By Julie Shapiro
LOWER MANHATTAN — How do you sell a $1,000 fountain pen to someone who wouldn't spend 44 cents to mail a letter?
That's the challenge facing Terry Wiederlight, president of the Fountain Pen Hospital on Warren Street, which is celebrating its 65th anniversary this year.
"The problem is, kids today don't use pens," Wiederlight said from the shop recently. "Our crowd is 50 and over. We have to reach a new generation."
Far from giving up, Wiederlight, 60, is finding new ways to market the pens as both status symbols and fun, useful gifts.
He's excited to start carrying an innovative writing implement that has ink on one end and an iPad stylus on the other. Wiederlight predicts that the pen, which costs just $30, will be a "hot item" as soon as it arrives.
With 4,000 different pen varieties — from sleek black Montblancs tipped in sterling silver to red-and-white-striped Dr. Seuss tributes — Wiederlight's 2,500-square-foot showroom offers the largest selection in New York, he said. True to the "hospital" in its name, the shop also repairs about 1,000 worn or broken pens each year, though that accounts for just a small slice of the business.
Wiederlight, a New Jersey resident, takes a down-to-earth approach to what could be an elitist trade.
"When I answer the phone, I am who I am," Wiederlight said of his approach to the business. "We fool around. In this store, we have a lot of fun. We're not stuck up."
That attitude that has won him loyal clients from all walks of life, including Tom Hanks, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Meryl Streep and, most notably, Bill Cosby, whom he counts as a friend and whose image and autograph adorn the shop's walls. Cosby first called the Fountain Pen Hospital more than 15 years ago, looking for a gift for a friend. He and Wiederlight hit it off and have been friends since.
In addition to shopping regularly at the Fountain Pen Hospital, Cosby has appeared on the cover of the shop's catalogue and recorded the informational message callers hear when they are on hold. Wiederlight's daughter appeared on "The Cosby Show" when she was five and now plans to be an actress. Wiederlight and Cosby talk about twice a month.
But Wiederlight doesn't just cater to his celebrity clientele — he has his hands full with orders from collectors and gift-givers around the world.
The pens, displayed like jewelry in well-lit glass cases, are made of copper, steel, leather, gold, diamonds and even cooled lava. It's possible to buy a pen featuring Humphrey Bogart's face, a pen covered in animal print, a pen emblazoned with the colors of a favorite baseball team and a pen that glows in the dark.
The most expensive pen in the shop right now is a $28,000 Visconti that is made of 18-karat gold. It is inscribed with the text of the Declaration of Independence and comes with a magnifying glass to help purchasers read it.
"It's a great gift," Wiederlight said. "If I had to choose between a bottle of booze and a pen, I'd pick the pen every time. When you drink the booze, it's gone. But whenever you use the pen, you think of the person."
Wiederlight's grandfather Al and father Philip started the Fountain Pen Hospital on Fulton Street in 1946, when fountain pens were still an essential tool for any serious businessman. Soon after, lines stretched outside the shop each morning, waiting for it to open.
But with the rise of the ballpoint pen in the 1960s and 1970s, business began to taper off, so the family broadened its focus to stationery and office supplies, first on Vesey Street and then in their current location at 10 Warren St.
That business stayed strong for several decades, but in the early 1990s Terry Wiederlight once again sensed that a change was coming.
"I saw Staples coming in and realized we couldn't compete with the big guys," said Wiederlight, who has been working in the shop since he graduated from high school over 40 years ago. "It was time for us to go back to our roots."
Wiederlight phased out the office supplies and returned entirely to pens by the late-90s.
The store just a few blocks away from the World Trade Center site was not damaged on 9/11 and rebounded strongly as online sales took off in 2002. The boom years that followed in New York were good ones for the Fountain Pen Hospital.
"It was crazy," Wiederlight said. "People were buying $1,000 pens like they were BICs."
The crash of 2008 hit the industry hard, forcing Wiederlight to diversify. He recently started a used pen trade that has done well, and he's planning to use online ads and videos to market some upcoming releases.
Wiederlight is also teaching the business to his nephew, who may take over someday.
"You have to be innovative," Wiederlight said. "I love making something out of nothing."