We locate decades-old fountain pen stores and find out how even during the Internet age the writing instrument has managed to retain ardent loyalists
Stacked upright on rosewood shelves, the fountain pens on display at Gem and Co. gleam as the rays of a December sun stream into the shop. Two elderly staff, who have been around for 50-odd years, are busy attending to customers while director M. Pratap Kumar sits in his enclosure, boxed between fountain pen literature and portraits of his ancestors who began this business.
N.C. Cunnan and Venkatrangam began Gem and Co. in the late 1920s, and the company has remained true to its core business. “We specialise only in pens,” stresses Pratap, “Not even pencils or erasers. Our focus is on pen servicing, something uncommon in Chennai. We have no branches, and sell our own brand of pens too.”
Gem and Co. has been in the same location since it began — on NSC Bose Road, just opposite the Kuralagam and Madras High Court. After Cunnan, his son Prabhat Kumar took over the business, and Pratap has been holding the fort since 1985. “In those days, when there were no Indian fountain pens readily available in the market, my grandfather and his partner would import them from Britain. Then we started our own brand, Gama Pens, about 50 years ago.”
But since the advent of ball pens and gel pens, business has changed. “Now, in addition to all major brands of fountain pens, we sell ball pens too. We’re just about staying afloat,” admits Pratap. “It’s become difficult because not many people use fountain pens now. Earlier, the who’s who would get their pens here. And since the High Court is nearby, we’d get many judges and advocates too. Today, we get many school students because fountain pens have been made compulsory, especially during examinations.”
Fountain pens need maintenance, but are an economical and eco-friendly option, he says. “They’re economical in the sense that one pen will last you a few years, and eco-friendly for the same reason since you don’t generate a lot of waste. And, no matter how many hours you write with them, your hands won’t hurt. People don’t feel the need to maintain such pens these days. They buy ball pens, use and throw them away without really understanding the mechanics behind fountain pens,” says Pratap.
“We have customers who’ve come to us for years together. Some have had their pens for many years. Now, when we see old customers bringing their grandchildren to our shop to buy fountain pens, it is heartening. And that’s why the business has been around for so long.”
Gem and Co.’s servicing centre is a few streets away. “In those days, we would get 100 pens a day for servicing, and now we get about 20. I remember my father would go to the service centre in the morning and come back only in the evening. Now, it takes me barely two hours in the afternoon to finish work. Fountain pen servicing has to be inherited, and that’s why there’s so few of us left.”
Once a judge broke the nib of his fountain pen after signing a death sentence (as was the practise), and since it was a rather expensive pen, we got it replaced for him.
M. Pratap Kumar, Director, Gem and Co.
A few doors down, K.N. Perumall Chetty and Sons is a store that specialises in pens, but also has a motley of things on offer. There are torchlights, badminton racquets, razors and stationery.
K. Ranganathan is busy behind the counter, handing out pens and stationery. “My grandfather Perumall Chetty set up the shop 75 years ago,” he explains. “We sold many things back then — from cosmetics and travelling kits to greeting cards, but when my father took over, we cut down to having stationery and pens.”
The shop stocks all the major brands in pens. “I’ve been here for 35 years, and have seen that stationery items move a lot faster than the rest,” he says. “In my grandfather’s days, a lot of our items were imported.” But business has slowed down since the age of the computers.