How to Buy Your First Parker 51

Since there’s a good chance that people reading this post, about buying your first vintage fountain pen, will want to purchase a Parker 51, I thought I’d write a separate post with a few extra tips on how to get a good, working Parker 51 at a decent price.

So, one of these pens costs upwards of $400 and the other can be purchased for closer to $40. Which is which?

This is one of the dilemmas facing a new Parker 51 buyer: you’ve heard that this is a great vintage pen, but you can’t make heads or tails of its market value. How do you know what to buy and that you aren’t being ripped off?

Here are a few things worth knowing, if you want to buy a Parker 51 that you actually intend to use. If you’re looking to buy a pen to collect, this is not the guide for you. I’m assuming that you want a good, writing pen that will last you for years and won’t break the bank.

  • Check if the pen is a vacumatic or an aerometric Parker 51. You can either ask the seller, or take a quick glance at the pen body. If there’s a visible seam near the end of the pen, its a vacumatic. You want an aerometric, because they’re cheaper, easier to use and clean, and generally have less issues requiring repair than their earlier counterparts. Aerometric Parker 51 have a filling system that looks like a modern squeeze converter: a sack covered in a metal sleeve. The sack is transparent when the pen is brand new, but 95% of the time you’ll see sacks that are discoloured to a black, opaque state. That doesn’t affect the workings of the pen, but the more transparent the sack is the higher the pen’s price will be. You don’t need a pen with a clear sack to enjoy your 51. Just press the sack to check that it’s still supple (it usually will be. The sacks aren’t rubber so they don’t crumble with age), and remember: you’ll need 4-5 presses to fill the pen properly.
  • Most of the value of a Parker 51 pen lies in the cap. I know, that sounds weird, but since the body has no markings (usually), there’s really note much else that can differentiate between one Parker 51 and another (we’ll get to the colours later, I promise). Gold, gold-filled, coin silver and sterling silver caps will make the price of the pen skyrocket. Telling the gold apart from the Lustraloy (regular) caps is easy, but don’t worry, you won’t get any silver capped 51 for less than $150, so that’s how you can tell even if you don’t want to ask the dealer. But by all means, ask the dealer. Sterling silver caps are stamped, as are the gold ones. The gold filled caps are merely marked as gold filled, and if your heart is set on them they aren’t wildly expensive usually (they actually cost less than a modern Edison or Franklin Christoph pen, so long as you’re going for an aerometric in a common colour).
  • Caps that are even slightly dinged or nicked, visibly scratched or have lost the frosted lustre in their Lustraloy also seriously devalue the price of the pen. A brand new Lustraloy cap has a frosted finish and shiny bands on the top and bottom. The pen in the middle of this photo is NOS, and you can see that it looks different than its well worn neighbour to the right (the black pen). Gold filled and gold caps are usually dinged in some way if they were used, and this is the case of the demi Parker below (the grey one). Needless to say, the state of the cap doesn’t affect the writing experience with the pen, so you can get 51s for a song if you’re willing to go with a common coloured pen with a Lustraloy cap that’s seen some wear. It doesn’t even have to be dinged – just the existence of significant micro-scratches is enough.
  • In order of rarity the common Parker 51 colours are: Black, Navy Blue, Grey, Burgundy, Teal. None of these colours are rare, and none of them should raise the price of the pen.
  • If the pen is NOS or stickered and sold as almost NOS, walk away. That significantly raises the price for a pen that’s meant to be looked at, not used.
  • All Parker 51s use a slip cap mechanism. That means that oftentimes a well used pen will have scratches, abrasions and visible scuffing on the section (the part of the pen above the band, near the nib). That also devalues the pen, but like other cosmetic flaws it does nothing to affect its writing capability.
  • So what does affect the Parker 51’s writing capability? The tipping material. The thing you absolutely must check before buying a Parker 51 that you intend to write with is how much tipping material it has left. This may be a little tricky, because in finer 51 nibs you may not see how much tipping material there is on first glance. The trick is to look at the pen nib not from the side, but from below. Look at this 51 pen nib for example. Without a loupe it’s difficult to see from the side how much tipping material is left on it:

 

  • Hard to tell if there’s a lot of tipping material left there or not.

The answer is to flip the pen and look at the flip side of the nib. The tipping material looks like a shiny dot on the tip of the nib. If there’s no shiny dot and you just see the gold nib, the tipping material is gone. You’ll also feel it immediately when writing, as the pen will drag over the paper instead of floating on it, and may even be scratchy. Parker 51 nibs don’t get misaligned very often, so a scratchy nib usually means the tipping material is gone.

  • A medium Parker 51 nib with plenty of tipping material left

    A fine Parker 51 tip with some tipping material left. This should still last for years of use.
  • Parker 51 pens have gold nibs, unless they’re Parker 51 Specials, in which case they have steel nibs, shiny caps and a black jewel on top. I personally am not a fan of the 51 Special, but if you are, they’re usually an inexpensive way to get into your first vintage fountain pen.
  • There are two lengths of pen body, the full size Parker 51 and the shorter Parker 51 demi. I don’t recommend buying the demi because they’re too small for even my tiny hands  to use with comfort (without posting), and they tend to cost more because there were less of them made.
  • As usual, personalization of any kind on the pen body or cap makes the price of the pen severely drop.

Bottom line: you can get a phenomenal gold nibbed pen in a beautiful Jetson design for less than $100 if you know what not to pay for. Now can you tell which pen is the Plum?

How to Buy Your First Parker 51

Moleskine Lord of the Rings Moria Limited Edition Review

A few years ago Moleskine came out with a series of rather plain Lord of the Rings limited edition notebooks. This year they’ve had a redo, and this time they’ve decided to invest a little more in the cover designs. The result is a series of notebooks that really does the LotR justice.

The Moleskine Lord of the Rings Moria limited edition is a proof that even if you choose grey as your colour scheme, you don’t have to create a dull product (I’m looking at you Blackwing volume 10).

Notice how even the font on the paper band has been changed to fit the LotR design sensibility.

Every little detail counts, including the choice of colour for the paper band (it just pops), and the Tolkien symbol on the spine.

I’ve decided to use this notebook as my next journal. You can check out just how many things I pack into my journals by comparing the two notebooks’ thickness. They’ve got the same page count (192).

The front cover features a drawing of the entrance to Moria, in dark grey on a light grey background. The drawing continues on the spine and the back. You can see members of the fellowship (in gold foil) standing in front of Moria’s gates, the monster about to attack from the lake, and the carving of the two trees and the entrance runes. A description of the scene is given in gold foil, also in the LotR font.

The back cover. You can see the gate rune to Moria in detail, and the Moleskine logo hardly at all. It’s just debossed into the cover. The elastic band matches the dark grey of the drawing.

Inside the front and back cover is some of Moleskine’s finest work in terms of endpaper design. The front features a sketch of the Misty Mountains and lands to the south and the east, and also the “In case of loss“. You can see Tolkien debating which name to use for various places.

The back includes a contour map of the Misty Mountains around Mirrormere. Again, the drawing is perfectly aligned with the back pocket (it might not seem so in the photo, but trust me, it is), a small but not trivial design feature.

This is a lined notebook, with a light grey ribbon. The paper works well with pencil, ballpoint, gel ink pen, fineliners and Noodler’s Bulletproof black.

The add on to this edition is also unique: an insert with the Cirth alphabet that Tolkien invented.

Inside the insert:

The B-side of the paper band includes a timeline for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, focusing on Frodo and Sam’s journey.

If you love the Lord of the Rings this edition is a no brainer —  I highly recommend it. Even for non-fans this is a very well designed, grey/red/black and white edition that proves that you can create beautiful things even with a limited palette.

 

 

Moleskine Lord of the Rings Moria Limited Edition Review

In Case of Loss

One of the most iconic things about Moleskines is the “In case of loss, please return to” on the front endpaper. You are supposed to write your name and address on the supplied four lines, together with an enticing, but not too enticing reward. According to Adrienne Raphael this feature of the Moleskine sees little use. If you’re Casey or Van Neistat you label every notebook cover with Whiteout, offering a cash reward.

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I just write my name and email, and with “let’s talk” in the reward line. I started filling the “In case of loss” at first because at the time I could barely afford to buy a Moleksine and they were really difficult to obtain, so I wanted a chance to get them back if I ever misplaced them. Over the years filling these lines has become a habit, a ritual that makes the notebook mine instead of just another notebook. I never thought that I would come in use.

Until last year.

I used my Moleskine to journal during a night flight from London to Tel Aviv. In the rush out of the plane I didn’t notice that I forgot my notebook in my seat pocket, together with my beloved Ti Arto. I got home at around 3 AM after a sleepless night, and crashed to sleep. When I woke up a few hours later and realized that I lost my journal you could hear my howl around the block. I beat myself up and then contacted the airline (the brilliant British Airways), as well as the Ben Gurion and Heathrow lost and found, in the faint hope that someone found my notebook and didn’t toss it out with the garbage.

A few hours later, while I was still mourning my loss, I got an email.

The Customer Service Manager on my flight had found my notebook, saw my email address on the “In case of loss” page, and had emailed me. There are good people in the world, and one of them was the manager on my BA flight.

Two weeks later my journal arrived through the mail, and I nearly cried when I saw it.

You see, when I first filled that from page this wasn’t a special notebook. I had bought it on sale, it wasn’t a favourite limited edition of mine, and I had just randomly selected it from the shelf when I filled my previous Moleskine.

But then I wrote in it.

By the time I lost it the notebook contained memories of my dog, which died two months before, notes from my London trip, ideas for a short story, and a lot of snippets of everyday life. It had become meaningful, irreplaceable.

So when you crack open a new notebook, any new notebook, take a moment to jot down your name and email at least. You may plan on only using it for grocery lists right now, but you never know what the future holds.

In Case of Loss

Moleskine Bruce Chatwin Songlines Anniversary Limited Edition

In 1987 Bruce Chatwin published “The Songlines”, his classic travel narrative about Australia. In the book he describes his favourite notebooks, moleskines, which he purchased at various Parisian bookstores:

In France, these notebooks are known as carnets moleskines: ‘moleskine’ in this case, being its black oilcloth binding. Each time I went to Paris, I would buy a fresh supply from a papeterie in the Rue de l’Ancienne Comédie. The pages were squared and the end-papers held in place with an elastic band. I had numbered them in series. I wrote my name and address on the front page, offering a reward to the finder. To lose a passport was the least of one’s worries: to lose a notebook was a catastrophe.

In 1995 Maria Sebregondi read this account and decided to try and revive those moleskine notebooks as a brand. She approached a small Italian design company, Modo & Modo, and in 1997 the Moleskine (capital M) came to life.

In 2017 Moleskine came out with a collaboration with Vintage Books that celebrated the 20th anniversary of Moleskine and the 30th anniversary of “The Songlines”. The result is stunning, and perhaps a bit thought provoking.

Moleskine created a version of “The Songlines” that looks like a hardback Moleskine, including the elastic band and the back pocket, and contains the full text of the book, an excerpt from Chatwin’s biography about his trip to Australia, an explanation of what they owe this text and how they see their future, and several blank pages for notes. To this edition they attached a plain, large softcover Moleksine. Not a limited edition Moleskine, just a regular plain softcover Moleskine. We’ll get to that decision later.

The paper band on this edition is phenomenal. There’s no B-side (this came out before Moleskine started to play with the B-side of their paper bands), but it’s extra wide and extra long and embossed so I kept it in the back pocket, as it’s so pretty.

As you can see, “The Songlines” book is considerably thicker than the softcover Moleskine that it comes with. The text is 293 pages long, and together with the biography excerpt it comes to 320 pages long. Then add the blank notes pages and you get a considerably larger “notebook”. It’s still very well bound, with the pages opening flat and the standard Moleksine paper. I wonder if the size of the book made them realize that they can create a Moleskine Expanded. In any case, it’s a really fun book to hold.

On the back cover the paper band explains the history of Moleskine with “The Songlines” and what this edition celebrates.

When you remove the paper band you get two simple looking Moleskines, one embossed with Chatwin’s name, the title of the book and the publisher’s name. The second is a regular plain softcover Moleskine, and in between the two is a cardboard separator with “Enjoy your travel writing” written on it.

Here are the book and the notebook side by side.

The spine of the book, with the Vintage books and Moleskine logo.

The beautiful, beautiful endpapers of “The Songlines” book.

The title page:

At the end of “The Songlines” there’s an explanation of what Moleskine’s history with this book is.

The excerpt from Nicholas Shakespeare’s “Bruce Chatwin” biography:

The notes pages:

And the back end-papers:

This brings me to the peculiar and somewhat thought provoking move of including a plain large softcover Moleskine with this well designed and produced book. To be honest, I was disappointed at first. Why wasn’t this a limited edition with the same colourful end-papers? Why was it a softcover and not a hardcover Moleskine, like the original 1997 notebook?

After giving it some thought and reading “The Songlines” I think I can guess why. This edition is about the book, not so much about lionizing Moleskine as a brand. It’s a tip of the hat to the man to whom which the company owes so much. The notebooks he describes don’t seem to be half as well designed as Moleskines (no rounded pages, no back pocket, no ribbon marker), and they appear to be softcover plain or ruled notebooks. Moleskine brought out their equivalent, and I kind of like the gesture. There’s another, much less quoted moleskine scene in “The Songlines” that I think that this applies to:

‘Nice notebook,’ he said.

‘I used to get them in Paris,’ I said. ‘But now they don’t make them any more.’

‘Paris? he repeated, raising an eyebrow as if he’d never heard anything so pretentious.

Sometimes keeping it simple and being aware and respectful of your inspiration is all that’s required.

Moleskine Bruce Chatwin Songlines Anniversary Limited Edition

Tournament of Books: The Mars Room

The Mars Room” was the book that I most dreaded reading once the final list of the Tournament of Books 2019 contest was published. The story of a stripper sentenced to three life sentences in a California prison for killing her stalker didn’t seem like the kind of reading that I’d enjoy. In some ways I was right — this wasn’t a fun read. What I hadn’t anticipated was being moved and touched by a story not so dissimilar from those that I’ve recently read and heard about in the news or in “This American Life”.

“The Mars Room” is about as far from light reading as you can get. It’s gut-wrenching. It’s violent. It’s relentless. It’s excellent.
We are living in a time where at least in parts of America there seems to be a growing awareness of the failings and injustices of their criminal justice system. There are a lot of non-fiction pieces coming out now that are bringing to light the toll mass incarceration, the “war on drugs” and prison privatization have taken on communities. So why read a work of fiction, no matter how well researched, when you can read an article or a book, listen to podcasts or watch documentaries on the American criminal justice system and the people at its mercy?
Because Kushner lets you into Romy’s mind, into her fellow inmates minds, into her victim’s mind. You see the people working in the system and incarcerated in the system as intimately as you possibly can – their mistakes, the tragedy of their lives, their big and small moments, their cruelties and their kindnesses. They aren’t opaque any more, they aren’t invisible. You get to see not only the systems of poverty, injustice, racism and abuse that started them on their respective journeys to prison, but you get to see them, to experience them as full human beings. That’s what makes it so terrible, and such a great work of fiction to read.

Tournament of Books: The Mars Room

Moleskine Basquiat Limited Edition Notebook Review

It is rare that I start using a notebook the moment I unwrap it, but the Basquiat Moleskine limited edition had that effect on me even though I originally didn’t plan to buy it.

The colour of the cover is what drew me to this notebook. It’s a purplish blue that contrasts beautifully with the orange elastic closure. I didn’t even pause to take a picture of notebook when it was still wrapped. That periwinkle cover makes Basquiat’s handwriting and art just pop. You can see the character in each line and it really does inspire you to grab a pen and write and draw and doodle.

The back cover (a little smudged from my enthusiastic use, but nothing that a wet-wipe can’t remove) is understated, with just the Basquiat signature. I think that I’d prefer the Moleskine logo to just be debossed in, like they did in several other recent editions, but it’s not a dealbreaker for me that it’s boldly there.

The front endpage echoes the front cover, with the addition of a pretty fitting Basquiat quote. I had already filled in the “In case of loss” details, so I hid them.

Look at that back endpaper. Is it not well designed? I like that they let the piece “breath”.

Unlike most Moleskine limited editions that come in lined paper, this notebook comes with blank pages. I like the choice, as it frees you to do whatever you want with the notebook: drawings and words will feel equally welcome here. Also, there’s an orange ribbon bookmark. What’s not to love about that?

The stickers are a bit of a disappointment in my opinion in terms of colour choice. I would have liked it better if they kept to the orange and periwinkle colour theme. As it is, they clash a bit with the rest of the notebook.

The B-Side of the paper band gives a little background on Basquiat, who he was and how he worked. It’s a nice little add on.

There are times when a notebook just makes you want to start using it, start writing and scribbling in it, start creating. The Basquiat Moleskine did that for me, and it is a fantastic addition to the Moleskine limited edition lineup for the year, and definitely a notebook that I recommend that you try.

 

Moleskine Basquiat Limited Edition Notebook Review

Tournament of Books: The Golden State

I finished reading the eleventh Tournament of Books 2019 book, Lydia Kiesling’s “The Golden State“, which is running against Jesse Ball’s “Census” in the fourth round of the competition.

You would be forgiven if you read the premise of “The Golden State” book and thought that you are about to read an “Eat, Pray, Love” kind of book. This is nothing of the sort. Kiesling has written an intensely realistic and touching piece about loneliness, particularly female loneliness.
The heroine of “The Golden State”, Daphne, is a young, neurotic mother to a precocious 2 year old, left alone due to the machinations of the US Immigration system. The daily grind at her unfulfilling job finally makes her snap, and she decides to take her toddler and run back to Altavista, where her late grandparents lived. The narrative follows her through the 10 days of her escape. So far the “Eat, Pray, Love”.
Daphne is a victim of a society that does nothing to help young mothers (except pile guilt and anxiety on them in the form of study after study), especially young mothers who marry outside the tribe. She is caged in a pointless job that is full of daily humiliation, but the money is “good” (not good enough for SF) and the health insurance… She has no friends, no family, nothing of interest in her life except her daughter, who she can’t afford to spend time with. Her husband and his loving family is in Turkey, and apart from skype calls, she has very little chance of seeing them any time soon. No wonder she snaps.
Altavista is no paradise, and isn’t portrayed as such. It’s a semi-deserted place full of angry white people, only a handful of which remember Daphne and her grandparents. She has unknowingly fled to the only place where she could be more lonely than she was back home. So when an old lady who visited Turkey one time befriends her, she can’t help but reach out.
This novel would not work in any place but today’s US. It’s a novel of time, place and character more than plot. Every breathless rush to change diapers or calm a screaming toddler becomes momentous once you realize just how alone Daphne is, just how alone the society she lives in wants her to be.
The novel is interesting, fresh, sharp and well written, and it beautifully breaks down large political ideas to small, everyday encounters.

This book is running against “Census” in the fourth round of the Tournament of Books, and though they have very little in common apart from being stories about single parents and their children out on a trip, it was not hard for me to pick “The Golden State” as a winner. It’s a better book in terms of writing accomplishment, and it has much more heart than “Census”. I highly recommend skipping “Census” entirely, and reading “The Golden State”. It’s a very good piece of contemporary fiction.

Tournament of Books: The Golden State