Wasn't it safe to assume that the lowly pencil was all but dead, swallowed up by endless advances in technology over the past three decades?
If it wasn't the personal computer or the Palm Pilot, it would be the iPad, apps and "the cloud."
No, the demise of this most basic of writing instruments didn't happen and likely won't happen anytime soon, especially if the improbable tale of one particular prized pencil is any indication.
When the Stockton-based California Cedar Products Co. decided about two years ago to resurrect a beloved but out-of-production pencil called the Palomino Blackwing, it gave new hope to pencil nuts, created a flurry of publicity, touched off a controversy or two, inspired articles in some major publications and this April even became the toast of New York City at a party held in its honor a gala for a pencil.
Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam compared the Blackwing's lead to butter and wondered in a video blog if this pencil was better than an iPad. Alas, you can't waste away hours watching kitten videos on YouTube with this pencil.
Once coveted by such writers as John Steinbeck and Vladimir Nabokov along with scores of copy editors, composers, animators and any number of obsessive compulsives the Blackwing was best known for its particularly smooth-writing lead, which inspired the promotional slogan, "Half the pressure, twice the speed."
The Blackwing dates to the 1930s, when Eberhard Faber introduced it. A key component of its patented design was the flattened rectangular ferrule the part that holds the distinctive flat eraser. Steinbeck called it the best pencil he'd ever used Blackwings "really glide over the paper," he told the Paris Review. The pricey pencil sold well for decades.
Somewhere along the way amid the sale of one company and the acquisition of the pencil by a new manufacturer the machine that stamped out the flattened ferrule broke down, irrevocably.
By 1998, the pencil was unceremoniously discontinued, and when the stock of Blackwings ran dry, people began hoarding them.
One such pencil aficionado was Joseph Finder, a successful novelist in Boston who had written and edited with Blackwings since he was a graduate student at Harvard.
"When I'm writing something that requires a certain contemplative mindset, I will almost always write by hand. The right kind of pencil is ergonomically superior to a pen," Finder said recently by telephone. "I became completely addicted to Blackwings. It's a cool-looking pencil and the lead is like liquid graphite. Every couple of months, I would buy a box. One year, I went in (to the stationery store) and they didn't have any. I had taken them for granted."
Finder did what many other Blackwing buffs did he called nearly every stationery store in the country and wound up with a closet full of Blackwings. Soon, Blackwings were fetching big bucks on eBay, routinely selling for $20 to $40 per pencil.
In Stockton, Cal Cedar Chief Executive Officer Charles Berolzheimer took note of the commotion and, once he learned that there were no legal hurdles to taking over the name and look of this pencil, decided to reissue the Blackwing. The company's primary business is supplying to the pencil industry.
"This is an old, old design. It was originally patented by Lothar Faber over a hundred years ago," said Berolzheimer, seated in his office in an industrial section of Stockton.
He sent out the first reissue prototypes to well-known pencil buffs, including Finder, and asked for feedback. Finder encouraged Cal Cedar to include the promotional slogan on the pencil. Other testers said the shape and the lead needed tweaking.
Berolzheimer made the changes and soon launched the reissue of the Blackwing in two models a firm lead in a pearl gray casing and a softer lead pencil in black with a white eraser. Both versions cost $20 for a box of 12. Cal Cedar created a website, Pencils.com, to promote the Blackwing and other models. Levenger, the "tools for serious readers" website, began carrying the Blackwing. Bloggers wrote about it with affection.
In no time, this pencil was somehow going viral. Turns out, thousands of people in the digital age not only use pencils but have an emotional attachment to certain pencils.
The well-attended gala at the Art Directors Club in New York "The Blackwing Experience" celebrated the revival of this pencil and included a panel discussion.
"We're able to tell a story about creativity and self-expression," Berolzheimer said, explaining how the Blackwing stands above the typical No. 2 pencil. Mary Norris, a longtime "OK-er" (fact-checker) at the New Yorker, wrote about the pencil and the party on the magazine's website.
Finder says this about the Blackwing: "There's an aesthetic quality to the sound. There's also a smell to it. People who love writing will value the tools of writing. It's part of the business. It's not an affectation it's not like I'm using a quill. The pencil is an unpretentious, down-to-earth, ergonomically perfect instrument."
Berolzheimer, a sixth-generation pencil maker with a graduate degree from Stanford, hopes to turn the Blackwing's 15 minutes into a long-running hit. The company has a blog and continues to explore new marketing approaches. Its target audience is creative types of all kinds. The company has also launched a corresponding series of high-end Blackwing notebooks and sketchbooks.
"There's this perception that pencils are dying," Berolzheimer said. "Pencils are growing at the rate of global population growth."