On Forsyth Street in New York’s Lower East Side—a stones-throw from the Chinatown produce markets and DiPalo’s Fine Foods—lies one of our staff’s favorite shops, a graphite love-letter to craftsmanship, heritage, and functionality. CW Pencil Enterprise serves as both storefront and museum, with hundreds of makes of pencils, arranged just-so, to be tested, gawked at, and purchased, most for no more than a dollar or two. This week, thanks to “Deputy Pencil Lady” Caitlin Elgin and the team at CWPE, we had the chance to showcase some of our favorite bags for back-to-school and talk to Caitlin about Scantrons, running a small business, and, of course, pencils.
ONA: Were you always infatuated with pencils?
CE: I’ve always been a bit obsessive about stationery in general. I really love using things that feel special – a really beautiful pencil, a notebook with Wonder Woman on the cover, a pen that has really good gel ink. There’s just something so satisfying about nice office supplies.
ONA: How did you come to join the CW team, and was there a learning curve?
CE: I came upon it by accident! I was leaving a job a few blocks away from CW Pencils, and on my way home I stopped at this shop because a friend of mine sent me an article about the store and I thought it sounded out of this world. As I was enthusiastically browsing the store, I overhead Caroline mention to another customer that she thought she needed help in the shop soon – this was like barely a month after the store opened. I thought about it the whole way home and emailed her that evening. I’ve been with Caroline ever since. Now we run the show together.
There’s definitely a learning curve, but if you have an appreciation for pencils and for history, you pick it up fairly easily. When you’re surround by such a specific object, you learn the nuances pretty quickly. The tricky part is learning the stories that go with the pencils – so much of it is like folk lore, we’re always hearing new takes on pencil history.
Pictured above: The Kingston briefcase
ONA: What is one thing most people don’t know or appreciate about pencils?
CE: I think people take them for granted because there’s so much exposure to cheap pencils. A lot of people don’t realize there’s such a thing as a great pencil, one with an excellent eraser and silky smooth graphite.
The other thing we see a lot in the shop is most people don’t know how much history is behind pencils! We carry a number of brands that are over 100 years old. It kind of gives you a new appreciation when you realize just how much pencils have stood the test of time.
ONA: In honor of back-to-school: What was your favorite subject in high school, and what are your feelings on Scantron tests?
CE: I really loved English in high school – all of it, literature, creative writing and grammar. I LOVE diagramming sentences and proofreading.
I actually really like Scantron tests. Filling in bubbles is so satisfying! Also, I find multiple choice questions to be really comforting – there’s a one in four chance that I’m going to get the right answer! I like my odds, haha.
ONA: It seems like you put a lot of thought into organizing the interior of your store. Where does that inspiration come from and how often do you re-organize it?
CE: Caroline had a really specific vision for the store when she was designing it. She knew she had to have a red velvet curtain and a black and white floor because they’re just so classic! That sort of helped dictate the furniture and overall style – everything is designed with a sort of retro, mid-century feel, but laid out very simply to showcase the pencils. The design is really about making pencils look and feel special.
Funnily enough, the wall of pencils sort of came about by accident. Caroline spent a lot of time testing receptacles to hold pencils and had a really hard time finding just the right thing. She ended up pulling all the cups and jars out of her kitchen cupboards and discovered that the stemless champagne flutes from CB2 are PERFECT. Like magic. It’s really amazing how once that was figured out, the display sort of fell into place.
We don’t reorganize the store too often. The wall of pencils stays, of course. That’s our most beloved, permanent fixture. After that, as we get new products, we’ll shuffle things around to accommodate them. Since the space is so small, sometimes it’s a bit like playing Tetris to get everything to fit on a display.
Pictured above: The Leather Prince Street messenger bag
ONA: What are your three favorite things you carry in the store?
CE: That’s tricky, but I’m definitely one to play favorites! My favorite, absolute go-to pencil is the General’s Cedar Point #1 – I love the natural finish and it has great point retention (good for writing small, like I do). My next favorite thing is probably the large black Mnemosyne notebook. The paper is wonderfully smooth, it makes anything you write with feel luxurious. And the covers are super sturdy! My other other favorite is probably the ultra classic L&C Hardtmuth erasers. The eraser was one of the things I bought from the shop on my very first trip; the little elephants make me happy every time I see them.
Pictured above: The Clifton backpack
ONA: What was the most important lesson you learned in your first year?
CE: This sounds a little cheesy, but definitely the importance of smiling through the hard stuff! We had a lot of high-stress moments during our first year when we were overwhelmed with small business growing pains. It was hard to put on a happy face sometimes, but totally paid off when we hear from customers how much they enjoy their experiences with us. It’s just so important to be positive, because other people will reflect positivity back to you and make everyone’s day that much brighter.
That, and a coat of Aquanet hairspray is the best for preventing graphite smudging on paper.
ONA: What do you carry in your bag everyday?
CE: I always have a Kokuyo Systemic notebook cover that holds whichever pencil I’m currently working through, letter-writing materials, and my planner (and usually a pen!). I also always carry a Mnemosyne notebook and my Masterpiece sharpener. I’m constantly thinking of things I need to do for the shop, or brainstorming Instagrams, blog posts, marketing plans, etc. An exquisitely sharp pencil and a blank page in a notebook are very inspiring.
Pictured above: The Palma bag