a few thousands. While Pratap insists on conventionally dropping by the store and picking a suitable pen, he’s been witnessing a spike in sales via WhatsApp recently. “The digital detox may have led people to pick up pens.

We courier to patrons across India; all they need to do is send a picture of the specific model. I’ve even had foreigners purchase pens from me and sell for a better price abroad. But, the latter has dropped significantly. Having said this, our all-time peak seasons are during exams and the beginning of the academic year when the shop attracts young buyers. With schools and colleges closed indefinitely, all we’re left with is uncertainty,” recounts Pratap who’s been actively responding to queries, during lockdown, regarding maintenance of fountain pens on Fountain Pen Lovers a WhatsApp group, run by members around the country. 

Pratap emphasises on a host of scientific benefits and advantages that sets a fountain pen apart from ballpoint or gel pens. “Many IT professionals have been buying from me for the past three years. Fed up with computers and electronic messaging, they want to write one page a day as exercise to their fingers and for better dexterity. With a sturdy grip, well-tuned nib and balanced weight, there’s no pressure required to write and it also eliminates pain from hands and wrist. It’s easy on the eyes, light on your purse and has a long-lasting lifespan with good handling and care.

Most importantly, it’s eco-friendly. Also why the government encourages students to use ink pens to decrease plastic output that comes from discarded ballpoint pen refills,” explains Pratap. He suggests that being habituated to using a fountain pen in the formative years can have a great impact on one’s handwriting. To ensure you pick the right pen, Pratap and his three staff members will tune the nib to your liking and style of writing for a smoother ink flow. “The body is made of ebonite and the nib is made of iridium. The metals are of superior quality and highly influence your speed and angle of holding a pen. There will be no leakage or smudging.

Out of the 3,000 available fountain pen models in the country, only 100 sell well in our market. After checking for quality and leakage, we filter 50 from the lot for the store. It’s not like the run-of-the-mill ones that you get in local stationery stores. All pens come with nib and feeder. Missing parts can be replaced and old pens can be restored. Timing depends on each model and part that needs to be replaced,” points out Pratap, who runs a workshop four streets away from the store to repair and restore old pens.

“We used to receive 50-100 pens for service every day. It has come down to hardly five,” rues Pratap, who’s uncertain about the future of the shop. “I’m running the shop out of sheer passion and not for profit margins. I’ve been educating my customers about using fountain pens. I’m not sure if my only daughter would be interested in carrying forward the legacy, given the nature of the business.” Here’s hoping that this old, dying instrument traverses its way through the ups and downs.

Poor pick-up for pen work
Four streets away from the store, Pratap runs a workshop that offers repair and restoration services. Here, too, things have not been great. From servicing 50-100 pens a day, they now do 5.

Address: New No 38/40 Old No 216, NSC Bose Road, Parrys, Chennai 600001. For details, call: 25381571



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