Caroline Weaver, Founder, CW Pencil Enterprise
Caroline Weaver founded CW Pencil Enterprise online in November 2014 and opened a tiny store on New York’s Lower East Side five months later. These days Weaver is back to pureplay ecommerce — thanks to safety issues with the building housing her storefront — offering pencil cases, notebooks, notepads, erasers and dozens of new and antique pencils from around the globe.
Variations on the humble No. 2 include Mitsubishi-brand super hard and dark graphite pencils made in Japan and a range of colored pencils from Switzerland’s Caran d’Ache. Weaver, whose historic knowledge of pencil making was featured in a 2015 New Yorker article, also stocks the sought-after original Blackwing 602, a vintage 1950s model from Eberhard Faber and John Steinbeck’s go-to writing tool.
Earlier this year CW Pencil introduced The Pencil Box, a quarterly subscription delivering a choice of pencils along with related ephemera or accessories.
What was the inspiration to become an online pencil destination?
I’ve had a special relationship with pencils since I was a small child. My mother is an interior designer and always kept really nice quality art supplies around, so from an early age I developed an appreciation for quality pencils. As an adult, I’ve traveled a lot and discovered that you can find really great pencils around the world in regular office supply stores, where in the United States you can generally only find a couple of brands. I wanted to have a place to share my appreciation of pencils and introduce pencils from around the globe to everyone.
What can you tell us about your customers?
Our customers are generally just people who have an interest in stationery and have an appreciation for functional yet beautiful products. We have customers from all around the world just because they’re curious about pencils and want to learn more about what makes one pencil different from another.
You don’t stock mechanical pencils. Is there anything else you don’t sell in the pencil realm?
The shop philosophy has always been to do one thing and to do it really, really well. That’s the main reason why we don’t branch into mechanical pencils or other implements — we stay as focused as possible on wooden pencils and learn as much as we can about them. That’s helped us keep our authenticity and keeps customers coming back for advice again and again. Recently we helped a dentist pick out a purple copying pencil for his office — they are apparently perfect for marking dental molds while the mold is still wet.
Tell us more about finding items to stock.
Finding pencils involves a lot of research and relationship building. We often work with collectors directly, or spend hours scouring the internet for vintage finds. For our regular collection, we’ve worked hard to build an authentic identity as pencil experts … . We’re always on the lookout for new and interesting items. A recent favorite find was a box of early 1900s Venus Velvet pencils in perfect condition. They were old enough to be graded “BB” instead of “2B” because they were made before the HB (hardness and blackness) scale had been globally standardized.
Aside from having to close the bricks-and-mortar store, what else has changed since you launched?
The closure of our bricks-and-mortar has helped us to re-imagine all that CW Pencil Enterprise can be, and our next location will be even better than before. Of course, we’ve learned a lot over the last two years, particularly that running a small business can be really unpredictable. You can make all the preparations in the world, and still upsets can happen. But each one has taught us something new, so we are constantly evolving the way we process orders, how we work with our vendors, even how we describe pencils on our website.
Have you found unexpected pockets of pencil enthusiasts?
We ship orders and interact with customers all over the world. We get a lot of online traffic from South Korea and Italy in particular. There was one blogger that got us a lot of traffic in Argentina. And we have a regular who is in the Faroe Islands — since they’ve begun ordering from us, we’ve sort of become obsessed with visiting that place.
There’s not necessarily a concentration of customers in one place, but we do have a really vocal concentration of customers in a Facebook group, the Erasable Podcast Pencil Community. The community is over 1,000 members, mainly across the United States, and members gather and share their pencil finds, debate new releases and generally just talk about all things graphite. The group contains some of our most regular, most vocal customers.
What are bestsellers and cult favorites?
One of our bestselling pencils actually is popular because it’s a cult favorite. The Palomino Blackwing 602 is a reproduction of a very famous pencil. Originally, the Blackwing 602 was made by Eberhard Faber back in the 1940s, and it was one of the world’s first really premium writing pencils. It gained a stellar reputation amongst authors and artists and musicians, so much so that when they went out of product in the ‘90s, people began to hoard them.
Palomino began making reproductions in the 2000s, and people are still drawn to the 602s by their reputation. We like to joke that they’re the “gateway pencil” because people have either heard of them by this reputation, or they are drawn to the unusual beauty of the flat ferrule (metal band) on the end of the pencil. We often stock originals in whatever era we can find, currently from the 1950s and the 1970s. Pricing varies based on how old or rare the version is. We also stock the currently manufactured reproductions. It can get a little confusing, but we try to make sure there‘s a distinction between the Palomino reproduction and the original Eberhard Faber pencil.
You’ve experienced a lot of pencils. Do you have a personal favorite?
Picking a favorite pencil is like picking a favorite child! I tend not to play favorites, and instead I’m always picking up a different pencil to work through. Currently, it’s a Swiss Wood pencil from Caran d’Ache — they’re these gorgeous high-quality HB pencils that are scented like brown sugar. They’re a shop favorite.
Janet Groeber has covered all aspects of the retail industry for more than 20 years. Her reporting has appeared in AdWeek and DDI Magazine, among others.
The shop philosophy has always been to do one thing and to do it really, really well. … That’s helped us keep our authenticity and keeps customers coming back for advice again and again.