Caroline Weaver had no idea if it would work. “I just went into it blindly. There was no other shop like it, so I had nothing to compare it to,” she says, sitting behind her impeccably neat little desk in the back of her impeccably neat little store on the fringes of Chinatown in the Lower East Side, flanked on either side by 250 different pencils. It was a risky career move for Weaver, a 25-year-old Ohio transplant and art graduate from Goldsmiths University of London, seeing as those pencils are really the only things her shop sells.
But despite any risk involved in her starting CW Pencil Enterprise, Weaver exudes assurance as she recounts her story. Her aesthetic and demeanor match her answers to my questions: prim, professional and just so. Her knowledge of pencils emerges with assurance and in such depth that one can’t help but regard them as something more than disposable, graphite-filled sticks — as products complete with history, nuanced construction and a complexity all their own.
“In the US we can go to Staples to buy pencils and they’ll have maybe three brands,” she says. “They’re not very good quality and they’re made in Mexico or Taiwan — they’re terrible pencils. Even art supply stores don’t sell very great pencils anymore.” Her intentions were always to expose the American pencil user to a world of vastly superior, though not-so-readily available, pencils.
But on a deeper level, Weaver knew she was accessing a very particular moment in modern-day consumption. “I think we’ve reached the point of technological advancement where now people are taking a step back and realizing that some things are better done by hand,” she says. “You don’t need to do everything on an iPad or an iPhone.”
So Weaver decided to sell pencils. She quit her job and dedicated a summer to contacting pencil companies, convincing them to sell her their product in bulk until eventually she amassed a whole closet. Weaver was perfectly content selling these pencils online, out of her apartment, until she happened upon the matchbox-sized storefront on the fringe of Chinatown that now houses all of her pencils and her blossoming business.
Walking into CW Pencil Enterprise, one is first struck by the Pinterest-friendly wall full of pencils bundled into bouquets and housed in glass vases. Weaver explains these are currently manufactured pencils organized alphabetically by brand from all over the world. “We have a lot of pencils from the US, Switzerland, the Czech Republic,” she says. “Also a bunch from Portugal, India, Japan.” Across the room is a wall-mounted case of vintage and discontinued pencils, including the much sought-after Blackwing 602 in its original Eberhard Faber iteration. The shop also features a pencil-testing desk, a pencil customizer (it’ll press your name into the wood) and a selection of sharpeners and notebooks. But the pencil is is the object of Weaver’s expertise, and she’s no armchair enthusiast.
Weaver actively throws herself across the globe in pursuit of the next new or old or unknown pencil. “I’ve done quite a bit of traveling for this business,” she says. “It’s funny that in the age of the Internet, so many things have to be discovered that way. You can’t just find things by searching online. So that’s part of my job — going out there and finding things on my own.” She just got back from a trip to Germany and to Switzerland. Last summer it was Japan. Today she’s in the process of planning a trip to India. Wherever she goes, she hits every stationary store she can find.
Weaver’s adventures have turned her into a sort of pencil anthropologist, particularly in tune with cultural differences in production where every detail, from the wood used to the way the graphite is milled, matters. If you ask Weaver, German pencils run particularly hard while Japanese pencils are distinguished by their graphite technology. “They use a little bit of polymer with their graphite mixture sometimes, to make it very uniquely smooth,” she says. In India, the focus is on the wood, which they grow locally for their pencils. “They use Indian poplar and linden, which is a little bit different because most pencils are made out of cedar from California,” she says.
Speaking of the US, Weaver points to innovation at home. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the American pencil manufacturer was obliged to experiment with its products so as to set itself apart from the European-dominated industry. For example, the eraser tip: “Having an eraser on the end of a pencil is pretty much a strictly American feature,” says Weaver. “In most other countries it’s hard to find one with an eraser on the end.”
At the end of the day, the pencil is still a tool and Weaver’s shop is often frequented by modern-day craftsmen: engineers, architects, editors and even calligraphers who come in looking for a utensil to serve them best. Weaver has recommended pencils to them all, priding herself on her ability to judge the right tool for the right job, no matter how peculiar.
“I do get a lot of strange inquiries,” she says, cracking a smile. “We had somebody come in once to ask what our most electrically conductive pencil was. I had to think about the chemical properties of a pencil, like what the cores are made out of, individually by pencil and by brand.” A strange order for sure, and one that affirms that the modern consumer wants to push the pencil beyond what is expected — but so does Weaver. “It took a little while,” she says. “But we found one that worked.”
The Right Tool for the Right Job
Highlighting: Weaver says the Caran D’ache “Couleurs Fluos” fluorescent highlighter pencils in pink, orange, yellow and green will do the trick.
Editing: Kita-Boshi makes a double-ended red-and-blue pencil for old school editors. “There are still a lot of magazine editors here in New York who still like to proofread by hand and actually mark things up with a pencil,” says Weaver.
Standardized Test Taking: According to Weaver, it’s not as simple as you might think. “They make you use a number two, and the thing is that the grading scale is not universal at all.” She recommends the Tombow 2558 HB, Caran d’Ache Yellow School Pencil or the Palomino HB.
Music Composing: Weaver praises Itoya pencils for their ideal hardness, point retention and particularly effective black eraser — excellent on sheet music (inside tip: the MoMA currently sells a seemingly identical pencil.)